Think tanks offer "water on a stone"

September 25, 2012
(AP MicrostockRF)

What is the work of a think tank? And can it make a difference?

I had a chance to revisit these big questions at a recent event at CIGI. We held an open house at the CIGI Campus as more than 700 members of the community eyeballed our award-winning new building. We set up information tables, took hundreds of questions from visitors, and showed a video called About CIGI.

In that short and highly watchable video, CIGI Board of Directors member Maureen O’Neil describes the work of a think tank as “a bit like water on a stone.” That strikes me as a very apt analogy.

Certainly, the question of impact arises whenever I speak to local service clubs, students or other groups about CIGI. I explain the basics — we’re a research centre, our topic is international governance — and then cite some of our current projects. I say we’re trying to change the world, to achieve greater prosperity, sustainability and security for all people in the world — that’s all straight from the CIGI Strategic Plan on Vision, Mission and Beliefs. Then the hands shoot up. And the first question is usually some variation on: “Can you point to something CIGI has done that made a real difference?”

Fortunately, CIGI can point to one tangible outcome in which it played a significant role: the creation of the G20. We promoted research-based policy recommendations in the years before the first G20 summit (Washington 2008), suggesting the 20 finance ministers’ meetings be elevated to the leaders’ level, because the G8 was too narrow to engineer global economic cooperation. (When the G20 leaders finally convened, it was a high-five moment for the think tank. Now that some of our research fellows are declaring the G20 to be devolving into a disappointing go-slow process, should we be more circumspect in claiming credit?)

The question of impact was also the topic of a conference CIGI held last year to mark our 10th anniversary. The conference report, “Can Think Tanks Make a Difference,” found that think tanks can be influential when they deliver “evidence-based research that governments can use as a basis for policy-making.” One of the best ways to do this, conference attendees testified, is to influence public opinion first, then governments will follow.  They offered an array of practical tips to create impact including: using plain, clear language, rather than the jargons of scholarship or bureaucracy; making full use of social media; and collaborating in projects across the silos of academia, governments and business.

Great advice, and we strive to do all of those things. We aim for clarity, policy relevance and topicality in our policy briefs, all published free online. We have a Facebook group, Twitter handle, YouTube channel. Our researchers regularly appear in media interviews and write op-eds (we count about 4,000 media mentions a year, globally).

More importantly, at CIGI we constantly groom and develop our networks among other global think tanks (each with connections to their own national or regional policy makers) and through our own fellows’ and staff connections to the greater policy world.

This is how influence occurs — through people who assign credibility to one another based on experience, reputation and trust. Margaret Mead famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” But no doubt, those citizens to whom Mead referred had their own connections to wider circles. That’s how policy innovations take root and how movements grow: through a ripple effect — ripples that become waves, and waves that erode the rocks of political inertia.

In her water-on-a-stone metaphor for think tanks, board member O’Neil was kind enough to add that CIGI is “softening things up. CIGI helps keep issues on the agenda — issues that remain important even though they may not be the fashion of the moment.”

“Softening up” the world for change — for greater prosperity, sustainability and security for all people: Hold that beautiful thought. 

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

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