What are think tanks and how do they help shape public policy?

Parliament House in Wellington.
Parliament House in Wellington. Photo credit: Getty

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When push comes to shove, public policy is just a combination of different ideas.

In an ideal world, people have ideas for how life could be made better. Decision-makers take those ideas and weigh them up - how much they might cost, how much disruption they might cause, whether there's likely to be much in the way of pushback, and whether there's public buy-in - and, if they're good ideas, and meet these tests, maybe they get implemented.

But where do those ideas actually come from? Who are the people who sit around, and just, think?

Well, academics do, of course.

But often, academic work is hard to implement straight away.

It can be extremely intellectual; it can be hard or expensive to access; it can take a long time to carry out and, on occasion, lack a certain pragmatism.

Politicians do too, of course. But relying on politicians to come up with policy independently can be a dangerous game.

The three-year political cycle means there could be a strong temptation to prioritise policy that prizes the short-term over the long-term.

What are think tanks and how do they help shape public policy?

This gap between the theoretically possible and the politically palatable is where the think-tanks dwell: mysterious organisations, made up of intelligent people who carry out research and commentary on issues of public interest.

But what are think-tanks? Who are these people, who hold genuine influence over public discourse, who carry out their own research, make recommendations - often, quite extreme recommendations?

Where does their funding come from? What are their motivations, their agendas? The Detail's Emile Donovan speaks to NZ Herald business editor-at-large Liam Dann, and Kathy Errington, executive director of new think-tank the Helen Clark Foundation, about what exactly these organisations do, what drives them, and whether we should be keeping a closer eye on them.

"[Think-tanks are] academic-trained people - doctors, economists, sociologists - in an organisation, which is committed to promoting public debate and discussion around public policy. Usually with an altruistic view, that they want to make the country a better place," says Dann.

Many of the names of New Zealand's most prominent think-tanks will ring a bell: the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research; Business and Economic Research Limited, or BERL; and the New Zealand Initiative.

But others have sprung up in recent years too: economic think-tank Motu; Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures, which is the brainchild of former chief science advisor to the Prime Minister Peter Gluckman; and the Helen Clark Foundation set up in 2019.

Errington says the "non-partisan" element of the organisation stems from the fact that it has no formal ties with any political parties - although its patron is Helen Clark, former Labour Party leader, and Prime Minister.

 "We have the name of a living politician attached," she says.

"I think it's overwhelmingly a positive thing - but, like any living politician, there were people who would've had disagreements with her who might disregard what our organisation might say."

Many think-tanks have formal - sometimes even commercial - partnerships with other organisations.

Former Prime Minister Helen Clark.
Former Prime Minister Helen Clark. Photo credit: Newshub.

The Helen Clark Foundation, for example, has a relationship with Health Coalition Aotearoa, an umbrella organisation that keeps an eye on many aspects of the health system.

So, what does this mean for the integrity of the Helen Clark Foundation's research?

Can a report maintain its academic integrity if it's funded, even indirectly, by an organisation that undoubtedly has its own views on how things should work in the health sector?

Errington says the quality of the research must speak for itself, and that think-tanks' reputations are established and maintained through consistency and open-mindedness.

"A key part of that is being transparent - you can see on our website who our partners are, how we're funded. So people can draw their own conclusions from that.

"We are, fundamentally, independent: we have final sign-off on all our research output, so the research isn't pre-cooked.

"Funding matters, and I think you should be transparent.

"[But] the quality of the work matters in the end. People are welcome to disagree with our conclusions - but the research itself holds up to scrutiny." 


What are think tanks and how do they help shape public policy?