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Objective criteria to assess think tank influence

Chen Yuanyuan, Li Guang, Guan Lin | 2015-10-21 | Hits:

Tao Kaiyuan, vice-president of China’s Supreme People’s Court, gives a speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington.  

Located in New York City, the Council on Foreign Relations is another world-renowned US think tank in addition to the Brookings Institution. In China, top think tanks like the Development Research Center of the State Council and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences have played significant roles in the country’s social, political and economic agendas.


In January 2015, the General Offices of the CPC Central Committee and the State Council promulgated Guidelines on Building Think Tanks with Distinctive Chinese Characteristics, signifying that domestic public policy research has entered the “think tank era.”

According to a statistical report published by the University of Pennsylvania (U Penn) in 2014, there are 6,826 think tanks in more than 182 countries. Many of them perform crucial functions and roles in state policymaking and social development.

American scholar James McGann identified eight functions of think tanks, including guiding government decisions on complex domestic and international issues, acting as mediators between governments and the general public, formulating independent and authoritative positions in policy debates, setting the policy agenda, and training professionals for government service. A think tank gains influence by performing these functions.

Specialization important
There is a considerable amount of longitudinal studies that assess the influence of think tanks in different countries by analyzing their roles in the policy process. Cyclical in nature, a policy process is usually divided into five phases, including agenda setting, the formation and codifying of policies, implementation, performance evaluation, as well as planning and forward-looking decision-making.
Research on think tank influence mainly focuses on their roles in the first and the last two phases.

It is particularly worth mentioning that, in the Think Tanks, Public Policy and the Politics of Expertise, author Andrew Rich revealed how think tanks can maximize their influence in the aforementioned three phases through rigorous quantitative analysis, in-depth interviews and case studies. Notably, he was the first to apply regression analysis to think tank research.

There is also a wealth of literature comparing the influence of think tanks in different countries from the vantage point of political and economic systems. American scholar John Campbell and the Danish scholar Ove Pedersen analyzed the causal relations between think tank development and the knowledge systems of state policies in countries that have different economic and political systems. Based on theories of policy process, Donald Abelson pinned down correlating factors of think tank influence in different countries through database retrieval as well as quantitative and comparative methods. He concluded that a think tank’s visibility is positively correlated with media coverage, resource availability, longevity and the diversity of its research focuses. He found out that think tanks known for specialized knowledge—not ones with high visibility—are more likely to make a difference in policy making.

Extant literature suggests that the influence of a think tank is mainly determined by its intellectual competence. It is also what decision makers worldwide look for and count on. In addition to the amount of top experts and financial resources it has, the intellectual competence of a think tank also finds expression in the frequency of its research output being adopted by decision makers and the adaptability of its experts.

Evaluating influence
Unlike government organizations, think tanks are not vested with executive power nor do they seek profit like corporations. The survival and expansion of a think tank are contingent upon the appraisal of its consulting services, ideas, proposals and policy schemes. Currently, one of the most authoritative appraisal systems was devised by the research team of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the U Penn under the leadership of McGann. Since 2007, the team has published think tank rankings every year. Six years later, the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (SASS) released its first  report on  Chinese think tank rankings. The evaluation system designed by the SASS have gained positive feedback from academia and media.


The rankings issued by the U Penn team are based on four groups of evaluation criteria: resource, utilization, output and impact. However, the team did not provide concrete data, and the rankings it worked out were solely based upon subjective feedback of non-governmental organizations and government officials collected through interviews, surveys, questionnaires and focus group meetings.

The SASS measured overall influence, systematic influence, influence in specialized fields of Chinese think tanks on the basis of growth and marketing potential, leverage of decision consulting services, quality of academic output, and public visibility. Adopting the multi-level subjective performance evaluation, the SASS collected feedback from scholars, think tank experts, media practitioners, and professionals of other sectors through both extensive and targeted distribution of questionnaires.

Research teams at the U Penn and the SASS shared similar theoretical frameworks and a penchant for measuring concerned parties’ overall impression of think tanks. Nonetheless, the evaluation systems they devised and the resultant rankings were radically different.

Frankly speaking, the credibility of the two systems is compromised by subjectivity, convergence of supposedly independent parameters and limited feasibility. Researchers need to pay more attention to the practical aspect of evaluation criteria in future.

Domestic think tanks
Judging from the current literature, the influence of a think tank is determined by three factors: its resource availability and intellectual competence, which can be measured by the amount of research output and in-house top experts, and its relationship with the elite class as well as its standing among decision makers; its marketing and operational capacities, which can be seen from its media exposure and website layout.


Chinese characteristics and innovation should be the development guidelines of domestic think tanks. Western think tanks tend to overemphasize their independence, which tellingly mirrors the intensive conflict of interests between different parties and vested interest groups. Bearing this in mind, domestic think tanks should stand firm on the principles of objectivity and rationality while serving the long-term interests of the entire country. Moreover, domestic think tanks ought to upgrade their research and operational mechanisms. Advanced quantitative analytical tools, such as big data, system simulation and risk management, should be applied in public policy research. Operational processes need to be made more organized and collaborative. All in all, domestic think tanks ought to play a larger role in the modernization of China’s public administration through gathering wisdom and strengths from different government sectors and regions.

Chen Yuanyuan and Guan Lin are doctoral candidates at the School of Information Management at Nanjing University. Li Guang is a professor at the School of Information Management at Nanjing University.