By Justin Kosslyn, Product Manager at Google Ideas, and Robert Muggah, Research Director of the Igarapé Institute

The world of foreign policy think tanks is booming. Today there are over 6,500 think tanks spread out across 187 countries, with some 390 think tanks in Washington D.C. alone. Collectively, these organizations compete for billions of dollars of annual funding and employ tens of thousands of people. But are they fit for purpose in the twenty first century? 

Think tanks pursue policy change by flooding the market with written content. The expectation is that specialized reports and targeted lobbying can shift the positions of well-placed decision-makers and practitioners. Yet there is surprisingly little evidence that think tanks are as successful as they often think they are.

Even big international organizations struggle to make an impact through knowledge products. The World Bank releases at least one major policy report every single day of the year. Yet a recent assessment found that 87% of its own outputs were never cited, and 31% not even downloaded -- not once. The same is true for thousands of other think tanks.

In this information (saturated) age, even the most enlightened politicians, diplomats and business leaders are reluctant to wade through think tank reports. U.S. State Department employees only recently acquired Internet access, much less access to the latest in cutting-edge think tank research. 

Now decision-makers demand more rapid access to facts and ideas as they emerge. They are today more inclined to read tweets than papers. The changing nature and needs of the information consumer begs a question: do think tanks need to upgrade to the new information environment? New research suggests that this may be the case.

Think tanks and academic institutions have never faced more competition for impact and influence. According to the Carnegie Endowment for Peace’s Jessica Mathews “the weakness of most think tanks is they view the published product as 95 percent,” failing to properly reach the “hands and heads of people that can use it.”

Yet there may be another way that think tanks can spread their ideas to drive real change. We think this could begin by showing and not just telling. Instead of drafting policy papers describing how systems ought to work, think tanks should consider building software and data visualizations that demonstrate how systems can and do operate in practice. This is not as hard as it sounds -- there are some tried and tested steps worth considering.

First, engineers should be purposefully integrated into the DNA of think tanks. From the moment they arrive, these experts -- who are not part of the IT department -- should be invited to take part in decision-making meetings and to join research trips. Technology is relevant to every topic; integrate them into every discipline in the think tank instead of building artificial walls between them and the rest of the organization.

Second, think tank leaders can take a crash course in software development. This could begin with some recommended reading, especially classics like The Soul of a New Machine and Crossing the Chasm. They might also consider building out a small technical team of full-time software engineers. Think tank directors should resist the temptation to outsource contractors who are not invested in the mission of the think tank.

Third, think tanks must plan for the long-term. Creating a functional team takes time. It may take up to twelve months for the technical experts and policy specialists to learn each other’s vernacular. This requires managers to set aside the requisite time to deep-dive on the requirements involved in each type of work. In our experience, many software engineers thrive when they leave the sanctum of the cubicle farm and get their fingers dirty in the field, working on projects with genuinely global impact.

While there is no guaranteed recipe for success, these steps can help think tanks communicate ideas more effectively and efficiently. We both work for organizations that successfully combined traditional policy researchers with on-staff engineers working together on technical projects. We have also pursued a number of joint collaborations and projects and in our experience, the model works. And we are not the only ones. Think tanks like the New America Foundation´s Open Technology Institute and the Citizen Lab are taking a similar approach.

The think tank landscape is changing. Information and communications technologies are revolutionizing the way we produce, disseminate and consume data. There’s still no substitute for sound policy research -- and there never will be -- but think tanks can no more ignore technology than they can neglect seminars and report writing. But rather than relying exclusively on the written word, think tanks of the future are developing code. And if they are to make real impact, they would do well to roll up their sleeves and start programming sooner rather than later.

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