How Think Tanks and Public Policy Schools Can Make Good Ideas a Reality

Public policy schools and think tanks play a crucial role in creating and propagating ideas in the policy process, but these institutions are not without flaws.

The Max Bell School of Public Policy recently hosted Better Policy for a Better World, a conference centered on how ideas can be put into practice in the complex world of policy making.

Moderated by Daniel Béland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, the second panel of the conference explored the role public policy schools and think tanks play in the policy process and what these institutions could be doing better.

Mel Cappe, a professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, argued that, while presentation and communication matter, the core ideas behind policies are absolutely crucial. This, he opined, is why public policy schools and think tanks are so crucial to policy making. “It’s about doing the research, doing the analysis, and what think tanks and public policy schools do is inform the debate with substance.”

Nancy Olewiler, the director of the School of Public Policy at Simon Fraser University (SFU), believes one of the roles a public policy school should play is to be “a vehicle that allows academics to participate in the public policy process without getting their promotion affected.”

She suggested that experts in academia are often reluctant to engage in the applied side of policy because they feel a professional obligation to publish their work in esoteric journals. Policy schools should also seek to connect their students to the applied side of policy. Olewiler said that the School of Public Policy at SFU “embeds the students, right away, in real world problems. They work with external agencies; they work with municipalities, with government ministries, with not-for-profits, with civil society.”

The general consensus of the panel was that public policy schools and think tanks play a crucial role in creating and propagating ideas in the policy process, but that these institutions are not without flaws.

Nancy Olewiler went on to speak about how academics in policy schools should be more strategic in their work to improve the chances of having their ideas adopted by legislators. “We write what we want to write because we are academics, and we have academic freedom, and those of us lucky enough to have tenure don’t get fired for saying things, and that’s a good thing. But we’re not as strategic as we could be. And by strategic I mean having that research pooled and ready...we are not planning. We’re using our freedom to do whatever we want rather than thinking ‘where can we have a role?’” Researchers must be prepared, she noted, when the window of political opportunity opens on a given issue.

Echoing what Mel Cappe said at the outset of the panel, Martha Hall Findlay, President and CEO of the Canada West Foundation, commented that think tanks do an excellent job at developing substantial policy, but she also spoke of the inefficacy of these institutions in the other critical part of the policy process: getting policies adopted. She noted that “Ideas matter, but they don’t do a lot of good if they’re not implemented.”

Jack Mintz, President’s Fellow at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy, stressed that every academic who pens a research paper must have a point of view, even if their school doesn’t necessarily espouse a specific viewpoint. “Many academics are afraid to express a point of view. They like to say ‘there’s this argument; there’s that argument,’ and come to no conclusion. That will get zero interest.” Mintz suggested that, without a conclusion, papers that are full of good ideas will be of no practical use to the policy making process.

Daniel Béland asked a final question to the panel: “We have a lot of students in the room...what’s the advice you would give to a student who wants to get involved in the policy world and make a difference in terms of promoting or finding evidence to support - or not - a specific policy idea?”

Mel Cappe encouraged students to look across sectors when seeking employment, emphasizing the importance of having a diversity of experiences. “But don’t forget the public service!” he added.

According to Jack Mintz, there are three critical skills students should work to develop: effective communication, critical thinking, and quantitative abilities.

Nancy Olewiler had just one word. “Graduate,” she deadpanned, the audience chuckling. “Everything else follows.”



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