As the Brookings-Tsinghua Center celebrates its 100th anniversary this month, its director Dr. Qi Ye was able to give NexGen an informative lecture on the challenges and goals for think tanks. His presentation covered the process of creating a vision for Brookings and its strategic planning, a workshop for the students through a case study, and a presentation of our findings.
The Brookings-Tsinghua Center hopes to focus on working with a wide-array of stakeholders to improve governance. These generally included concentrating on three parts of strategic planning: quality in research, independence, and impact. The quality of the research, Dr. Qi Ye maintains, is the foundation for everything in the institute. In his explanation, he emphasizes quality research through a bipartisan lens. Objectivity is essential in creating reliable and respectable outputs not only for government, whether Democratic or Republican in the United States, but also for many other audiences. In doing so, Brookings-Tsinghua hopes to generate knowledge and influence policy-makers through an impact framework.
The impact framework consists of targets, tools, and objectives. Dr. Qi Ye delineates essential targets that create meaningful impact on decision-makers and influencers. Decision-makers may include public figure heads like the president, while influencers are varied. The media is a powerful influencer in reframing issues, setting agendas, and reaching wide audiences. Academics have great access to decision-makers enabling them to influence their ideas about public policy to policy makers. In order to reach these influencers, think tanks can utilize several tools. Face-to-face meetings directly put scholars in contact with influencers as part of larger events think tanks organize, or separately, through traditional forms of media or via a scheduled interview for publication. Think tanks can utilize these tools to raise awareness, set the agenda, inform the audiences through debate, redesign policy, and come up with viable solutions.
Of course, every think tank has its challenges, and Brookings-Tsinghua is no exception. As an operational think tank in China, Brookings-Tsinghua sees challenges in its environment as an NGO, strategic positioning, competition, fundraising, and commissioned work. The environment of the NGO can powerfully influence its agenda or make it difficult to set a new one. Dr. Qi Ye notes NGO environments that are for-profit or religious in nature have powerful incentives other than the generation of rational knowledge. Strategic positioning is particularly unique in China for a think tank. Brookings-Tsinghua, as an international NGO, must establish a clear vision for why they are in China. Are they trying to influence the Chinese government or other interested stakeholders? They are not alone in their tasks as the number of high-level, national think tanks working for the central government has increased rapidly in the 21st century. How do they stand apart from other think tanks with political motivations? This may also put a strain on funding from donors, pressuring international think tanks like Brookings-Tsinghua to perform commissioned work by government and state-owned enterprises.
In tackling outreach strategy, NexGen suggested innovative information sharing in targeting a “middle path” of influencers through infographics and podcasts. A nascent form of media, podcasts, while less popular in China, are easily accessible to audiences in the US. They enable a form of passive listening that adapts itself well to the lifestyle of the everyday commuter or busy traveler. Infographics and video technology over the internet enhance outreach to decision-makers and influencers, appealing to the visual orientation of human psychology.
Media partnerships are best pursued in a dual-pronged external and internal approach. Blogs for websites and webinars are useful internal tools to engage media participants. Large events geared towards fostering relationships with key press outlets may help set a public agenda for think tanks. Educating target journalists and editors separately through strategic meetings can help set the external image. Quality control would consequently be necessary to make sure articles are in line with the think tank’s goals.
Financial incentives and a sound compensation model are essential in acquiring the best talent for a think tank. Compensation levels vary in government, academic, and private enterprise hierarchies. In finding solutions, think tanks need to ascertain whether they should adopt international models of pay especially if they are not domestic themselves. International scholars and domestic scholars alike are evidently going to be attracted to international, private enterprise compensation levels, but these pose greater financial difficulties. Money is a scarce resource dependent largely on how think tanks raise money. Who are those donors? Will contract-based systems work best for families of international scholars moving to the local country from their native residences?
Keeping competitive, while maintaining a clear, influential vision is extremely important to a think tank. Thanks to Dr. Qi Ye’s discussion, NexGen contributors were able to gain further insight into how think tanks operate. It is clear that Brookings-Tsinghua is indeed always looking to discover innovative strategies in its quest to improve the exchange of international academic and scholarly ideas for the future.