Building effective think tanks

Think tanks are indispensable for India’s policymaking and it is imperative that their role is further strengthened to enhance democratic governance

We live in exciting times, and the turn of events in the last few years has borne testimony to this. The past decade has witnessed changes in the concentration of economic power, shifting political systems, financial crises, trade wars, and more inward-looking policies. These changes have brought forward considerable challenges for governments and the civil society, many of which have been fairly unanticipated. In response to this, think tanks have been very forthcoming in deciphering the world we see today and played an active role in determining the appropriate course of policy. With increasing challenges posing a threat to the stability of the global economy, the role of think tanks in guiding the way forward cannot be emphasised enough.

Although the term 'think tank' finds place in common parlance, Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program (TTCSP) defines them as 'Public policy research analysis and engagement organisations that generate policy-oriented research, analysis, and advice on domestic and international issues, thereby enabling policymakers and the public to make informed decisions about public policy'. The Economist states that the 'think tank' label gained prominence in the 1950s, but as institutions, they gathered momentum only towards the end of the 20th century. Today, there are 7,815 think tanks in the world catalogued in the TTCSP's Global Think Tank Database.

Role of think tanks

Think tanks play a valuable role in bridging the gap between the academic community and policymakers and attempt to inform as well as influence public policy. They work as quasi-academic institutions that produce output combining academic rigour with accessibility. With policymakers and the general public as their target audience, their role is not limited to diagnosing policy problems but also involves solving them. Think tanks act as both research houses and conveners by enriching the policy climate with new ideas as well as stimulating debates around them. They exert direct or indirect policy influence by advocating the implementation or dismantling of a policy/program and improving accountability of the government.

India has had an early association with think tanks, although not in the form or depth that exists today. In the pre-Independence era, universities served as the first think tanks through informal contribution to the policymaking process. The decades after Independence saw a close association between the academia and policymakers in the evolution of India's five-year plans, foreign policy stance, inception of Research Programmes Committee (RPC) of the Planning Commission, funding of various think tanks in the 1950s to support the government's agenda of promoting growth and reducing poverty, and setting-up of offices of various international private foundations in India.

Fast forward to the present, think tanks today are actively involved with the government, adding tremendous value to the process of making policies and maintaining their implementation and evaluation. Their number has experienced explosive growth in the last decade or so, and their scope and impact have rapidly expanded. More academic experts are leading government committees, think tanks are working jointly with government bodies in several areas, their policy notes are grabbing public attention, and a culture of healthy dialogue between the academia and policymakers has become the norm. This is well supported by the fact that the TTCSP and University of Pennsylvania's '2017 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report' released early this year finds that India, with 293 think tanks, ranks fourth in the world in the number of such institutions, after the US, China, and the UK, and several Indian think tanks rank high in various areas of subject-matter expertise.

At present, the structure of think tanks in India can be categorised into five broad groups. The first set of think tanks includes those that are funded by the State and operate as autonomous bodies. The second type is supported by political parties; third are those that are opted or support by national and international corporate houses and institutions under public-private partnership models. The fourth category includes institutions funded and guided by international agencies or governments, and, finally, the fifth set of entities is promoted by prominent thought leaders with support from diverse external institutions.

Rethinking Indian think tanks

While the research and knowledge dissemination heralded by think tanks in India's policy sphere is indeed appreciable, there are some ways to further enhance their effectiveness. Think tanks in India tend to be concentrated in or around New Delhi in order to take advantage of the proximity to key policymaking agents in the country in shaping the public discourse. This is not unique to India but holds good in other countries including the US where there are more think tanks in Washington DC than in any other city. While this has its own benefits, more think tanks could be stimulated across different states and Union Territories and encouraged to play a greater role in shaping the respective states' policies. The Prime Minister has often mentioned the role of state governments in addressing economic and foreign policy matters and sought inputs from individuals/bodies outside the government. Similarly, there have been discussions regarding institutionalising the Chief Economic Advisers and Economic Surveys for each state. To support this, think tanks in states could be invaluable in harnessing knowledge to address local concerns and priorities. They could effectively shape states' suggestions to the Centre, and their research could serve as a critical input to New Delhi in devising more inclusive plans. In this way, think tanks could encourage the convergence of interests, promote healthy interaction between key state-level agents, and create a pool of state-level experts/professionals to provide ready policy support to state governments in designing more adaptive and flexible state-level policies.

With the growing importance of think tanks in shaping the public policy discourse and increasing attention being lent to how Indian think tanks fare vis-à-vis their international counterparts, think tanks could be rewarded for high performance through incremental grants by the government to stimulate performance. Just as the government is supporting universities through schemes on 'Institutions of Eminence' that prepares them to achieve ranks among the top 500 universities of the world in 10 years, and in top 100 of the world rankings eventually, similar schemes could be encouraged in the sphere of think tanks too. This would enable healthy competition among think tanks, stimulating them to improve their outcomes. Research is a public good, and the funds required to support think tanks is a small proportion of the expansive sum required to maintain universities; therefore, government support in this sphere could prove to be effective.

The need for funding as well as diversification of funding sources poses a major challenge to think tanks, which could be addressed through a provision of stable finance through the private sector. At present, India has only a handful of wholly private institutions in the think tank space, even though they are doing a remarkable job in advancing the research agenda. Private sector participation in this arena could be further invigorated through promoting research as an avenue under Corporate Social Responsibility of the Indian Companies Act, 2013 and encouraging philanthropy in this sphere through local ingenuities like the 'Think Tank Initiative'. Also, think tanks could be subject to some transparency requirements with regard to the disclosure of the proportion of funding from various sources. This could be useful in guarding think tanks against being captured by vested interests and preserving the credibility of these institutions by enabling objective assessment of their research by the audience. Finally, Indian think tanks need to emerge as attractive workplaces with avenues for career growth for the youth and sabbatical opportunities for policymakers and industry experts, in order to not lose the country's brightest minds to their foreign counterparts engaged in similar themes of research.

To conclude, Indian think tanks have been appreciated for bridging the gap between the knowledge that leaders possess and the policies they create, assuming a greater role in the implementation and evaluation of policies in the country. With both the government and think tanks increasingly appreciating the policy imperatives of and for research and the need for healthy communication between experts and policy actors, think tanks have received a renewed impetus. It is important that this rapport is strengthened over time, as creating effective think tanks would go a long way in furthering the cause of evidence-based policymaking in the country.

(The author is Young Professional, Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister. The views expressed are strictly personal)

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