The niche of think tanks in closed advisory systems

How do think tanks establish a unique position in a saturated policy advisory landscape? Bert Fraussen and Valérie Pattyn show that Belgian think tanks set themselves apart from other actors by prioritising long-term, evidence-based policy advice. Aligned with the nation’s administrative tradition, they also adopt consensual strategies

The relevance of Belgian think tanks

In many countries, the number of think tanks has surged. Does this increase in numbers translate into political power and relevance? Previous research has focused mainly on Anglophone countries with Westminster systems. It concludes that, next to interest groups and academic experts, think tanks have indeed become important actors. Yet the role of think tanks in other political contexts, notably neo-corporatist and consensus-seeking systems, remains underexplored.

Our research aims to fill this gap. In our recent article in The International Review of Administrative Sciences, we examine how think tanks organise and position themselves in these more saturated policy advisory systems, where new players might face greater difficulty establishing themselves as key political actors. We focus on Belgium, where the policy advisory system is relatively crowded and closed. Our research highlights how think tanks take a long-term approach, offer evidence-based policy advice, and adopt consensual strategies.

Three defining characteristics of think tanks' niche

By 'niche', we mean the characteristics and political behaviours that enable organisations to carve out a distinct role in a particular external context, and which enable those organisations to survive and thrive. A niche can be multi-dimensional, and relates to (combinations of) different (internal) organisational characteristics and political activities.

This conceptualisation of niche builds on previous work that applies population ecology theory to better understand the organisation and survival of interest groups. The research used document analysis, a written questionnaire, and interviews with executives of three prominent domestic think tanks in Belgium. Our findings reveal that a think tank's niche has three defining characteristics:

1. Long-term horizon

Think tanks in Belgium adopt a long-term perspective. This expanded policy horizon also characterises think tanks in more pluralist settings. However, an anticipatory and pioneering attitude is especially valuable in Belgium's strong neo-corporatist system. In this kind of system, key stakeholders such as trade unions and business associations are often closely involved in policymaking via various institutional channels. They are therefore more focused on the policy issues of the day.

Think tanks' long-term oriented focus enables them to craft comprehensive recommendations that bridge policy domains

As one of our respondents clarified: 'One of our distinguishing features, compared to party think tanks, trade unions and employer federations, is that [our] research capacity is rather small and relative, and (also because of that) very focused on the issues of the day and mainly reactive to the issues that are currently on the political agenda. A think tank has more autonomy in that regard.'

This long-term oriented focus enables think tanks to craft comprehensive recommendations that bridge policy domains. It also makes them capable of adapting promptly to shifting governmental priorities and emerging issues.

2. Evidence-based policy advice

Think tanks in Belgium also prioritise evidence-based policy advice, just as their counterparts in more pluralist settings do. Compared with interest groups and party-affiliated study centres, think tanks seem better able to translate and present academic research into accessible formats that resonate with policymakers and the media.

Think tanks seem adept at translating academic research into accessible formats that resonate with policymakers and the media

Such knowledge-brokering skills are especially important for think tanks' impact and effectiveness in a crowded advisory arena, and increase their chances of being heard. This approach also implies that while think tanks often describe their approach as 'science oriented', they might in some cases be closer to the 'science advocacy' end of the continuum.

3. Consensus-oriented mode of operation

One of Belgian think tanks' most distinctive features, however, is their consensus-oriented nature. Some consensus-style think tanks elsewhere have started to apply more adversarial strategies. We found little evidence of this approach in Belgium. Instead of competing directly with other civil society actors, Belgian think tanks actively seek collaboration with other external stakeholders. As one director told us: 'We find it important that our arguments resonate, but this does not have to imply that those arguments are associated with our organisation. It is not so important that they know us, as long as they have heard our arguments.'

Worth highlighting is how think tanks also embed this consensus strategy into their internal modus operandi. This includes, for instance, the way they develop their policy reports, often with a broad internal consultation that gathers together a variety of academic experts and internal stakeholders. This pluralist, consensus-building approach is also evident in the recruitment process and network activities. Think tanks aim to hire staff with broad and diverse networks, including linkages with a variety of political parties and civil society organisations.

The essence of survival in crowded advisory systems

So, what specific recipe empowers think tanks to survive within a closed and crowded policy advisory system? In Belgium, the combination of ingredients is not markedly different from that in other countries. The essential ingredient for all the think tanks in our study was a long-term, evidence-based approach that would set them apart from other advisory actors. However, to survive, think tanks must also adapt to central features of the broader political context in which they operate. The consensus-style features of the Belgian political-administrative tradition leads think tanks to adopt consensual strategies, both in external engagement with policymakers and in their internal functioning.

For think tanks, the key to success lies not just in standing out, but in smart alignment with the institutional context and political currents

Our findings indicate that for any organisation aiming to make its mark in the increasingly competitive world of policy advice, the key to success lies not just in standing out, but in smart alignment with the institutional context and political currents. Our analysis of Belgium’s think tanks suggests that their survival hinges less on the specific policy issues for which they advocate, and more on the particular advocacy tactics they employ. Embracing such a multi-dimensional approach appears to open doors – even in the most crowded rooms.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Bert Fraussen Bert Fraussen Associate Professor, Institute of Public Administration, Faculty of Governance & Global Affairs, Leiden University More by this author
photograph of Valérie Pattyn Valérie Pattyn Associate Professor in Public Policy and Policy Analysis, Institute of Public Administration, Leiden University / Visiting Professor, KU Leuven Public Governance Institute More by this author

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