Two decades ago, the popular definition of think tanks is “non-government, non-profit research organisations with a substantial organisational autonomy from the government and public interests such as companies, interest groups, and political parties’ (McGann and Weaver, 2000). Over time, the definition and organisational forms of think tank have continued to develop. Think tanks are no longer defined as non-profit, but more described according to their functions, and aim to produce knowledge to influence the policymaking process (Hartwig, 2011). This definition is in line with think tanks’ role as knowledge producers in the knowledge ecosystem (Hertz et al., 2020). Think tanks often act as the bridge among policy actors and between the state and civil society – serving public interest as independent voices translating basic researches into narrations and policy recommendations that can be understood, applied, and accessed, for policymakers and the public (McGann, 2019). Other references also depict think tanks’ function as knowledge intermediaries (Hertz et al, 2020) in the knowledge ecosystem.
The double role of think tanks as knowledge producers and knowledge intermediaries makes them strategic to strengthen the position of policy entrepreneurs. A policy entrepreneur is defined as an advocate that continually supports policy change by using knowledge, expertise, policy ideas, reputation, policy advocacy, and policy networks to advance their own policy goals (Kingdon, 2003; Mintrom and Norman, 2009). With their strategic position, think tanks play a part in all policy stages. However, their role is more dominant at the agenda-setting stage, considering their ability to frame policy issues and shine a light on issues to the public using interesting ways (Ordonez, et al., 2012). The participation of think tanks at this agenda-setting stage unlocks the opportunity for them to participate in the policy design stage and policymaking process, where engagement in every stage requires a working relationship with the government (Ordonez, et al., 2012).
In terms of working relationship between think tanks and the government, the collaboration between government and non-government based think tanks is crucial to support inclusive, sustainable, and evidence-based policy formulation and to establish a peer review culture as an infrastructure pillar for the nation’s progress. Knowledge Sector Initiative (KSI) utilised the 34th KSIxChange platform to explore the importance of improving the collaboration and policy entrepreneurship between government and non-government think tanks in evidence-based policy formulation. This discussion was held on June 29, 2021, and was attended by the Head of National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN), Laksana Tri Handoko. BRIN, as the institution in charge of the integration of research, development, study, and implementation (litbangjirap), has a strategic position in orchestrating the government and non-government think tank collaboration forum. Other participants of this discussion included the Deputy for Social and Humanity Sciences of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), Tri Nuke Pudjiastuti, Deputy for Civil Society Development of the Institute for Research and Empowerment (IRE), Dina Mariana, and Deputy Director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Medelina K Hendytio. Both of these think tanks attended as organisations that play an active role in developing knowledge to influence strategic policy, and presented the importance of ongoing collaboration between government and non-government think tanks.
The Development of Non-Government Think Tanks
CSIS’ Deputy Director, Medelina, presented the development of non-government think tanks globally and in Indonesia. Based on the report from Think Tank and Civil Societies Program (TTCSP), University of Pennsylvania, the global development of think tank activities and contributions is still dominated by Europe and North America. Developed economic countries generally have a plethora of think tank organisations. In the context of Indonesia, according to Medelina, the development of think tanks in terms of quantity is quite encouraging. The number of non-government think tank organisations in Indonesia in 2018 reached 31 organisations, almost doubled the number in the previous decade. However, this number is still way behind compared to China with its 507 think tanks, and India with 509. In Southeast Asia, small countries like Singapore has 18 think tanks, and Malaysia has 23.
“The development of think tanks in Indonesia still needs to be promoted, not only from the quantity, but also quality. More think tanks means more diverse ideas, thinking, and innovations, as well as better democratisation of ideas,” said Medelina.
This report also mentioned that the 2020 Global Go To Think Tank Index ranked CSIS as the second best think tank organisation in Southeast Asia and Pacific. Medelina emphasised that the ranking achievement is secondary. The most important thing is how think tanks strive, as optimal as possible, for changing or improving the quality of policies. There are four indicators used by this index in assessing the quality of a think tank, namely (1) resource indicator, assessing the sustainability and quality of funding, researchers, networks, and supporting technologies; (2) utilization indicator, assessing the organisation’s reputation among the media and from policy elites’ testimonies; (3) output indicator, assessing the number and quality of proposals, ideas, innovations, projects, studies, publications, and resource person interviews, as well as the number of staff asked to take up positions within the government; and (4)impact indicator, assessing the recommendations considered or adopted by policymakers. These four indicators can be used not only to pursue rankings, but also as reference for think tanks to set their priorities and improve the quality of their institutions.
Access to policymakers and the use of studies in the policymaking process become the central indicators in the global achievement of think tanks. “Think tanks do not have the luxury to separate research and advocacy,” said Medelina. She added that it will be easier for think tank organisations to promote policy change if they collaborate with the government. Existing cooperation patterns can serve as reference to develop future relationship mechanism.
The Deputy for Social and Humanity Sciences of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), Tri Nuke Pudjiastuti, conveyed the importance of knowledge collaboration between the government and non-government think tanks. “Knowledge collaboration is critical. According to our experience, the limitation for scientists to be directly on the ground can be strengthened by NGO (Non-Governmental Organisation) think tanks, producing impressive results. In the penta-helix social science approach, each organisation plays a distinct role. The uniqueness of each organisation becomes important,” she said.
In this discussion, the Head of BRIN, Laksana Tri Handoko, conveyed BRIN’s role in facilitating collaboration between BRIN and think tanks in the context of supporting science-based policies. He expressed that BRIN has a duty to integrate research and innovation activities scattered in various institutions and consolidate its many resources, from human resource, infrastructure, to budget. BRIN’s direction regarding this institutional integration relates to how BRIN can support evidence-based policies through collaboration between BRIN and NGO think tanks.
To support science-based policies, BRIN plays a role as the collaboration hub and enabler of multiparty, both domestically and internationally. Research infrastructures and resources are made into open platform for all involved parties, including private sector, academics, and others, so that they can easily conduct research without having to invest in it. Handoko explained that this open platform system is established because research is high cost and high risk in nature. Therefore, BRIN as a government institution, is present to facilitate and becomes the enabler for various parties wanting to conduct research.
BRIN is being prepped as the formal governmental think tank organisation. It means that BRIN will become the source of academic studies and will supply policy recommendations to the government, which is expected to use a non-sectoral lens to see policies across ministries. “The new and soon to be released Presidential Regulation (Perpres) mentions two deputies, namely the deputy for developmental policies and deputy for research and innovation policies. The latter will become Bappenas’ think tank source,” saidHandoko.
He stated that BRIN must be the main supporter of science-based policies, whereas think tanks remain focused on researches in their respective fields: creating knowledge assets, safeguarding science cultures and norms, becoming the basis for primary and reliable literatures, using strong quantitative methods, and collecting and managing data. Handoko said that non-government think tank organisations can function as a balancer or conduct peer review regarding policies that will be issued by the government. However, there needs to be a mechanism on business to business relations with non-government think tank organisations and Ministries/Institutions (M/I) as users of their products/research outcomes. Hence, BRIN is open for further discussion regarding the B-to-B relationship and business process between BRIN, non-government think tanks, and policymakers.
Regarding the collaboration mechanism, the Deputy for Social and Humanity Sciences of LIPI also conveyed her recommendation on the knowledge collaboration between BRIN and non-government think tanks in promoting the quality of policies. First, several think tanks have been included in the five national research priorities with the same position as universities, but with different funding framework. The future of national research priorities for non-government think tanks is still up in the air, and deserved to be examined. Second, with increasing needs to address the issues facing this nation, social sciences are not only limited to national research priorities in social disciplines, but also applicable in all fronts. This makes it necessary to review existing sub-programs.
“The mainstreaming of social and humanity sciences becomes essential, as it relates to fulfilling the needs of research organisations, both government and non-government ones,” said Nuke. The next recommendation is the need to integrate the monitoring system and knowledge management with a clear mechanism and procedure, as well as developing research organisations’ ready-to-be-applied (kesiapterapan) indicators in accommodating the difference between social and humanity aspects for the development of better research organisations.
In terms of the strategic position of non-government think tanks as policy entrepreneurs, the Deputy for Civil Society Development of the Institute for Research and Empowerment (IRE), Dina Mariana, shared IRE’s learning as a policy entrepreneur that conducted advocacy using several approaches and strategies to promote policy change. IRE conducted the advocacy of Village Law Draft (RUU Desa) during 2007 – 2013. This Draft was ratified thanks to the cooperation between NGOs, village officials, village community organisations, and many more. “The most important (thing) from a think tank is its network. Our biggest advantage at the time was the united network of NGOs and community organisations, with both groups having interest for this Law to be issued,” said Dina.
This experience shows that non-government think tank organisations have the capacity to conduct policy change-oriented research. Many academic papers were produced, including policy study papers and policy brief proposals. “Think tank organisations have the capacity in carrying out technocratic work, because we have a strong standard regarding this matter. We have legal drafting experts for sectoral and spatial issues, not to mention knowledge documents from study results. So we are able to adapt to technocratic processes,” she explained. Strong collaboration, database, and research have been proven to influence policymakers at the House of Representatives (DPR), Ministry of Home Affairs, and other ministries, ultimately making them adopt several policy recommendations proposed by IRE and its coalition from 2007 to 2014.
The capacity of non-government think tanks to promote changes for better policies needs to be responded by actors in charge of policymaking. BRIN, which opens further dialogues regarding cooperation patterns and business process mechanism between the government and non-government think tanks, becomes a ray of light to enhance the opportunity for collaboration. The Head of BRIN, Handoko, conveyed that the target is to achieve an ecosystem that can provide more support and motivation for the public to contribute to research activities, which will then be expected to produce a myriad of inventions, reforms, and innovations, generating further economic support going forward. “Why do we have to do all of these? Because all of us want to achieve the target of Advanced Indonesia in 2045. This cannot happen without the support of a more structured and stronger research and innovation,” he explained.