Why Think Tanks Matter to Policy Makers and the Public

The Pakistan Institute of International Affairs (PIIA), a learned society and the oldest think tank in Pakistan, with 68 years’ experience in research, publication and public diplomacy, hosted a session on Why Think Tanks Matter to Policy Makers and the Public, on Thursday, 28 January 2016 as a launch partner in Pakistan of The Lauder Institute’s (The University of Pennsylvania) 2015 Global Go To Think Tank Index in January 2016. This event aimed at bringing together policy makers, think tank leaders, academics, public interest activists and concerned citizens. The session provided an opportunity to all stakeholders in public policy to discuss in depth the importance and contribution of think tanks in policy making and the challenges faced by them, to examine the outreach and culture of think tanks in Pakistan and search for a way forward for a more effective collaboration between think tanks, policy makers and members of the public.

The session began with a video message from Dr James G McGann, Director, Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program, University of Pennsylvania USA. The discussion was led by Dr Masuma Hasan, Chairperson, PIIA; Mr Javed Jabbar, former Senator and Federal Minister, Chairman and Chief Executive, JJ Media (Pvt) Limited; Ambassador Sohail Amin, President, Islamabad Policy Research Institute; Mr Tasneem Siddiqui, former Chief Secretary, Government of Sindh and Chairman, Saiban; Mr Arif Hasan, architect and town planner, Chairperson, Orangi Pilot Project and Urban Resource Centre and former Foreign Secretary Ambassador Najmuddin Shaikh.

The themes addressed in the session were: The importance of think tanks as a bridge between policy makers and the public; who is listening: policy makers, academia, business, industry, the public?; constraints and challenges facing think tanks in making policy interventions; successful interventions by think tanks in policymaking in Pakistan; ways to improve the engagement of think tanks with policy makers and the public and role of information technology and social media in creating awareness of public interest issues. The event ended with an interactive question and answer session.

See YouTube video and press coverage below. Watch PIIA videos of the event here, here, here, here and here.

‘Think tanks should be able to convert ideas into policy options’ by Peerzada Salman Published in Dawn, 29 January 2016

Eminent speakers shed light on the role of think tanks in policymaking at a session organised on Thursday afternoon by the PIIA as the launch partner in Pakistan of The Lauder Institute’s (University of Pennsylvania) Global Go To Think Tank Index.

The event, conducted by PIIA chairperson Dr Masuma Hasan, began with a video message from Dr James McGann, director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Programme, University of Pennsylvania. He said since its inception the aim of the programme was to gain a better understanding of the role think tanks played in governments and civil societies. He said this year the theme was ‘Why think tankers matter to policymakers and the public’, involving hundreds of think tanks in 60 countries and over 70 cities. He said the mission of the exercise was to bridge the gap between knowledge and policy.

The first speaker that Dr Hasan invited to express his views on the subject was former senator and federal minister Javed Jabbar. He gave a succinct but comprehensive account of the different types of think tanks. He said they existed in a fixed location premises engaged in research, resulting in regular publications. He said they (should be) preferably independent, nonpartisan and their source of funding should not necessarily determine their output.

A think tank, Mr Jabbar said, was a group of people who convened from time to time, producing a set of recommendations and analyses that subsequently became part of public discourse. Another think tank, which he called close to parliament, was the Senate of Pakistan which formed the Senate Forum for Policy Research where eight former and eight serving senators met periodically. Then, he said, there were advocacy NGOs, such as the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, who took up issues of public concerns using access to other think tanks highlighting issues by drawing the media’s attention.

Mr Jabbar said the media, especially the print media and specifically the English language print media, had played a valuable role, occasionally publishing reportage on issues that others did not take up. He also lauded the state for creating think tanks. Talking about foreign aid, he termed it the “ultimate insult” when he said he saw a signboard that read ‘USAID Anti-Fraud Hotline’. However, he added there were certain other foreign organisations, for example belonging to Germany, which did not impose their agenda.

Ambassador Sohail Amin said think tanks should be creators of knowledge and should be able to convert ideas into policy options. Every think tank had a set of publications drafted in a manner that could impact others’ viewpoints, he said. He said the new millennium brought with it new challenges, but our policymakers and academics had superficial knowledge of it (for instance, the food crisis of 2010, climate change etc).

Mr Amin pointed out the emergence of the 24/7 media, including the internet, saying it had made the job of think tanks a bit difficult because now there was a flood of information coming through. He said in 2015 he took part in a conference on knowledge-based economy. He said in international relations the best way for the think tanks to work was to come up with recommendations well before an event had taken place. He said currently think tank outputs were not demand-based.

Ambassador Najmuddin Shaikh mentioned a few demand-based institutions set up by former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. He also mentioned an institute set up by the armed forces that did some research based on demand. He said research had to be demand-based. He said standards of governance had declined and capacity for field research was limited. He said governance had to improve to draw policies based on solid research.

Former Sindh chief secretary Tasneem Siddiqui said now the focus should shift from foreign policy to the social sector. He said there were departments such as the planning commission which produced documents after research, but the situation with it was that when their next chairman/head arrived he would not have any idea that what happened before him. Then, he said, there were provincial departments of planning and development which had huge funding but were doing no research. He said after the 18th amendment huge funding was being pumped into them. He said in the private sector there was a chamber of commerce, and asked if it had a think tank of its own.

Architect and town planner Arif Hasan concurred with Mr Siddiqui. He said he had been part of quite a few think tanks which enabled him to find out that there was an academics-versus-reality issue. He said the most important subject of research was social change. He said market traditions had changed and we were lost in the 1970s. He said we could have documents but without necessary institutions those ideas could not be implemented.

After the speeches, the floor was opened for the audience to take part in the discussion.

Posted by Editor.

17 Comments

Filed under Discussion, Events, James McGann, Policymaking, Think Tanks, TTCSP, United States

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