Think tanks and policy-making

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The study of think tanks brings together a range of academic disciplines and allows for multi-facetted analyses, encompassing the concepts of ideas, institutions, influence, interests, and power. The literature on think tanks addresses a ubiquitous policy actor. Think tanks have been around for a long time, especially in advanced liberal democracies but have also established in authoritarian regimes and in the developing world. Nowhere is their influence on policy-making or the public debate easy to pinpoint.

Definitions of think tank have been contested ever since the study of think tanks took off in the 1980s and 1990s. Some scholars have devised typologies around organisational form and output with a focus on whether think tanks are openly partisan or rather emphasise their political and ideological neutrality; others propose that the think tank is not so much a clearly discernible organisational entity but rather a set of activities which can be conducted by a broad range of organisations; others again see think tanks as hybrid boundary organisations operating at the interstices of different societal fields. What most scholars will agree on is that policy expertise is think tanks’ main output, that they seek to influence policy-makers and the wider public, and that they try to do so via informal and formal channels and by making use of their well-connected position in often transnational policy networks encompassing political parties, interest groups, corporations, international organisations, civil society organisations, and civil service bureaucracies.

Such policy expertise – in the form of concrete proposals or ‘blue-skies thinking’ – is underpinned by claims that it is ‘evidence-based’. The positivist notion of ‘evidence-based policy-making’ has been of benefit to think tanks as organisations which claim to ‘speak truth to power’ and produce easily digestible outputs aimed policy-makers who profess to want evidence to make policy ‘that works’.

Think tanks are active at different ‘moments’ in the policy-making process John Kingdon’s agenda-setting theory of the multiple streams framework helps understand think tanks as‘policy entrepreneurs’ who are most likely to have influence during the moments of problem framing, the search for policy solutions, and the promotion of specific solutions to policy-makers and public.

Think tank studies should take into account the relationship between media and think tanks, and how this relationship impacts on whether think tanks succeed in agenda-setting and, thereby, influence policy-making. The relationship is symbiotic: journalists use think tanks to inform their work or welcome their contribution in the form of an opinion piece, while think tanks use the media to air their ideas . This relationship is not one without problems, as some think tanks are in privileged positions with regards to media access while others barely ever cross the media threshold.

Think tanks are, in the 21st century, challenged by an ‘epistemic crisis’. This crisis consists of a loss of faith in experts and of information pollution and information overload. This development is both risk and opportunity for think tanks. Concerning the latter, policy-makers increasingly need curators, arbiters or filters to help them decide which information, data, and policy expertise to use in their decision-making processes.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Oxford Encyclopedia of Public Administration
EditorsGuy Peters
PublisherOxford University Press
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 30 Apr 2020


  • Evidence-based policy-making
  • Think tanks
  • Policy-making
  • Expertise
  • Epistemic crisis
  • Ideas


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