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Partisan think tanks: a double-edged sword

[Editor’s note:  This is the third of a series of blogs by Claudio Jones on partisan think tanks. The first post can be read here, and the second post can be read here.]

In the previous two posts, I have focused on the issues of defining think tanks and the roles they play. Within this broader definition of a think tank and the roles they play, the partisan think tank has its specificities. Non-partisan think tanks may be reluctant to address the parties, and may stay at the margin of the political arena. On the other hand, partisan think tanks may focus excessively on their direct partners and may overlook the relevance of the wider public.

By way of conclusion, partisan or internal think tanks are devoted to producing social research and, eventually, to promoting research and ideas of political consequence. They play simultaneous roles, working on the meanings of policy as well as generating some impact on the political process. Underlying this logic one may find that a think tank that exclusively provides expert advice for decision-makers may be called a consulting group or an intelligence unit rather than a think tank. As challenging as it may seem, think tank organizations –associated or not to political parties- cannot just ignore their political role lest they are reduced to an accessory role (however strategic) in favor of other organizations’ success or sustainability.

In the Internet era, which is the era of global information, the opportunity to serve society at large as well as some of the key players (stake holders) of the economic and political spheres, thus contributing to the provision of public goods in the future, is paramount. There may be no reason for just having an impact on those actors whose decisions bears on society vis-à-vis segments of citizens that are increasingly aware of political issues pertaining to the public agenda.

Great Britain’s Economic and Social Research Council is not hesitant to state that “[T]hink tanks are organisations whose purpose is to interest politicians in ideas. They supply political parties with broad concepts which can serve as the foundation for developing detailed policies”. After all, think tanks in general as well as partisan think tanks, in particular, are interested in the subject matter of public policy because they embrace certain social and economic objectives they wish to advance. In this sense, they can be considered as social actors as well as political actors in their own right. Crucially, think tanks should assume their political nature: they should address the political community that they belong to, thus contributing –if even modestly- to consolidate democracy or to strengthen the process of democratization.  Truly, this appears to be a major feat for think tanks and certainly for political actors such as parties.