Crawl Across the Ocean

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The Institutionalized Centre for International and Canadian Studies of Public Policy Development

"I was walking down the street
When I thought I heard this voice say
Say, ain't we walking down the same street together
On the very same day
I said hey senorita that's astute
I said why don't we get together
And call ourselves an institute"
1

Observant readers will have noticed that I have added a second dropdown box to the sidebar, this one listing a number of Canadian think-tanks. To honour the occasion (and to add to my extremely meagre store of knowledge on the subject) I decided to take a brief look at think-tanks in Canada.

I probably had think-tanks on my mind after reading Tim's post at 'Pints of Drivel', on a 'This Magazine' story that compared the total annual funding for some 'progressive' and 'conservative' tanks:

c - conservative, p - progressive

Fraser Institute - c- $6.4
Public Policy Forum - c - $3
Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) - p - $2.87
Institute for Research on Public Policy - p - $2.83
Canadian Policy Research Networks - p - $2.7
C.D. Howe Institute - c - $2.4
The North-South Institute - p - $2.2
Canada West Foundation - c - $1.9
Caledon Institute of Social Policy - p - $1.1
Montreal Economic Institute - c - $0.825

Looking at the list you can see that the Fraser Institute dwarfs the others in funding with more than double the funding of the CCPA, the highest funded progressive Tank. But reading through a report on Think Tanks from the Institute on Governance (IOG) (itself a think tank) I came across this quote,
"In Canada, according to recent estimates, there are something in the order of 50 organizations that could qualify as think tanks, with a collective budget of roughly 77 million. These range in size from Conference Board of Canada, whose $23 million annual budget and 118-member staff put it in a league of its own, to the tiny Pearson-Shoyama Institute with a mere $150,000 to spend."

Now that report was written in 2001, and since then the annual revenue for the Conference Board has risen to $29 million (according to their annual report) and who knows how many more think tanks have been founded. I've only linked to what seemed to be the more prominent ones in my dropdown box, but a more complete list can be found at HillWatch.com.

In case you're wondering about this Conference Board which seems to account for over a quarter of all think tank revenue in Canada, it was founded in 1954 as a branch plant of the New York - based National Industrial Conference Board and became a separate Canadian entity in 1980. It's mission is to
"build leadership capacity for a better Canada by creating and sharing insights on economic trends, public policy and organizational performance."
(Aside: You can tell they're serious by the fact that they have correctly made use of both a vision statement and a mission statement). Plus, if you're looking to jump into the tank, they seem to be doing a lot of hiring (or maybe they just don't update their job list too often - I hate it when companies do that).

At any rate, there's lots of think tanks in Canada, and if you visit some of their websites, you quickly realize that they are all fairly similar. Some hold conferences, many have some sort of regular publication, they almost all have mailing lists you can subscribe to, they all would like you to contribute money to them and they all regularly produce lots of reports (publications as they like to call them).

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So we've identified some of the bigger players in the Canadian think tank game, but let's step back a moment, and think about what a think tank actually is and why it exists.

Broadly speaking, it's seems as though think-tanks have one (or both) of two main goals:

1) To make money by selling research/conference policy expertise and
2) To influence public policy decisions

The overlap and potential conflict between these two goals seems to be an issue that think-tanks take seriously as most of them make strong claims to be non-partisan and independent and not beholden to those who pay the bills so that they just write/say what their financial backers want people to hear. For example, the first three points that the Conference Board makes in its self-portrait is that:

"We are:

* We are (sic) a not-for-profit Canadian organization that takes a business-like approach to its operations.
* Objective and non-partisan. We do not lobby for specific interests.
* Funded exclusively through the fees we charge for services to the private and public sectors."

Still with the broad-speak, think tanks generally seem to take two approaches to meeting their goals:

1) Targeting business and political leaders directly
2) Targeting the general population via the media

According to the IOG report,
"One academic interviewed said in all seriousness that some institutes measure their success by the number of mentions they get in the Globe and Mail"

The biggest concern I have with think tanks, and I'm guessing I'm not alone here, is that on the one hand, the think tank can be seen to be just providing a service to a market of people who have an interest in getting an expert opinion on policy issues. But on the other hand, think tanks often seem to be funded based on donations and foundations for the purpose of furthering the policy objectives of the people doing the funding. Which is fine, and not particularly different from how political parties are funded in many jurisdictions, but it does raise the prospect of policy being, to an extent, auctioned off to the group which contributes the most money to hire the most experts to write the most reports to feed to the most media to influence the most people to influence the most politicians.

Which, depending on the civic-mindedness of the wealthy members of society, could lead to a skew in favour of policies which favour the wealthy who have more money to buy policy with. Obviously there's nothing new to what I'm saying, I'm just pointing out that think tanks are one more area where we need to work to preserve a balanced market of ideas, and one more reason why democracy doesn't function well alongside huge disparities in wealth.

On a lighter note, I was somewhat surprised to find out that think tanks qualify as registered charities2. Apparently offering opinions on public policy issues is charitable work, so I've been doing more charitable work lately than I thought. Which brings me to my next section: If a think tank is just a bunch of people who write down their ideas about politics on a website, how does it differ from a blog?

Blog vs. Think Tank

Clearly there are some obvious differences in terms of total revenue, number of people on staff and the average level of prestige of 'tankers' vs. 'bloggers' but what I'm more interested in here is the differences in approach towards analysis of public policy between think tanks and political blogs.

Goals:

This is the one area where political blogs and think tanks are similar in that they both have influencing policy as a primary goal. In addition they both focus on the media as a tool for getting their message across. One difference is that, while both groups share the goal (mostly) of generating revenue, this is more of a realistic goal at present for most think tanks whereas for the vast majority of blogs generating revenue is a pretty remote possibility which doesn't really influence their approach in any way.

Policy / Politics:

Most (all?) think tanks draw a pretty strict line between policy and politics and try to refrain from crossing over into talking about partisan politics. A cynic might suggest that this is just because they want to be able to sell their services to as many parties as possible but it's more likely due to the fact that much of the value of a think tank's work is ostensibly derived from its objectivity, so to meddle in politics would call into question the value of every report and piece of advice the tank produces.

Meanwhile blogs happily mix policy and politics all the time with some blogs being overtly partisan while others will support whichever politician/party is taking what they consider to be the right approach on a particular issue. Either way, there are few bloggers who will hesitate to offer a positive or negative opinion of any party or politician.

Community / Linkages:

While the term blogosphere is an awkward one, there's no doubt that blogs form a community in some ways. Many of the commenters on blogs are people who have their own blogs, most blogs link to a number of other blogs, blog posts almost always provide links to whatever it is they are talking about, and many bloggers join together into blogging groups or clubs.

By contrast, think tanks are striking in their attempt to seemingly pretend that all the other think tanks do not exist. Whereas you can't spend 5 minutes reading a blog without being reminded of the existence of other blogs (either by a link or a reference or a comment or whatever), you could spend hours surfing the website of just about any think tank without ever being made aware that the particular tank whose site you're on is not the only one in existence. Not only that, but think tanks have also been quite slow to adopt the approach of providing links within their reports to the things they refer to.

Interactivity:

Some think tanks have online forums on their site, and there is the odd poll, but I have yet to see one that allows comments on its reports or which asks readers for help with questions the 'tankers' might have. In short, blogs are a lot more interactive than think tanks.

Writing Style:

Think tanks tend to be written in a somewhat academic style whereas blogs are much less formal although of course this varies from blog to blog. In practice this means that when a think tank writer wants to refer to something they said before they write something like: 'Previous studies have shown that yada yada yada (author et al, 2004)' and when a blogger wants to do the same thing, they generally write something like: 'like I already said back in December', with a link to the original post.

Another difference is that think tanks tend to go in for thoroughly (or at least moderately) researched 'reports' of significant (5000 words plus) length while blog posts vary from reasonably long to brief summaries of issues to one sentence links to other items of interest and the level of research varies wildly both from blog to blog and from post to post within a given blog.

And of course, think tanks generally try to maintain a tone of objectivity (even when they're being anything but) while bloggers tend to wear their opinions and biases on their sleeves.

Topics Covered:

While they often cover a pretty wide range of topics, think tanks pretty consistently stay on topic, where the topic is public policy issues. Unlike in (generally) political blogs, you are unlikely to learn anything about think tank members jazz collections, sports team preferences, vacation plans etc. by following the think tank website. Of course some blogs try to hold the line, but even they find themselves slipping from time to time.

Product Range:

In addition to producing reports, many think tanks generate revenues by holding conferences and also perform work on contract for government and business. By comparison blogs are generally limited to their online writings in terms of products on offer.

Name Length:

After trying to squeeze all the think tank names into my sidebar I couldn't let this go. Blogs (even this one) generally have shorter names than think tanks. In addition, blog names are much less likely to include the words 'institute', 'policy', 'public', 'international', 'centre', or 'development'.
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Actually, after comparing blogs and think tanks, I'm a bit surprised there isn't more interaction between them. Certainly the think tanks could learn from blogs in building a better community, making better use of links, allowing more interactivity, and writing shorter, less formal pieces which are more accessible to the general public rather than relying on friendly reporters to columnize their work. For their part, blogs could benefit from the expertise of think tanks, the research and statistical analysis they can perform, and the thoroughness with which they address a topic.

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I realize I haven't gone into much detail on any of the Canadian think tanks but there's just so many that the prospect is a little daunting. I think an interesting way to compare the various tanks would be to take a fairly high profile issue that many of the tanks have addressed (e.g. Kyoto Accord, The Budget, Child Care, etc.) and compare their approach, what conclusions they reach and how they reached those conclusions. Another day perhaps.

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>1 From 'Gumboots' on Paul Simon's 'Graceland' album.

2 Since most think tanks are charitable organizations, you can look them up here. (via Darren Barefoot).

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4 Comments:

  • In the U.S., there's at least one case of crossover between blogs and think tanks. The three bloggers who write for Powerline are all fellows of the Claremont Institute which is a right wing think tank.

    Could that be a sign of things to come?

    By Blogger pogge, at 6:06 AM  

  • declan, this is the dopest post ever. many unscrupulous/lazy poli sci undergrads would totally hand this in as a term paper.

    By Blogger angela, at 2:21 PM  

  • Glad to see your hard work officially declared "dope" Declan.:)

    Think tanks once had an honourable pedigree, and dealt largely in the areas of foreign relations, international affairs and academic matters.

    This is one more institution warped to the purposes of the corporate-funded right wing.

    Great research and thought in this post, Declan.

    By Blogger Timmy the G, at 3:54 PM  

  • pogge - Yes, the blogger/tanker crossover in the U.S. probably is a sign of things to come here.

    ainge & Timmy - thanks. I think sometimes when I start writing these long posts I have some idea of past essays for school in the back of my head guiding me subconsciously. Hard to belive I chose my initial undergrad major with a view towards getting through university without having to write a single essay.

    By Blogger Declan, at 5:12 PM  

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