The future of think tanks will depend on the course we take in our debates on how we are run as societies: whether we are able to keep to the good old reason or we go back to the age of powerful all-knowing leaders and manipulated masses. 

Established in 2012 Aspen Institute Central Europe serves as a regional platform for the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia and belongs to the Aspen Institute global network. Olga Lvova, think twice UA director and former Prague Civil Society Centre Fellow, asked the Executive Director Jiří Schneider, former Ambassador to Israel and First Deputy Foreign Minister of the Czech Republic, about the history and plans of the organization, and his view of think tanks’ development.

Olga Lvova. Could you, please, tell me how you started. What motivated you and your colleagues to create this organization? What ideas and resources did you have at the time?

Aspen Institute is not exactly a think tank. Aspen Institute Central Europe is a branch of the Aspen Institute in the United States, a well-established non-profit organization with extensive resources and a long history since the early 1950s. Setting up a branch of existing institution is different to launching a think tank from scratch. Later I will go back to fifteen years ago when I was involved in setting up a true think tank, but first I would like to tell you about the origins of the Aspen Institute Central Europe.

There was a group of people of various backgrounds united by certain disappointment with the US policy towards our the region as it was anticipated after joining NATO twenty years ago. It was deepened by withdrawal of Obama Administration from the plan of missile defense – the project of missile defense installation was modified for Poland and Romania but was cancelled for the Czech Republic.

On security front it seemed like we have given up and on the economic front we were witnessing one US company after another withdrawing. We felt the need to do something to boost the transatlantic link. I was working for the government and supported the idea of enhancing American intellectual presence in the country from my position. We started searching for US organizations that would be interested in having a branch here in Prague.

We ended up with the Aspen Institute as a non-partisan platform, not exactly a think tank, but a kind of institution that cultivates public debate in a very specific American way.

We had to prepare a business plan, decide who was going to sponsor it and who was going to work for it. At that stage I was a member of the supervisory board of the newly established institution. It was set up as a public benefit organization. The law allowed us to be registered as a PBO, it was not required to establish a foundation, and that is what we chose. The memorandum of understanding was signed with the Aspen Institute because as a branch we were obliged to adhere to its rules and values while being independent financially and in management of our activities. It is a very specific story.

It was important for us to find a philanthropist who would be willing to cover all the initial costs. In the meantime, we strived to draft a plan according to which his contribution would reduce by10 per cent every year while we could develop a broader portfolio of partners and the Institute would become more independent. It is the case now. We are going to celebrate eighth year of our work soon. We are a small team of seven, still in the phase of consolidating our organization as it takes time to establish the institutional culture we aspire to.

O.L. You mentioned you were independent. How do you get the funding? Who are your official donors? Do you look for grants or rely on crowd-funding campaigns?

We try to develop partnerships with corporations, foundations and private donors. We almost do not have public funding. We certainly had some projects in cooperation with government agencies. For instance, we asked Visegrad Fund for a grant. International Visegrad Fund was established by four countries, but our cooperation was limited to one small project.

Most of the funding comes from our principal donor, the Bakala Philantropy. Apart from that we have more than a dozen other major partners, mostly private sponsors. We try to spread the funding portfolio and diversify our resources every year. This year the principal donor coveres around a half of our budget; the other half is provided by other sponsors. The list is published at our website and is included in the annual report. As a PBO we are annualy supervised by an independent auditor, all information about our funding is made public. As I mentioned, bulk of it comes from private sponsorship.

O.L. What are your key values and why do you think it is important to have values not only for think tanks but also for other organizations?

I think for each organization it is important to be precise about its mission. Clearly defined mission allows to be specific about the target audience and stakeholders of activities.

Our mission is to connect people, to create a platform that brings together those who want to be actors of positive change. It is quite a broad mission, but it is focused on movers and shakers. It is not general public we try to address primarily, and equally not only experts. That is why I mentioned we were not in a strict sense a think tank. We do not produce in-house research. Most of our work is connecting. We design events that allow people who do not usually meet to have a possibility to discuss important issues for the society.

As to values, we are not completely neutral. We try to promote the leadership based on values, certainly democratic values: open society, inclusive society, promoting freedom and openness. We are non-partisan but for obvious reasons we do not accept extremists as our stakeholders. We are careful not to be exclusive, but to remain true to our values, at the same time inclusiveness has certain limits. We do not take on board of our platform somebody who would like to destroy it, who is against our principles.

I mentioned I had been involved in establishing a think tank before. It was PSSI, the Prague Security Studies Institute. The difference between a platform and a think tank is that think tank is producing knowledge, strives to transfer knowledge, to package and to communicate it. It is based on research to a degree. It could be policy or academic research but there is always a certain element of research.

PSSI is very much about security policy making. It promotes knowledge about security and defense among civilians, politician, government and civil servants. At the time it was established it filled the gap since there were no security studies at Czech universities. (It is no longer the case now in 2019 The mission was very clear, and the organization was not politically neutral – it was pro-market, pro-freedom, i.e. center-right.

To be clear about the mission is easier said than done. It allows to communicate clearly with founders, audience, stakeholders, partners and sponsors. They are interested not only in reports about specific events but also in their purpose, why they are organized. It also helps to develop a strategy, to set priorities and allocate resources accordingly. Therefore, we must also check if the mission is up to date. It is not something done once and for good. We must constantly ask ourselves if it still fulfills the goals in the environment that changes.

The Aspen Institute Central Europe was established in 2012, when the European financial crisis led to political changes in Central Europe. From the very beginning our mission was to work not only in the Czech Republic but also include other Visegrad countries – Poland, Hungary and Slovakia. It was the time political polarization was on the rise in these countries. The mission was to create a platform to connect people and to support an environment enabling constructive dialogue. It was opposite to the “spirit of the times”, against it and at the same time more relevant than ever.

O.L. Do you follow think tanks in the Czech Republic? In your opinion, what are their key strengths and weaknesses? Do they ask the main question, who pays?

I do follow, of course. In 2002 I spent one year on a project about think tanks in Visegrad countries and as a result published a small book . I am still very much convinced that think tanks are important intermediary bodies for transferring expertise between academia, public and government.

Today, in my work for Aspen, I feel there is a general mood of mistrust against the intermediary institutions. One can see that in frequent calls for direct democracy in the view of failures of political parties and media. Political parties and media as well as think tanks are all intermediary institutions that perform an important role of representing various interests and views. The general mood is to get rid of them: every individual knows the best, has no need for experts advising to promote those who pay them,. This kind of mistrust in expert knowledge is much higher these days and has a great impact upon think tanks’ landscape.

In my book I used a categorization of think tanks making a difference between a academic think tanks and ones established by political party. The former gets the funding from grants and does mostly research, sometimes not directly relevant to policy. It is completely different to be paid by a political party. Think tanks established by political parties care about academic research only to the extent it produces arguments for policy. Then there are think tanks funded by interest groups. Some instruments and methods used by the government affairs and lobbying agencies are similar to those used by think tanks: they produce papers, studies and analysis. It is not all fabricated out of thin air, it is research based on data.

In order to understand and evaluate think tank’s work, one must ask specific questions. Is it academic? Is it data oriented, or is it value oriented? Some think thanks are promoting certain values. They do collect data, but they are not primarily research institutes. Center right conservative think tanks, for instance, promote family values. Organizations trying to influence environmental policy have completely different tasks. Some think thanks are thematic, focused, Others are cross-cutting, or have an ambition to provide broader, more comprehensive policy advice.

Another ground for categorization is that some think tanks stick to analyzing the impact of existing policies, others venture into practical policy advice to government, municipalities, i.e. telling policy-makers what they should do. Some of them work with the whole policy cycle: they analyze current situation, recommend measures to change policy along with tools monitoring and evaluating their impact. Based on collected feedback they further refine policy advice.

Think tanks can also be differentiated based on how they work with data and what methods they use in their work. Let us consider a couple of examples from the Czech Republic. If we take a non-profit organization like Institute of Vaclav Klaus, established by the former president, it is nominally a think tank. However, it is basically reflecting agenda of the former president and serving as his loudspeaker. It does not do much more and cannot be viewed as a research institute.

The Institute for International Relations is more academic. At the same time, it is supported by the Foreign Ministry and is in an ambivalent position: sometimes they pose themselves as independent to criticize foreign policy, sometimes they serve as its prolonged hand, in “track-two” diplomacy.

Europeum is an example of a typical, mainstream think tank started in academia, by students and teacher of international relations. PSSI mentioned above is more sectoral, expanding into new areas of security. The European Values started like Europeum but later made a sharp turn by working as policy advisory body for the government. Serving government could compromise think-tank’s independence – one can ask how independent the research commissioned by government agency can be.  There are also clearly academic institutes , like the International Institute of Political Science in Masaryk University in Brno. It is not part of the faculty, but it is established within the university. They publish books, organize seminars and try to build up expertise in their area.

Going back to a category of think tanks established by political parties, I think they do have value. In a German model, they are clearly partisan, participate both in national and international debates and can be very beneficial. Konrad Adenauer Stiftung is the biggest and brightest example. They are very different to bodies funded by government, like the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik.  In Germany there are also strong private foundations active in policy debates (Bertellsman Stiftung, Robert Bosch Stiftung, etc).

I think such variety of “species”, different “flowers and animals” in this area, is fine as it reflects the civil society that is far from uniform. However, we must be careful while evaluating each specimen, dig deeper in analyzing how relevant they are and what drives them. It goes back to a true mission of each organization. The key question is, indeed, who pays the instititution and whether and how it is reflected in its independence and ability to define its own agenda.

Another interesting example of a grass root institution, a think tank that started bottom-up is the Association for International Affairs (AMO). It was established twenty years ago by students aspiring to influence foreign policy. Today, all of them are part of establishment, working for the Foreign Ministry, the European Parliament, etc Back then they developed a way to effectively monitor and evaluate the Czech foreign policy. They slowly evolved from analyzing policy and publishing annual reports to providing advice to policy makers.

It is important to have a supportive environment for this kind of institutions. In order to flourish they need financial resources, from a system of grants as well as from private sector that is sensitive to a public interest dimension and is not limited to pursuing specific business interests. It is also important that media understand the way think-tanks work and can distribute their ideas. The social media and internet have changed the situation a lot. Imagine that thirty years ago there was no internet. All think tanks could do was to publish books, publications, brochures, and try to get their speaking heads into media. Today it is democratized and very flat. The new problem though is how to make a distinction between serious research and something, may I say, fake. And then fake in a sense of fabricated, or just made for the sake of argument.

O.L. From your experience, what do you think an effective communication strategy should look like today? Is it worthwhile to still cooperate with media in a traditional way, or target the key stakeholders on social media?

It should be a combination of all of these. It is still important to use media since visibility in the media ensures brand recognition. Without it you are unknown, you are not relevant.

Social media are obviously a tool too. For example, I started to use Twitter to get information rather than promote my own ideas. I started to follow various think tanks as I do not always have time to go to their websites and it turned out to be a very useful tool. It allows me to go directly to the links that are relevant to me.

The third but not the least important component is personal contract. In my opinion, networking through personal encounter, a face-to-face talk are still the most powerful instrument. That is why events matter. We must make it possible to make it happen. There is a great variety of ways to get in touch: podcasts, short videos, interactive video conferences and calls. However, the electronic contact works much better if you know the person on the screen. Otherwise the effect it limited. The improtance of personal contacts is behind the motivation in organizing workshops, conferences. It is more and more difficult because of rich offer of events with highly interesting, quality content. People do not come to an event just for the sake of being there. Only once you manage to get people personally engaged in a debate, your work may have an impact.

O. L. Do you think there is any competition between think tanks and civil society organizations about ideas and resources?

Yes, we can see it as a market with competitive elements, especially in relation to resources. It is good as long as it pushes us to generate better ideas. Think tanks can easily get into stagnant, almost standby mode if they are not exposed to competition. In case resources are secured and there is lack of feedback, the quality goes down.

At the same time, it is not only market, but also a network. It should not be closed, and it is a challenge to keep it open. The best think tanks are those that keep a low entrance threshold. It is not necessary to allow everybody to come to your events, but it is possible to find ways to both collect money through pay-wall access, and to allow free use of the products of your work.

The goal is not to turn into a closed group of people who are basically trying to influence policy. It would contradict the nature of the intermediary function with unlimited number of actors. In practice the numbers are limited, but in principle we should try to create an open network. By network I mean the environment for sharing ideas, getting inspired by other organizations’ work. It is not like competition between business companies that carefully protect their know-how from competitors. For example, if we see an inventive way of organizing the conference, one can easily copy it. It is a principle of open source networking: you learn from others, there are no costs involved for seeing and applying new approaches. It is a beauty of the sector, of think tank’s landscape, if there are enough actors in it.

The problems arise in case the market or the network are limited in size and tend to turn into claimed sectors. There is a great variation between countries, in Europe in particular. In the Czech Republic the sector is on the verge of being small and in Slovakia, speaking of scale, it is half of our size. It is very dynamic in Germany in contrast to Italy or, interestingly, France.

An important factor that keeps sector alive and relevant is the so called “revolving door”. People rotate, especially during the change of governments. I have not been working for twenty years for a single organization, I worked in turns for think tanks and for government. It could be a problem for small countries: when government changes it has high demand for experts and basically vacuums them from organizations. Working for government is very attractive for people who have been developing their expertise for years, so when they get invited, they leave think tanks. It creates deficit, especially for very small organizations which could lose majority of their experts and are unlikely to substitute them. In the United States, where think tanks are an industry, the network is much more dynamic.

O.L. What do you think is the short-term and long-term future of think tanks? Will there be demand for evidence-based research?

As I said, demand for evidence-based research is declining nowadays. Politicians use research to their benefit, and their claims are often not based on data or fact-driven. The future of think-tanks will be linked to the future of research in general and especially that of interdisciplinary approach that is one of the cornerstones of think tanks’ approach. Think tanks allow to bridge various disciplines and do it in a more flexible way than it is sometimes possible at universities.

It also very much depends on the attitude of society. If it is ready to embrace complexity, there will be a need for guidance. Think tanks are trying to provide that and could serve as a compass in a very complex world. However, if the mood is set by powerful individuals and interest groups driven exclusively by their interest, the relevance of think tanks’ work is going to disappear. Attacking intermediaries as biased, seeing everything as fake and thinking along conspiracy lines – as we have been witnessing in recent years –  does dangerously undermine the heritage of Enlightenment, that of the debate based on reason rather than emotions. The future of think tanks will depend on the course we take in our debates on how we are run as societies: whether we are able to keep to the good old reason or we go back to the age of powerful all-knowing leaders and manipulated masses.  

Editor: Olha Byalyk

Photo: Aspen Institute Central Europe