The challenges of think tanks

Think tanks have stories to tell. No one would, doubt the fundamental role that think tanks plays in shaping policy agendas and in providing platforms to introduce new ideas, nurturing by that an essential debate between the research world and the policy-making one. However, No one would also doubt that think tanks are facing numerous and serious challenges since now several years, challenges that may be ‘’fatal’’ to many think tanks around the world and mainly in the Maghreb region and the African continent as a whole.

The most common and obvious challenge that think tanks faces is, without doubt, fundraising and to be more specific the access to sustainable and long-term funding.Indeed, many think tanks, in the Maghreb, rely on small and short-term project-based funding which allow them to survive for a couple of year longer but the need to look constantly for different sources of funding requires a lot of time and make the work difficult because it distract them from their main mission.

This challenge first led to the incapacity of think tanks, facing it, in recruiting and/or keeping the brightest minds simply because they couldn’t offer them the best salaries and this affected the ‘rigourosité’ of the work of the think tanks.Later, it resulted to question the independence of think tanks; Indeed, how can a think tank guarantee its independence and more precisely its intellectual independence if it fails to develop its own research agenda and ideas due to the fact that it is chasing short-term project-based funding and how can a think tank stay true to its DNA if it has to actively seek funding to stay operational, funding that does not necessarily serve and fit with the DNA of the think tank.

In this particular phase of transitional democracy, the region of the Maghreb is witnessing (transitional democracy of different level from a country to another), it was exciting to see the rise of think tanks, a decade ago, with a mean to play an important role in explaining what is going on, studying the causes of the changes the region is going through and trying to explain where these changing are going and what can be done to make sure these changes are positive. Yet, now it is sad to see that most of them are at the tough end of a quick natural business cycle.

Another big challenge that think tanks are facing is the proliferation

of information and the way they deal with it. The infinite number of platforms feeding different types of audience of an infinite amount of information (wither accurate or not) cannot simply be measured anymore.Think tanks are ideally placed to play an important role in using this amount of information and data and curate it to determine what is significant and what is not. This what contribute to make them distinguish themselves from any sources of information.

In doing so, think tanks should consider level up their game and expand they reach to a wider audience and for that they need to be very flexible and evolve and by that, they need to review the entire think tank business model and have a digital one. This can only happen if think tanks equip themselves with the skills and knowledge required to thrive in a digitally charged future.The question is not anymore wither going digital means think tanks needs to just make small and quick adjustments to adapt to new technologies, this actually signal a much more bigger change.

Indeed, being digital for the sake of just having a presence in the social media channels is not the answer, as believed and practiced among many thing tanks, the key is actually to re-shape the entire business model…This shift requires first some serious organizational changes which is can be hard to operate specifically in the most ‘academic’ institutions, and this because, of what is considered, in my opinion, as the greatest challenges for think tanks; scholars and specifically the old-generation scholars, with their fear of change and their way of leading their think tanks.

Indeed, if we talk about organizational changes, we talk about entering into new practices… practices that scholars and specifically old generations scholars do not really master and may be resistant to it. Older generations scholars tend to like how things were always done.Hence, things are not what that use to be, globalization and the expansion of information and communication technology have opened up knowledge and empowered people to access and demand it at a snap of their fingers.

The increased access to information has also resulted in further demand for democratic participation in knowledge production and in public debate by actually everyone. It cannot anymore be restricted to the political elite and decision-makers, it needs to include everyone and if think tanks fail to include the diversity of voices and interest, the recommendations they make to policymakers will have gaps and disconnections and will face resistance and opposition from the wider audience, a wider audience that can balance the decision power, (sometimes described as the rise of populism, which considered it by some as a tool that is just not mastered by elites and think tanks) and ultimately will lead to the ineffectiveness of policies or the opposition of it.

Technology, communications, big data and data visualizations have not only changed the work of think tanks but also affected the traditional practice of think tanks, from data collection to the way they communicate and engage. Embracing these new practices will be make think tanks grow like never before as they will have to constantly reinvent themselves, to constantly improve, to be smarter, to be faster…And the truth is, this is where all the fear of ‘’the same old same old’’ thinking of the old-generations thinkers that is holding back think tanks, came from.

This is the concern they always rise, the speed Vs credibility, waving the argument that if think tanks embrace the new practices and start going very fast, it will affect their credibility which is what should distinguish the work of professional scholars, who are trained to put accuracy ahead of speed in order to create credibility and impact, which is not correct, at least not anymore, not in this digital era we live in, where having an impact and build your credibility requires both accuracy and speed at the same time because of not only how but when our audience and public are respond is extremely important to our work.

While scholars rise the concern of the credibility of think tanks, they are missing out what should have been since the beginning the best use of technology for think tanks; The truth is that technology, communications, data visualization turned everything into a conversation and/or a debate… but wait, is in it what we do? are we not contributing to create space for debate, nurturing them and encouraging stakeholders to engage and in the same time offering alternative analyses and views in these same platforms of conversation and debate we are creating and nurturing?

Let’s explore more this idea, the social media has had a significant effect on think tanks, moving studies and research from the study, papers, book and analysis to the Facebook status, visual quick snap and twitter stream and by that creating a new and exciting advocacy ecosystem in which even a small voice can participate to the debate, can be turned into what we call in communication a promoter of the work of the think tank and can support the advocacy of the think tank itself, leverage and influence decision-making.

Yet, think tanks are missing this big window of opportunity, because they are too reluctant and stubborn to change, to evolve and upgrade their business model. It is not anymore about hundred and thousands of study pages with technicity and complex analysis and recommendations, it is not anymore about only reaching the elite and the people in power, either to educate them or advocate and influence them, it is in the way of starting the conversation, in the way we communicate, it is reduced to storytelling… and think tanks have stories to tell!

Think tanks need to make a better case about what they do and why they do it and this is why I believe that Scholars are no longer the guardians of the think tanks, they now need to let this role to the communicators.There are demands to reach broader audiences, to engage with new players, the ones that were always outside from the traditional policy-related bubble. But outreach is often understood as offering platforms for a plethora of actors and improving communication strategies and as mentioned before, the small and quick changes to adapt to new technologies is not sufficient, this actually signal a much more bigger change, a more radical approach instead. An approach that combines both, the change of the business model and the redesign of research methods.

Reinventing the role of think tanks means moving out of the self-referential bubbles, engaging critically with power, and rethinking responsibilities towards society at large. This does not divert from original mission of think tanks — to provide research on policy issues for government and centers of decision-making — but it would help give them contemporary relevance, integrity, quality, and autonomy from power.For think tanks, this is an opportunity to hear more voices and to engage with society in new ways that shape the progress of our work. We have a tendency to forget that our job is to help shape progress for the future so that everyone benefit from it but how can we be able to do it if we can’t shape the progress of our work ?