Think tanks and public policy

Damien Cahill, The University of Sydney

James G. McGann (with Erik C. Johnson) Comparative Think Tanks, Politics and Public Policy Cheltenham, Edward Elgar Publishing, 2005 (288 pp). ISBN 9-78184376-022-1 (hard cover) RRP $205.95.

Think tanks are an established feature of the Australian political landscape. Their influence was evident in some key debates during Australia’s recent federal election. On the issue of climate change, for example, neo-liberal think tanks such as the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) and the Lavoisier Group were instrumental in sowing the seeds of doubt about the existence and extent of the greenhouse effect and in promoting market-based solutions to environmental problems. In the Howard Government, they found a sympathetic audience. At the same time, however, the Australia Institute, a think tank from the Left of the political spectrum, was instrumental in exposing the links between neo-liberal think tanks and the fossil fuel industry. Its Executive Director, Clive Hamilton (2007), argued that, while claiming to be independent, neo-liberal think tanks directly serve the interests of their corporate sponsors by casting doubt upon the links between carbon dioxide emissions and climate change.

Progressive think tanks such as the Australia Institute have recently gained some traction in policy debates, but for the last 25 years the corporate funded neo-liberal think tanks have had a more significant impact upon Australian politics (Mendes 2003). In addition to the IPA, organisations such as the Centre for Independent Studies, the H.R. Nicholls Society and the Institute for Private Enterprise were in the vanguard of the neo-liberal assault upon the welfare state and progressive policy in Australia. They helped push the boundaries of elite political debate in Australia to the right, offered new policy frameworks which grounded neo-liberal and conservative initiatives in moral and economic justifications, and effectively demonised progressive movements, causes, and individuals by casting them as self-serving, politically correct ideologues (Cahill 2004). Small, but well organised, they have had an influence disproportionate to their size.

From being a predominantly American phenomenon, think tanks have spread across the globe during the last 30 years. More recently, the academic study of think tanks has burgeoned to become a notable sub-field in political science. Comparative Think Tanks, Politics and Public Policy by James G. McGann (with Erik C. Johnson) is a contribution to this growing sub-field, which seeks to understand the factors which sustain and lead to the proliferation of think tanks.

McGann and Johnson do this through a comparative study of think tanks in twenty countries across six continents. For each country, they use thirteen indicators to identify predictors of think tank proliferation: political freedom; political system; number of years as a democracy; number and strength of political parties; nature of civil society; freedom of the press; economic freedom; GDP per capita; public sector demand for independent policy analysis; population; philanthropic culture; number and independence of public and private universities; and level of global integration. They conclude that the data support their hypothesis that ‘countries that have a high degree of political freedom provide the most suitable environment for think tanks to operate’ and ‘that open, democratic societies provide the best conditions for independent policy analysis and advice’ (p. 255).

Think tanks helped push the boundaries of elite political
debate in Australia
to the right.

In concluding that relatively politically free and democratic societies are conducive to the proliferation of think tanks, McGann and Johnson are surely on firm ground. As such, they contribute to our knowledge of the conditions under which think tanks are likely to proliferate. But their conclusion should hardly be surprising. Far more problematic is their conception of the role and importance of think tanks within the public policy process.

Academic study of think tanks is premised on the assumption that think tanks are distinct social agents: key players on the political landscape possessing unique properties and therefore worthy of scholarly investigation. This raises questions about what particular claims can be made about such distinct agents. How are they to be defined? What sorts of activities do they undertake? What are their relationships with other social agents and political institutions? What sorts of power and influence do they wield? Answers to these questions by scholars of think tanks have proven remarkably inconclusive. Donald Abelson (2002), for example, asks the question, ‘Do think tanks matter?’, and concludes that it is not possible to generalise about their influence. Rather, we need to recognise that influence of think tanks is dependent upon the particular institutional environment, the power relations, and the historical, national and regional contexts in which they operate.

However, for McGann and Johnson, it is clear why think tanks matter. While acknowledging the inherently difficult task of defining think tanks, they nonetheless assert that:

Essentially, think tanks seek to bridge the gap between knowledge and power … The role of think tanks is to link the two roles, that of policymaker and academic, by conducting in-depth analysis of certain issues and presenting this research in easy-to-read, condensed form for policy makers to absorb (p. 12).

Think tanks are crucial organisations in civil society, existing in the space between the public and private sectors and constituting ‘critical balancing forces against state power and agency’ (p. 17).

As civil society organisations, think tanks, they argue, are independent of the state and of private interests: ‘The standard definition of think tanks we use in this study is: policy research, engagement and formulation organisations that have significant autonomy from government and from societal interests such as business firms, interest groups and political parties’ (p. 12). The problem with this conception is it smacks of functionalism; that is, of the idea that think tanks play a necessary and supportive function within a broader social structure. This functionalism seems to derive from assumptions about the way society should operate, rather than from an analysis of the way it actually operates. The functionalist bias is evident in such phrases as: ‘The need for these institutions stems from an unavoidable weakness in all modern political systems – the constraint of time’ (p. 12); the ‘law of specialization’ (p. 12), which leads to think tanks specialising in policy research that policy makers do not have the time to do; and the ‘role of think tanks’ (p. 12). The implication is that think tanks play a necessary function in the well-oiled machine that is a healthy liberal democracy. They ensure that public officials have a range of policy options before them in order that they can arrive at enlightened decisions. This is the normative vision of liberal democracy, an idealised picture of what should be. Much as neo-classical economics assumes an economy in equilibrium, in which producers respond to consumer preferences and utility is maxmised, so does normative liberalism assume a society in harmony, in which governments and bureaucrats make rational decisions based on objective analysis, free from the distorting influence of vested interests. The problem with such conceptions is they ignore the importance of conflict and expedient compromise between divergent interests that is the everyday life of democratic polities. They also ignore the social structures of capitalist societies which privilege certain interests over others (see for example Charles Lindblom’s (1977, p. 172) classic statement of the ‘privileged role in government’ enjoyed by business interests) and which provide the terrain of conflict between individuals, groups, and organisations.

For McGann and Johnson, it is clear why think tanks matter.

The ability of think tanks to play the ‘function’ ascribed to them by McGann and Johnson depends on their being independent from broader ‘societal interests’. This view stems from the authors’ conception of civil society as a space between the state and market, and therefore free from the agglomerations of interests which prevail in these spheres. Yet this is an unrealistic description of the nature and activities of think tanks. As earlier scholarship has made clear (Beder 1997; Peschek 1987), many major think tanks are closely aligned with business interests, while others are associated with universities, trade unions, donor organisations, states or supra-national state bodies. The example of think tanks in Australia that I discussed earlier makes this abundantly clear.

To overcome the discrepancy between their normative conceptions and the real world of think tanks, McGann and Johnson introduce two conceptual tools. First, they argue that their definition of think tanks ‘describes the ideal role and setting for policy institutes’ (p. 12), which ‘is compromised by the demand for funding and the influence of various external and domestic interests within the country concerned’ (p. 13). Indeed ‘For think tanks, substantive independence from government and the private sphere is highly uncommon and, in certain instances, prohibited’ (p. 14). The concept of think tank independence from broader societal interests is, then, an ideal type, an abstraction. Second, in an attempt to account for the degree of independence of think tanks from broader interests, McGann and Johnson posit six types: ‘Autonomous and independent’; ‘Quasi independent’; ‘University affiliated’; ‘Political party affiliated’; ‘Government affiliated’; and ‘Quasi governmental’ (p. 14).

The process of abstraction is a necessary component of all social theory. And the very process of abstraction necessarily renders theory, at least to some degree, unrealistic. The social world is infinitely complex, and no theory can hope to account for such complexity. Nor would the attempt to do so be particularly useful, for it would likely result in mere description of social phenomena, rather than provide tools for understanding them. However, while abstractions are necessarily unrealistic, to be useful they need to express actual tendencies in the real world. The problem, then, with McGann and Johnson’s conception of think tanks is not that their abstractions are unrealistic. Rather it is that they present no evidence to support the usefulness of their ideal type of the independent think tank. Although they recognise that think tank independence is often ‘compromised’ in the real world, in the same breath they assert the validity of their normative abstraction:

Civil society comprises a range of associations that occupy the space between a government and its citizens. Think tanks are one type of civil society organization. As objective, independent policy analysts and producers representing neither the public, nor the private sector, think tanks constitute an important part of a strong civil society (p. 15).

At the heart of this book, then, is an unreconciled contradiction between an abstraction which casts think tanks as autonomous political agents, and a typology that acknowledges their lack of autonomy from economic interests, political parties, and the state. Unfortunately, the abstraction of the independent and objective think tank is the central organising principle of the book. What the authors seem to be arguing is that think tanks should play a particular role. However, there is no reason for thinking that they will.

The process of abstraction is a necessary component of all social theory.

There are also some shortcomings in the data collection. Data on think tanks globally was collected in 1999 and updated in 2002. In the case of Australia at least (the think tank environment with which I am most familiar), there are significant gaps in evidence. McGann and Johnson state that Australia is home to 14 think tanks, yet one of Australia’s most prominent think tanks, the Centre for Independent Studies, does not appear among them. Other notable omissions include the Institute for Private Enterprise, founded in 1996, the Menzies Research Centre (1994), the Search Foundation (1990) and the university-affiliated National Institute of Labour Studies. Further, the book does not seem to have noticed the formation of new think tanks since its initial survey in 1999, such as the Lavoisier Group (2000), Whitlam Institute (2000), Bennelong Society (2001), and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (2001). The Australian example may well be an anomaly. If, however, it is indicative of the data collected for other countries, it is a significant problem for the book.

It is regrettable that McGann and Johnson did not bring a more critical gaze to bear upon their object of study. Cutting edge think tank scholarship has begun to challenge the older characterisation of think tanks as independent policy institutes bridging the divide between knowledge and power. Diane Stone (2007, p. 264), for example, notes that the proliferation of think tanks has led to a ‘blurring of the boundaries’ between think tanks, other non-government organisations, government agencies, university research centres, and policy centres attached to supra-national organisations. This makes identifying the unique activities of think tanks difficult. Further, think tanks are ‘far more strategic’ than the ‘bridge’ metaphor implies (Stone 2007, p. 273). They are dynamic political actors, often with a ‘direct engagement with the policy process’ (Stone 2007, p. 273) and with a range of interests that needn’t accord with that of the ‘public interest’. This more critical approach raises the important question of whether and to what extent think tanks should be considered distinct social agents. It is a question scholars of think tanks are beginning to address. Unfortunately it is notably absent from Comparative Think Tanks, Politics and Public Policy.


Abelson, D. 2002, Do Think Tanks Matter? Assessing the Impact of Public Policy Institutes, McGill University Press, Montreal.

Beder, S. 1997, Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism, Scribe Publications, Melbourne.

Cahill, D. 2004, ‘Contesting hegemony: The radical neo-liberal movement and the ruling class in Australia’, in Ruling Australia: The Power, Privilege and Politics of the New Ruling Class, ed. N. Hollier, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, pp. 87–105.

Hamilton, C. 2007, Scorcher: The Dirty Politics of Climate Change, Black Inc. Agenda, Melbourne.

Lindblom, C. 1977, Politics and Markets: The World’s Political-Economic Systems, Basic Books, New York.

Mendes, P. 2003, ‘Australian neoliberal think tanks and the backlash against the welfare state’, Journal of Australian Political Economy, no. 51, pp. 29–56.

Pescheck, J. 1987, Policy Planning Organizations: Elite Agendas and America’s Rightward Turn, Temple University Press, Philadelphia.

Stone, D. 2007, ‘Recycling bins, garbage cans or think tanks? Three myths regarding policy analysis institutes’, Public Administration, vol. 85, no. 2, pp. 258–278.

Damien Cahill is a Lecturer in Political Economy at The University of Sydney. His research interests include think tanks, the political economy of neo-liberalism, and the application of theories of hegemony to contemporary politics.

View other articles by Damien Cahill