Think tanks and strategic policy-making: the contribution of think tanks to policy advisory systems

Abstract

Think tanks have proliferated in most Western democracies over the past three decades and are often considered to be increasingly important actors in public policy. Still, their precise contribution to public policy remains contested. This paper takes the existing literature in a new direction by focusing on the capacity of think tanks to contribute to strategic policy-making and assessing their particular role within policy advisory systems. We propose that strategic policy-making capacity requires three critical features: high levels of research capacity, substantial organizational autonomy and a long-term policy horizon. Subsequently, we assess the potential of think tanks to play this particular role in policy-making, using empirical evidence from structured interviews with a set of prominent Australian think tanks.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    In the latter case, a regime is defined as a “governing arrangement for addressing policy problems” that consists of institutional arrangements, ideas and interests (May and Jochim 2013: 428). Our concern here is mainly with the latter component. Next to institutional arrangements and ideas, interests also play a crucial role in shaping the legitimacy, coherence and durability of policy regimes. These interests can relate to advocacy organizations, yet also research organizations such as think tanks. Not only do these interests represent constituencies that can provide support or opposition to policymakers, they are also expected to shape the governing capacity of a regime.

  2. 2.

    This search was conducted on 17 November 2014.

  3. 3.

    An alternative explanation would be that there is high turnover among think tanks, with only a few of them surviving over time. While we do not have historical data on think tank foundings and disbandings, the proliferation hypothesis seems in line with findings on think tank establishment in other countries (e.g. Rich 2001: 585).

  4. 4.

    The set of questions was inspired by earlier research on think tanks (e.g. Fraussen et al. 2016), as well as previous survey research on interest groups (Walker 1991; Gray and Lowery 1996; Schlozman and Tierney 1986).

  5. 5.

    One think tank opted not to complete this question.

  6. 6.

    These nine think tanks are: Grattan Institute, Lowy Institute, Institute of Public Affairs, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Australia Institute, Sydney Institute, Centre for Independent Studies, Climate Institute and Committee for Economic Development of Australia.

  7. 7.

    In such a position, interest groups or parties would typically be expected to feel pressure from their supporters/members to act (or be seen to act).

  8. 8.

    Prasser (2006).

  9. 9.

    To evaluate the value of such a typology, one obviously needs both more fine-grained measures of organizational autonomy and research capacity, as well as (ideally) some comparative benchmarks that go beyond the Australian case.

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Acknowledgments

Previous versions of this article were presented at the International Conference in Interpretive Policy Analysis, 8–10 July 2015; and the Australian Political Studies Association Annual Conference, 28–30 September 2015. We would like to thank the participants in those panels for their helpful comments and suggestions. The research presented in this article has been supported by the Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Scheme (DP140104097). We would like to thank the interviewees for their time in answering our questions. We would also like to thank Dr. She Hawke for her assistance in conducting these telephone interviews. Last but not least we thank the anonymous referees and the journal editor for their critical yet constructive comments which have improved the article considerably.

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Correspondence to Bert Fraussen.

Appendix

Appendix

See Table 5.

Table 5 Overview of Australian think tanks, year of establishment (n = 59)

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Fraussen, B., Halpin, D. Think tanks and strategic policy-making: the contribution of think tanks to policy advisory systems. Policy Sci 50, 105–124 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11077-016-9246-0

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Keywords

  • Think tanks
  • Strategic policy-making
  • Policy advisory systems
  • Policy advice
  • Policy capacity