According to the University of Pennsylvania’s Think Tanks and Civil Society Program, “think tanks are public policy research, analysis, and engagement organizations. They are organizations that generate policy-oriented research, analysis, and advice on domestic and international issues that enable policymakers and the public to make informed decisions about public policy issues.” In their definition, think tanks also “act as a bridge between the academic and policymaking communities, serving the public interest as an independent voice that translates applied and basic research into a language and form that is understandable, reliable, and accessible for policymakers and the public.”
In a period when political leaders are fixating on the views of party members and ‘core support’ to the detriment of the needs of the wider population, the role of think tanks in ‘serving the public interest’ is worth revisiting. The most egregious example of this polarized political fixation, as well as the resulting consequences for the larger public, is perhaps Brexit. As the most serious, immediate decision facing the UK, Brexit negotiations should be grounded in publicly-distributed impact studies and an understanding of clearly-delineated options. In reality, however, the negotiating political parties have turned inward, becoming consumed with internecine tensions caused by everything from alleged religious discrimination to more straightforward incompetence.
Think Tanks Focus the Debate
Think tanks usually possess a political leaning or are linked to the government and thus particular policy positions, but their general purpose is to provide data that can help inform policymakers and the public on policy decisions. Therefore, it may be useful to further develop their role in serving the public interest. This re-imagined role would entail not only monitoring economic and social trends, but also underlining the obligation of policymakers to safeguard the population’s welfare by addressing effectively current and future needs.
Environmental policy is the most obvious issue that think tanks can examine to stress the importance of public interest in policymaking. For example, we all live with rising temperatures, water shortages, air pollution, floods and record-breaking storms. Think tanks should emphasize the significance of not meeting carbon emissions targets, which Ireland is far behind in achieving relative to other EU countries, or of not investing in an adequate transport system and renewable energy sources.
However, climate change is not the only issue that think tanks can examine to reinforce political and administrative responsibility. In their books The Spirit Level(2009) and The Inner Level(2018), Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett write about the negative social and health consequences of inequality, and not just for the most economically vulnerable, but for everyone living within an unequal society. In their analysis, inequality is an issue of public interest because it affects everyone’s self-identity and relations between all members of a society.
A New Approach to 'Public'
The policy responses to inequality that reference public welfare, including sense of connection with each other, are basic income and universal basic services (see the work of the Institute for Global Prosperity, KCL), as well as more specific support for workplace democracy (The Inner Level). The task of think tanks in this instance would be to the test the feasibility of the schemes and the degree to which they would, in their implementation, be of public interest in that they enhance the welfare of the general population. More pointedly, would these policies help different members of a society feel closer to one another? Other examples of think tanks serving the public interest could be more interventionist, such as TASC’s Open Government Toolkit, which is intended to assist Irish citizens in learning more about government budgets and providing feedback.
Assuming responsibility for raising the importance of public interest in policymaking, at least in its literal sense of the welfare of the population, may mean that think tanks work more closely with organizations that provide direct services. These organizations experience the impact of public policy in their work with service users. It also may mean greater collaboration between think tanks and other organizations in devising and promoting policy recommendations that go beyond responding to the demands of a particular political party membership and instead embracing the needs of the much larger general public.
Dr. Shana Cohen is the Director of TASC.
She studied at Princeton University and at the University of California, Berkeley, where she received a PhD in Sociology. Her PhD analyzed the political and social consequences of market reform policies in Morocco for young, educated men and women. Since then, she has continued to conduct research on how economic policies have influenced political and social identity, particularly in relation to collective action and social activism.
She has taught at George Washington University, the University of Sheffield, and most recently, University of Cambridge, where she is still an Affiliated Lecturer and Associate Researcher. Her areas of teaching have included global social policy, globalization, and human services.
Before coming to TASC, she was Deputy Director of the Woolf Institute in Cambridge. In her role at the Institute, she became engaged with interfaith and intercultural relations in Europe, India, and the Middle East.
Beyond academic research, Shana has extensive experience working with NGOs and community-based organizations in a number of countries, including Morocco, the US, the UK, and India. This work has involved project design, management, and evaluation as well as advocacy. She has consulted for the World Bank, the Grameen Bank Foundation, and other private foundations and trusts.