What are partisan think tanks?

[Editor’s note:  What is the role of partisan think tanks in political debates? In this series of blogs, Claudio Jones, researcher with the Fundación Rafael Preciado Hernández in México, argues in favor of a broader and more active role for partisan think tanks, important actors in policy debates.]

Introduction to the series

It is necessary to persevere in understanding both the real and potential roles think tanks might play in today’s world given the idea that there is a relationship between the spread of information and the expansion of democracy (namely, more and better policies). Think tanks associated with or serving political parties, which Adolfo Garcé terms ‘internal think tanks’, reflect the challenge that parties face in both new and old democracies. The challenge is not only to attend to politicians and party structures, but also to have a greater impact on the public, which, thanks to new information technologies, is composed of increasingly engaged citizens.

This series looks to investigate the correlation between think tanks, political parties, information, and democracy in order to highlight what is intended to be a persuasive argument rather than an empirical truth:

Organizations that serve a political party can also serve those citizens who are more interested in knowing about policy and participating in the public arena by taking advantage of the debate happening in the media and through social networks. In other words, they can go beyond the boundaries of their parties to reach a wider audience. The new dimension of information and knowledge in democracy – precisely because political change is so complex – demands the transformation of internal think tanks. This would mean the opening of these centers beyond the internal arena of political parties by means of more direct contact with the media and with politically-involved individuals through social networking sites.

Differenciating internal think tanks

There are many ways to define think tanks. Throughout Europe, the Americas, and Asia there are think tanks that provide strategic research services to governments, civil organizations, and society in general on specific issues of national and/or international policy. This is a broad definition of a think tank.

As Tom Medvetz of the SSRC (Social Science Research Council) observes, think tanks are generally defined in terms of their relative autonomy with respect to other groups. Therefore there are think tanks that offer their services to political parties, including the legislative communities of parties (for more, review the book on Political Parties and Think Tanks in Latin America). However, it is worth recognizing that – in contrast to think tanks in North America and Great Britain – in continental Europe and other regions of the world, these organizations tend to have direct or organic links to other actors (such as parties) in addition to advising decision makers. That is the case of the difference between The Heritage Foundation or The Brookings Institution and German foundations such as Konrad Adenauer Stiftung y Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.

One cannot ignore the fact that, as the ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council) notes, “political groups” – actors that influence or define public policies – include politicians, members of political parties, and experts, but think tanks try to influence the conceptual frameworks that politicians use to produce policies and provide conceptual frameworks about complex institutional reforms to those who have access to citizens so that they may understand the debates between politicians and experts. This is the case of the energy reform currently taking place in Mexico, which involves complex structural changes in the oil and electric energy sectors. Internally, party think tanks provide research to the government and legislators, but externally, they help students, academics, and citizens in general understand key concepts and facts in the debate over opening these strategic sectors of the economy to private participation.

As Medvetz points out, think tanks participate in a specific arena: that of “the battle for ideas”. That is why it is reasonable to affirm that a think tank should participate, on one hand, in the sphere of academic knowledge and, on the other, in spreading specific ideas to inform and persuade key actors and increasing numbers of citizens, both within and outside of civil society organizations, about the structural changes that will take place in the economy and government institutions.

The next post of this series will analyze the challenges that internal think tanks face and how they can connect to a greater audience.