Think Tanks by the Numbers

Guest blogger Donald Abelson discusses the impact of think tanks, and how impact can be quantified. Transparify does not edit the content of guest blogs; the views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone, and may not reflect the views of Transparify.

When it comes to assessing the impact or influence of their organizations, directors of think tanks generally have two prepared responses.  The first, which is directed to scholars and to investigative journalists familiar with the complex world of think tanks, tends to be more circumspect. As the head of a Canadian think tank said to me in a recent interview , “measuring our impact on public policy is virtually impossible.”  But what directors of think tanks are willing to concede behind closed doors is a far cry from the message they convey in public. Indeed, the narrative that is carefully crafted for stakeholders prepared to support and endorse the work of think tanks is very different.  When potential funding dollars are on the line, think tanks can ill afford to be modest. “We have enormous influence when it comes to shaping public opinion and public policy,” directors of several US-based think tanks often claim. “Just look at the numbers.”

What kind of numbers are directors of think tanks referring to, and do they help us to better understand how much or little impact think tanks wield?  Recognizing the importance of convincing donors that public visibility or exposure should be equated with policy influence, think tanks go to great lengths, and often to great expense (by hiring media consulting firms) to monitor how often they are cited in newspapers, on television, and on the internet.  Many organizations also keep a close watch on how many publications are downloaded from their website, as well as the frequency with which their experts are called upon to testify before legislative committees.

While these and other indicators of public exposure might be useful in highlighting how active certain think tanks are in attempting to shape the parameters around important policy debates, they tell us little about the actual impact of think tanks in influencing policy decisions.  After all, policy outputs (such as publications and testimony) are very different from policy outcomes (the decisions made by policy makers). Yet, rather than asking directors of think tanks to explain, in concrete terms, how and to what extent their organizations  contributed to particular policy outcomes, those of us who monitor the activities of think tanks have in some ways helped them to foster the illusion of policy influence. This needs to change.

Several scholars and journalists familiar with the complex world of think tanks participate in the annual Global Go To Think Tank s Index Report, an initiative of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania. Released since 2006, the report both tracks the number of think tanks worldwide, and ranks the top think tanks (in various categories) according to over a dozen criteria.  Although an ambitious undertaking, the reports’ rankings are widely seen as arbitrary and impressionistic. Not only are the numbers of think tanks reported worldwide inflated (indeed many of the organizations included in the study are not think tanks), but the manner in which the rankings are conducted needs to be far more transparent.  Although scholars can debate the strengths and limitations of the survey, what is more important is the fact that the top-ranked think tanks (usually those that are the largest and best funded) use the rankings to mobilize more support for their work. If think tanks do indeed matter, than the issue of how numbers are used to validate their activities needs to be explored further. 

Donald E. Abelson teaches at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. His work focuses primarily on the role of think tanks and their efforts to influence public opinion and public policy.