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21. Juni 2021

Why German Think Tanks Have to Change the Way They Work

At a time of dramatic political, economic, technological, and social change, there is a greater than ever need for evidence-based policy advice from German think tanks. However, think tanks currently face a wide range of challenges. In order to add value to the democratic policy-making process and improve their credibility, German think tanks need to question their own processes, include non-traditional stakeholders, and promote innovation.

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Over the past two years, we have conducted five workshops with German think tankers, think tank funders, and policy-makers, led interviews and followed the debate on the future of think tanks to understand the state of the German think tank system. In this blog series, we want to share with you what we learned, what needs change, and how we want to contribute to that change with a new initiative – the Think Tank Lab.

External Challenges

The think tank landscape in Germany is a peculiar one. The first policy research institutes as we know them today were founded after World War II. Public mistrust in political elites in that period meant German think tanks had a different starting position to their older sister institutes in the UK and the US. Moreover, they existed alongside many German political foundations, founded to guarantee pluralistic political debate and civic education in the young democracy, and almost entirely financed by tax money. Even today, these are some of the biggest players in forming public opinion and policy advice in Germany.  Meanwhile, there are now several other external factors that challenge the role German think tanks play.

First and foremost, the environment has become increasingly competitive. In line with the global trend toward a new class of highly specialized think tanks, the German think tank landscape today is more diverse – and more crowded – than 70 years ago. Moreover, a variety of new actors are providing timely, in-depth, and easily accessible analyses of political developments. These range from media corporations and academic institutes to business consultancies, advocacy groups and individual analysts. With the rise of social media, the exclusive access to policymakers that think tanks held over many years is eroding. Individual analysts and commentators can find large audiences for their work and policymakers have a wide choice of actors to choose from when it comes to policy analysis. They can also communicate directly with the public themselves, unmediated by think tanks. In addition, given Germany’s important role within the EU, especially after Brexit, there has been an influx of international think tanks establishing chapters in Berlin.

Secondly, with the rise of populism and the attention economy, tabloid-style headlines, click-bait, and fake news often receive greater attention than deep research findings. News cycles are becoming shorter and the need for quick commentaries to political developments has intensified. To gain attention (at least in social media) one must increasingly be quick, loud, and controversial – an approach that has been anathema to German think tanks, which have traditionally looked at long-term developments of issues from an analytical and balanced perspective.

Thirdly, technological developments have opened up new avenues and expectations regarding the use of big data and artificial intelligence in policy research. The past two years have seen several German think tanks starting to build in-house capacities in data science as well as an increased use of infographics to communicate complex research results in an easily digestible way. But for many policy institutes it remains a challenge to tap into this opportunity. German thinktankers predominantly have a political science background and thus often limited skills in quantitative data analysis and programming (exceptions notwithstanding). Hiring professional programmers and data scientists is expensive and thus not an option for many think tanks. However, making sense of large data sets to evaluate and improve policies could be what policymakers increasingly expect from evidence-based policy advice. And if think tanks are not going to provide that knowledge, others will.

Think Tanks’ Relevance Is on the Line

In fact, the relevance of think tanks as such has increasingly been put into doubt by political decisionmakers themselves. While Michael Gove, now the British Minister for the Cabinet Office, proclaimed during the Brexit campaign that “people have had enough of experts”, President Obama’s staff described the Washington DC think tank scene and foreign policy community as “the blob”, and actively tried to limit their involvement with think tanks, criticizing them for “groupthink”. In Germany, too, a study commissioned by two major think tank funders, Robert Bosch Stiftung and Stiftung Mercator, on the state of German foreign and security policy think tanks highlighted  “a lack of practical relevance” of their work for parliament and ministries given that, in the eyes of policymakers, “think tanks in Germany give insufficient consideration to the constraints and opportunities of the political process”.

A study on the state of German foreign and security policy think tanks highlighted “a lack of practical relevance” of their work for parliament and ministries.

Indeed, think tanks are not immune to being stuck in their expert bubbles. For years, most of them have supported policies that governments, too, were advocating. In his article “Rediscovering a sense of purpose”, Robin Niblett, Director of Chatham House, has asked Western think tanks to engage in self-criticism and recognize, for example, that their pro-globalization policies of the past might have been too one-sided. Perhaps think tanks were for a while too close to government, lacking the necessary distance to engage in critical and original thinking?

Most German think tanks have also been very capital-centric, focusing only on federal decision-makers and on the EU institutions in Brussels, neglecting to promote their work beyond the capitals and amongst the general public. This too has hurt their credentials. If think tanks don’t engage with the wider public, questions regarding their role and legitimacy in the policymaking process will remain.

Increasingly, the funding behind think tanks is also being questioned, with people asking how objective and critical a think tank can be if its funding comes from government sources whose actions they are meant to analyze or from private donors with vested interest in a controversial policy area, like defense policy. In addition, authoritarian regimes are starting to establish, and fund think tanks abroad, including in Berlin, to push their foreign policy objectives. This has given rise to a critical discussion about funding. More generally, with funding structures changing and short-term project funding becoming the dominant source, think tanks are struggling to keep up their work across multiple fields beyond the hot topics of the moment.

Yet We Need Think Tanks More Than Ever

In a world facing many complex challenges – ranging from climate change, technological disruption and democratic backsliding to pandemics and geopolitical conflicts - think tanks are needed more than ever.

Uniquely positioned at the intersection of academic knowledge, political power, and civil society interests, think tanks have the capacity and the responsibility to add value to the democratic policy process. They do so by informing decisionmakers and the public, providing the space for critical cross-party debate about the pros and cons of different political strategies, and by giving evidence-based advice.

Think tanks have the capacity and the responsibility to add value to the democratic policy process.

In Germany, many think tanks are tax-funded, be it directly through government funding or indirectly through tax exemptions. That creates additional need to be accountable and render public service. Free from the day-to-day hamster wheel, the short-termism, and the political constraints that many policymakers face, they can focus on up-and-coming issues, spot trendlines, engage in foresight and scenario planning, and provide policymakers with tools and recommendations.

The need for high-quality analysis and strategic orientation in these complex times is high. What differentiates think tanks from basic research institutions is their practical orientation. Think tanks have the means – and the duty – to help shape policy development designed to solving today’s challenges. In fact, Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of New America, recently argued that think tanks need to become “change hubs”, that drive positive change.

Change Starts From Within

With all the external challenges, it is tempting to blame difficulties on other players in the system and complain: “If only there was unlimited funding with no strings attached”, “if only policymakers would listen to every word we say”, “if only the public understood”. The best way, however, to deal with external challenges is to adapt and change from within.

Together with many thinktankers we interviewed, we see great potential for change and agency within German think tanks themselves. If think tanks wish to stay relevant, they need to start by looking inwards, by questioning their own processes, promoting innovation, and including non-traditional stakeholders. This is what we will look at in our next blog post.

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