Think tanks or research institutes utilize theoretical ideas developed by university scholars and turn them into policy ideas, which they disseminate and market. These policy ideas are then discussed in policy-discussion groups and government advisory groups, before being taken up by government committees and turned into legislation.
Academic research can be full of jargon and often goes no further than academic journals with a very small readership. Politicians seldom read academic research and therefore “a lot of useful knowledge remains politically inert.” In contrast, think tanks “are geared toward political activism and propaganda, rather than towards scholarship.”
Conservative think tanks don’t usually carry out original research but adapt and apply existing research. Their ideas are not new but are promoted vigorously. David Ricci, in his book on the rise of think tanks in Washington, observes that “Conservatives enlarged the think-tank business while openly assuming that such institutes were not places where people developed new ideas but where they advanced a truth known already.” Many think tank employees have been able to bypass the academic route to expert status, avoid the peer-reviewed journals, and write and speak in a way that would be unacceptable in academic circles.
Think tanks put a great deal of effort and expense into ensuring the work of their ‘scholars’ is marketed and disseminated effectively. For example they produce "policy papers for state legislators, which in turn become the basis of legislation, floor statements, press releases, op-eds, and more". One In the US there is fierce competition between think tanks to attract corporate funding and to get ideas heard. Developing effective marketing techniques has become a major concern for many think tanks, who have adopted strategies used by interest groups to “promote their causes in the political arena.”
The ultimate goal is to push an idea, or repudiation of someone else's idea, so hard and for so long that it enters general public debate: down-shifting, political correctness, the out-of-touch elites, welfare to work, school vouchers. Most of us have heard of them. Few can remember exactly when they became part of our language. They are the bread and butter of think tanks. When the idea that has become a term becomes a word that enters the general vocabulary — used by talkback radio callers, taxi drivers and politicians — the think tank has done a little bit more to advance its agenda. Left-wing think tanks acknowledge that it has been the conservatives who have been most successful in framing public language.
To influence government and set the agenda in a variety of policy arenas think tanks insinuate themselves into the networks of people who are influential in particular areas of policy. They do this by organizing conferences, seminars and workshops and by publishing books, briefing papers, school kits, journals and media releases for policy-makers, journalists and people able to sway those policy makers. They liaise with bureaucrats, consultants, interest groups, lobbyists and others. They take advantage of informal social networks — clubs, business, family, school/university.
state think tanks are linked to each other, to conservative legal foundations and to national organizations such as the Heritage Foundation and the National Rifle Association both by the Madison Group network and by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
They seek to provide advice directly to the government officials in policy networks and to government agencies and committees, through consultancies or through testimony at hearings. Ultimately think tank employees become policy-makers themselves, having established their credentials as a vital part of the relevant issue network (see revolving door below).
What makes think tanks in the United States unique, besides their sheer number, is the extent to which many have become actively involved in the policy-making process. In short, what distinguishes American think tanks from their counterparts in other parts of the world is not how well-financed some institutions are. Rather, it is the ability of American think tanks to participate both directly and indirectly in policy-making and the willingness of policy-makers to turn to them for policy advice that leads some scholars to conclude that U.S. think tanks have the greatest impact on shaping public policy.
One survey published in 1982 found that most ‘officials in the Department of State, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council, and the Department of Defense’ were more influenced in the long-term by think tanks than by public opinion or special interest groups and many were more influenced by think tanks than by the media or interaction with members of Congress. A more recent survey of congressional staff and journalists covering government affairs found that over 90 percent of them believed think tanks were still influential in American politics.
In their efforts to influence and become part of the policy-making process think tanks have more in common with interest groups or pressure groups than academic institutions. Nevertheless employees of think tanks are treated by the media as independent experts and are often preferred to experts from universities or interest groups as a source of expert opinion because they are articulate and trained to perfect the TV sound bite and give quotable quotes for newspapers. When they appear as experts on television shows or are quoted in the newspapers they have more credibility than a company expert or a representative of a business association even though they may be pushing the same line. They regularly write newspaper opinion pieces and give newspaper interviews. Many write their own newspaper columns.
More important, however, than their ability to shape individual policies, has been in the ability of the conservative think tanks to move the whole policy agenda to the right.
First, they help to set the agenda of the political debate. They inject arguments (neatly packaged for a copy-hungry media) into the public arena before they are raised by politicians. This both softens up public opinion and pushes the consensus farther to the right.
An additional function that think tanks provide in the US, which is often done by the political party in other countries, is facilitation of ‘elite transfer.’ In countries like Britain and Australia, cabinet ministers are chosen from the elected members of government. In the United States this is not necessarily the case. Additionally the American system allows each new administration to appoint their own senior bureaucrats including the staff of government departments, heads of departments and advisory councils. These are often not selected from the public service as was once the case in other countries.
This means that when a new government is elected, top-level personnel in the administrative arm of government are changed for people whose ideology is more suited to the incoming government. Think tanks provide a source of such personnel. Whereas once administrations had been staffed with businessmen and party officials, presidents from Carter through to George W. have made wide use of think tank personnel to fill high level government positions. Reagan chose people from the think tanks and free-market policy networks to staff his administration along with the businessmen and party officials. Some 150 of his Administration came from the Heritage Foundation, the Hoover Institution and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), alone.
According to Foreign Policy magazine: 'In Washington, it’s not for nothing that think tanks are called “governments in waiting.” '
Think tanks provide a fast track to a political career and a public profile in the policy arena. They also provide a place for discarded government officials to go when there is a change of government, where they can be employed until ‘their’ government is reelected while still having some influence over public policy while they are waiting. They form a sort of informal shadow government.
The circulation of personnel suits the think tanks well. Employing ex-government officials gives a think tank access to politicians and others in government and attracts the funds of corporations who want access. When a think tank’s employees are taken up by a new administration, the think tank has its best chance to have its ideas and agenda accepted by the government and to influence policy. Those employees are then able to recommend others in the think tank for government positions.