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Thought Piece | 3 Significant Ways Think Tanks Can Improve Their Relationship With Politicians

Chiara Rosselli, Executive Director, APROPOS Group

Last week, I was invited to speak at the European Think Tank Conference hosted by the Think Tank Lab in Berlin.

Together with colleagues at Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), the Austrian Institute for International Affairs (OIIP) and Kathmandu University School of Management (KUSOM) Policy Lab, we were tasked with reflecting on the relationship between think tanks and political decision-makers. What must we unlearn and what new skills and approaches must we develop in order to improve the effectiveness of our relationship with political decision-makers?

From the conversations, as well as our personal experience with the Open European Dialogue, here are my 3 suggestions on how to strengthen a constructive relationship between the think tank sector and our core audience - political representatives.

#1 Switch from advocacy to collaboration

A wise man once said - "There is only one way to get anybody to do anything. And that is by making the other person want to do it." It was Dale Carnegie in his 1930s seminal book 'How to win friends and influence people'. A classic case of 'don't judge a book by its cover', Carnegie argues that manipulation is a failed strategy when it comes to exerting influence over others.

One sure way to create the necessary trust capital with policymakers is for think tanks to stop seeing their relationship with political decision-makers as a one-way street, where the ultimate outcome is to (gently) impose one's own view of the world on a passive consumer.

If we are interested in the attention of policymakers it is important to view the relationship as a collaboration, even more so if we are committed to promoting a political culture that values collaboration above badgering one another into submission. Perhaps we can be, as think tankers, the first ones to show good faith and encourage genuine collaboration, even with people who we don't necessarily agree with.

#2 Switch from individual relationship-building to infrastructures of service

It is important, in fact, crucial to invest in relationship-building with key political stakeholders in order to establish a mutually beneficial and functional working relationship. Yet, what often happens is that the relationship-building is happening between individuals, which is on the one hand an excellent way to consolidate access to political decision-making, yet on the other, it can pose some challenges in terms of safeguarding the no-strings-attached independence that is so important to think tank work.

An alternative to relationship-building on the individual level is for think tanks to develop these relationships within the context of infrastructures of service. Networks, platforms and engagement programs that are designed to strengthen the relationship between a think tank and its political stakeholders, offering value-added to its users, an authentic - not an extractive or manipulative - value-added, that is ensured through the genuine design of these networks and infrastructures around the needs of their users.

Networks such as the Open European Dialogue or the German Marshall Fund's City Directors of International Affairs (CDIA) Network, are examples of such infrastructures of service. These infrastructures have the capacity to shift the focus of relationship-building from personality-based affinities to institutional relationships of mutual advantage.

#3 Switch from prescriptive recommendations to policy options

A strength of the KUSOM Policy Lab case study with whom I shared the stage last week, is that they quickly realised that in order to create a lasting relationship with the Nepalese parliament as an institution, they were going to have to leverage their neutrality. They soon developed their outreach following a simple rule: not providing prescriptive recommendations, but preparing informative briefings on different policy options that would be available for policymakers to choose from.

While this may seem like a simple hack to avoid alienating any one political party, the truth is it represents a significant and profound shift in approach. Offering policy options is a steadfast commitment to understanding and respecting the agency that elected policymakers have - and should continue to have - over the political and policy choices that will shape our society. It refuses to place the policymakers in the role of passive consumers of the policy ideas that our think tanks concoct - let's be brutally honest - without any democratic legitimacy whatsoever.

Overall, these 3 shifts in our approach as think tanks are, from my perspective, not only utilitarian - in that they ultimately will lead to a better relationship between think tanks and their core audience - political decision-makers. They also represent a more profound ambition, that of fulfilling our role as bridge builders in society, facilitators of collaboration across sectors and ideologies - rather than being ourselves unwitting contributors to the radicalisation of political polarization.


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