From the archive: Why don’t think tanks analyse policy anymore?

Michael Harris /   January 17, 2012 at 8:31 PM 595 views

It might seem a strange question. Isn’t policy analysis what think tanks do everyday? Actually it isn’t.

Policy analysis is a structured, transparent process. That doesn’t mean the outcome is objective (we can have a debate about the possibility of objectivity in policy analysis, but that’s for another time). The point is that you show your working. You explain – and evidence – each step you make in the process. (A great starting-point is Eugene Bardach’s Eightfold Path approach; see the new edition of his book A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis).

This raises a broader point about many think tanks. Whether you’re comfortable or not with the Cold War origin, the purpose of the contemporary think tank was to bring greater rigour to policymaking. Problems were to be analysed in a cool, methodological way. Reliable data and research would be drawn into the analysis wherever possible. A range of possible policy options would be evaluated for their plausibility, cost and likely impact.

How many think tanks do this today? When was the last time one of the more vocal think tanks working in social policy (as opposed to the more considered contract research organisations) conducted a serious piece of policy analysis that included a reasonable and reasoned consideration of alternatives?

Argument has subsumed analysis. I was struck by a paragraph towards the end of a recent piece in National Affairs by Tevi Troy (Tevi is a former deputy secretary of Health and Human Services in the US federal government and he knows his way around think tanks). It’s worth quoting in full:

“Some new think tanks, by contrast, are less likely to expand the range of options under debate. Rather, these institutions are helping politicians avoid the difficult task of pursuing creative policy solutions by giving them more ways to persist in failed courses. There are still great exceptions in the think-tank world, on all sides of our politics, but they increasingly have trouble being heard over the din.”

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