How think tanks and social innovation can help in better policymaking

A new crop of think tanks is emerging. The government can step up and work with them with some help from the donors if needed.


Simone Galimberti

  • Read Time 4 min.

More and more often, while reading articles on Nepal’s English media, it happens that I am stumbling on authors or quotes of experts from think tanks I have never heard of. If you compare it with five or ten years ago, there is a huge difference now in terms of policy-making initiatives from civil society. There are at least a dozen of think tanks, of which, very few are well established while the remaining are sort of “startups”.

This is an important development if you think about it.

While political parties are still unable to articulate proposals based on sound research, we are witnessing how civil society, despite being battered by overwhelming compliance regulations, is stepping up in the right direction. This is still a very new phenomenon and it is still centralized where most of the power still lies in Kathmandu.

Yet, hopefully, it is not going to be just a “market” trend like when we saw the waves of new shops selling expensive mountain bikes or shops for pets and fancy coffee bars just to mention a few of them.

The government at all levels and donors should take notice of the flourishing of think tanks.

While the federal government could certainly do its own part to enable an eco-system of civil society-centered research centers to thrive, local governments throughout the country could also see an opportunity here. The major municipalities could provide support to these think tanks, involving them in facts-based research aimed at better policymaking and thereby more effective decision-making.

In any domain of public intervention, there are many intricacies and complexities.

As you want to solve a real problem, for example finding effective ways to support vulnerable women, the most apparent and logical solutions actually can be resisted and opposed by a mix of factors, starting from prevailing cultural settings and mindsets.

Politicians, instead, have the unique capacity to oversimplify things in order to “sell” their solutions to the electorate. Yet each policy proposition, from new legislation or regulation to a new program, can also have its downsides and pitfalls.

Politicians might propose amendments to the constitution in order to really make a level playing field for women in the country or they might come up with a new loan scheme but most of the time such initiatives either lack consistency or are rushed to implementation without much homework.  No wonder, such initiatives therefore fail.

Working out solutions at systemic levels is one of the most difficult things to do. Local governments, now invested with a multitude of powers and responsibilities, are clearly at disadvantage here. How can they actually perform at the best of their capacities and offer real solutions to uplift those women from their communities who are the most vulnerable and oppressed? Likewise, how can they address the frustrations of local youths?

Here are some ways.

First, having a more inclusive and representative body of elected officials—in these two cases more women and youths elected as mayors—would make a tremendous difference. They would bring not only a new perspective but also fresh ideas and a different approach. Yet even with more women and youth elected and with real power in the decision-making at local levels, additional expertise might still be needed. This is where think tanks and NGOs could provide important help.

From better understanding local problems to identifying local solutions, civil society-driven expertise can truly make the difference, creating and facilitating the conditions for a sounder and more effective governance.

Having a more inclusive and representative body of elected officials would make a tremendous difference. They would bring not only a new perspective but also fresh ideas.

In practice, what we call the “good governance” in development jargon, can be the result of different and complementary collaborations where the best local minds can work in tandem with local elected officers and come up with the best solutions.

This would also be another way to set out the conditions for a more participatory polity, a system truly democratic and based on the frequent and open exchange of ideas.

Second, focusing on participatory, deliberative approaches can also help avoid a technocrat’s alone type of support from the civil society, offering space for real participation, beyond and besides someone’s degree or formal education. Think tanks, therefore, could operate also in a way that goes beyond the sharing of their expertise and know-how.

They could also be focused on helping the general population connect more easily with local institutions, setting the foundations for truly participatory democracy.

Yet in the end, it all goes down to their long-term viability and sustainability.

While hoping for local governments to think long term and find some resources to engage innovatively with the civil society, any support from donor countries could also be welcome.

I imagine competitive challenges in different domains of policymaking where donors and local governments can work together to support the best ideas coming up from the civil society.

You could call such undertakings “missions”, specifically tailored-made funding programs to solve the most intricate problems faced by society.

Participants could come up with policy pitching and propositions covering an array of ideas that would get Nepal closer to solving its most complex issues.

One of these challenges could be, for example, how to uplift the scholarship program for girls and Dalit students or how to effectively help women create small business enterprises or how to create “listening posts” where women in the neighborhoods can express their voice. Put together, these mini-challenges could also provide the impetus for new pilots on the grounds and possible scale-ups. These types of challenges would also help fill the gap between research and practice with a new approach focused on solutions.  You could also have SDGs focused calls for funding jointly funded by local and federal governments and donors. The National Planning Commission and its counterparts at provincial levels could also become the initiators of such new collaborations.

They could set up an enabling framework with funding and then allow local municipalities to identify their biggest challenges and then collaborate with think tanks and NGOs.

In India, the government of Haryana and Ashoka University came up with the ‘Chief Minister’s Good Governance Associates Program’ enabling young graduates to become policy innovators. Nepal already boasts the Daayitwa Nepal Public Service Fellowship Program that, since 2013, has been selecting brilliant graduates to become fellows and work with the government.

Better policymaking should not be just a top-down approach and youths can immensely be part of the equation and be part of the solution.  If we want more women to assume leadership roles in the country, we need tons of social innovation and novel ideas and a huge amount of commitment and perseverance.

If you are a politician and you think that research-focused collaborations are boring and difficult to manage because you have to give space to “outsiders”, you should think twice. It can be a win-win and opening up to this type of partnership can bring unimaginable results. By the way, it can help you get elected again.

Simone Galimberti is the Co-Founder of ENGAGE, an NGO partnering with youths living with disabilities. Views are personal. [email protected]