The recent explosion and diversification of think-tanks has raised a number of issues related to autonomy, innovation, policy communication and globalisation.
A diverse and complex sector
Think-tanks vary greatly in their approaches to influencing EU policymaking. Most Europe-based bodies put a lot of effort into developing new policy concepts and issuing position papers. In contrast, many in the United States, known as "advocacy think-tanks", are more committed to gaining media visibility and communicating their positions to decision-makers.
Think-tanks have also become more complex. Although they have grown in number, the ways in which they are organised have become more diverse, and they are now much harder to recognise.
To help distinguish think-tanks from one another, Stephen Boucher and Martine Royo, authors of a book entitled 'Les Think-tanks: Cerveaux de la Guerre des Idées', classify them into four groups.
||Research institutes working on contracts
- Emphasise the quality of university research and the provision of information.
- Staff members are academics, and typically hold doctorates.
- Examples: Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS).
- Similar to university think-tanks, but they differ according to their funding sources, which come from contracts with government agencies or corporate support/memberships.
- Examples: Notre Europe, Institut Français des Relations Internationales (IFRI).
||Political party think-tanks/ foundations
- To serve a cause, they produce ideas and recommendations that narrowly conform to particular values and a certain line of argument.
- Their interest lies not in finding the best policy solutions for the public good, like university think-tanks, but rather in winning the war of ideas.
- Examples: Lisbon Council (LC), Centre for European Reform (CER).
- Organised around a political party but intellectually autonomous, their work is often of direct use to the party.
- 'Think-tank' activity only comprises a small part of their overall budgets, but the significant funding at their disposal make for powerful 'ideas laboratories'.
- Examples: The German 'Stiftungen', which are funded from the federal budget, but independent of the government.
Source: Boucher and Royo
Funding: A balancing act
One of the main challenges for a think-tank is resisting the temptation to promote the interests of its donors. This can be a tricky balancing act, as it involves maintaining the independence of policy analyses, while at the same time securing funding from sponsors.
Indeed, Boucher and Royo claim that think-tanks risk falling into the trap of turning into "submarines of private interests". This has been a concern, for example, for a number of think-tanks with US public or private funding, especially when they are not related to the established Washington think-tanks.
Identifying the need to ensure greater transparency in the EU policymaking process and to restore citizens' confidence in governance, the European Commission launched a transparency initiative (European Transparency Initiative; ETI) in 2005.
As part of the ETI, the EU executive launched a voluntary register for lobbyists and NGOs seeking to influence its policymaking in June 2008 (EURACTIV 24/06/08). The register discloses the names of organisations, rather than the names of individuals or those of whom they represent.
Think-tanks are expected to register and publish their overall budgets. Their "main sources of funding, such as public [European, national or sub-national] funding, donations and membership fees" must also be indicated.
Government-controlled think-tanks, such as the Bureau of European Policy Advisers, also encounter issues related to autonomy.
For think-tanks that rely on contracts with government agencies like the European Commission, it is possible but difficult to be both creative and able to communicate recommendations while being out of step with official EU policy.
Stanley Crossick, founder of the European Policy Centre, writes on Blogactiv that too many think-tanks at EU level "rely on government and Commission funding". Crossick believes this funding "should come from the private sector, as it does in the US".
'Lack of innovative thinking'
Many think-tanks in the EU policymaking arena have also been criticised for staying within their own sectors and not mixing more with decision-makers and business leaders.
Crossick says these parties form a "single class" in the US, while in Europe they form "three permanently separate groups". As a result, many of the subjects that think-tanks cover tend to overlap, hence cementing consensus and stifling creativity on EU policy ideas.
To avoid this, Boucher and Royo stress that a regular turnover of researchers is crucial for genuinely renewal of ideas and for innovative thinking. They note that this is what ensures the vitality of American and British think-tanks, as they allow researchers and analysts to switch between government positions and the activities of reflection groups. They refer to this as the "revolving door phenomenon".
A dumbing-down of ideas?
In the age of the Internet, gaining media visibility has also become a major priority for think-tanks. "Communication has become an important activity, as think-tanks nowadays must meet the need for timely and concise information and analysis in the right time," reads the FPRI study.
The risk in this, however, is that complex policy messages that are generated by think-tanks tend to get watered down. Indeed, "the omnipresence of the media, with their appetite for two-minute interviews and shock phrases rather than analysis, pushes think-tanks to look for visibility by simplifying their message," Boucher and Royo write.
Crossick argues that position papers are not enough to influence EU policymaking, and stresses that think-tanks need to "ensure that their views are expressed at the right time, in the right form and to the right people".
It could be argued that policy portals like EURACTIV and its ten national affiliates help the EU and national think-tanks to convey their messages and outline their policy proposals without oversimplifying them.
Towards cross-border ideas networks
The growth of think-tanks on a global level has been "explosive", the FPRI study argues, attributing this to the capacity of think-tanks to "support and sustain democratic governments and civil societies around the world".
Moreover, demand for think-tanks has grown, because "policymakers throughout the developed and the developing world face the common problem of bringing expert knowledge to bear on governmental decision-making".
Think-tanks in Europe have also been criticised for only adopting a national - rather than a European or global - perspective on policy discussions.
Therefore, Boucher and Royo propose that think-tanks create "ideas networks" across national boundaries, in the mould of the European Policy Network (EPIN), for example.
"More than ever, governments need clear and fitted ideas, which can help them to interpret the complexity of their environment and draw actions accordingly. More than ever, they need inspiration to tackle today's global challenges," the authors claim, hoping for a genuine dynamic revival of more reflective, forward-looking and visionary think-tanks.
The war of ideas: US vs. Europe
Compared to the United States, Europe is poorly equipped to fight the war of ideas, allowing American think-tanks to lead the world in framing innovative and creative solutions to global challenges, the book asserts.
Boucher and Royo claim that European research institutes seem stuck in their local environment and lack the ambition to devise ideas that could cast light on Europe-wide policies.
But European think-tanks should also avoid some of the trappings of US think-tank practices. Although US think-tanks are better at communicating their messages via interactive websites and public events, James McGann, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), says the media can impose a rhythm and a style of functioning that hinders American think-tanks' ability to produce prospective and innovative policies.
Thus to win the war of ideas, think-tanks must tread a fine line between developing visionary policy solutions and keeping the public up-to-date on their positions.
National differences also exist between think-tanks in Europe. German think-tanks tend to be of a university mould and come from that country's great academic and intellectual tradition, according to the book.
Germany heavily relies upon professors to deliver influential reports, such as the 'Fünf Weisen Rat' (which provides economic analysis), and its think-tanks also train and support researchers and aspiring politicians, which gives them a lot of clout in Central European countries.
UK think-tanks on European matters tend to follow Washington's method of close interaction with policymaking, although they have far fewer resources, and typically few permanent staff. British bodies have a significant impact on Brussels thinking due to their good communication methods.
French think-tanks are relatively new, with a few exceptions. Traditionally, policy thinking was the domain of opinion-makers and governmental institutes. The French government now understands the importance of non-French think-tanks and appointed an official in Brussels to interact with them.
US think-tanks have far greater resources and, for many of them, long-established credibility. Either directly from the US, and via their European affiliates, they exert great influence on policy thinking in Europe, and also serve as models for the establishment of new think-tanks. Some of these, like those funded by the Soros Foundation, cannot be considered purely American.
Other countries have think-tanks and universities providing analysis of EU policy too. They tend to influence the European debate mainly via their own national circles or governments. Such bodies can at times be very influential. For example, in preparing for the Czech EU Presidency, Prague-based think-tanks such as Europeum probably provided more input than larger ones based in other countries.