The Dual Role of Think Tanks

Dindo Manhit, President of the Stratbase ADR Institute

It’s the social landscape that defines the level and degree of interaction among governments, non-governments, and the public. What binds these three dynamic sectors is public policy and the resulting development agenda that is implemented or adopted to suit national needs.

The level of a society’s political development, the character of government institutions, and the conditions of social political existence require the existence of third party institutions to facilitate and transmit the fruits of public policy. Such conditions include societies where political parties are weak, people empowerment is low, and where the channels of participation are clogged by inequalities and political dynasties.

Hence, the primary role of think tanks is research. A strong research foundation enables the translation of government policies into usable information to facilitate public choices. Such foundation likewise processes social information into actionable situations wherein policy makers, public managers and bureaucrats could innovate to improve policy making and decisions.

It is in this aspect where the need for relevance comes in. For a think tank to acquire social significance, its works including policy and political analyses, publications, conferences, workshops, dialogues and consultations should touch on everyday issues and the concerns of the people.

In turn, access to information and the internal dynamics among policy makers and decision makers become vital to the existence and survival of think tanks.

The second elemental role of think tanks refer to the supra-national task of concretizing regional, transregional and international policies, agreements and arrangements regarding security and foreign policy. This task requires the capacity to facilitate and forge bilateral and multilateral and mid-level and high-level consultations and dialogues among policy actors and stakeholders.

Beyond the dual role, one can surmise the latent function of think tanks. As a conduit and transmission belt between government and the public, the amorphous role of a political conduit lies in the production, reproduction and promotion of the political space and in the continual effort of “whitening the black box.” Democracy and civil society are inherent elements of a society that demonstrates the dynamic social existence of a government.

In doing so, the assertion of transparency and accountability in carrying out government functions also imposes on think tanks the colossal task of making governments functional, responsible and responsive.

Stratbase ADR Institute is evolving along these three elemental roles. With its support, the United States-Philippine Strategy Initiative (USPSI) was established in 2015. The USPSI has assumed a lead role in advancing high-level policy dialogues on strategic geopolitical trends of US-Philippine alliance in the context of Indo Pacific Region. The dialogues encompass key strategic issues pertaining to politics and governance, security, economics, and people to people ties including education and civic endeavors. These issues are further contextualized within the framework of strategic development in the United States, the Philippines and Southeast Asia.

In line with its role of fostering these dialogues, Stratbase ADR Institute hosted a roundtable forum for Walter Douglas, Deputy Assistant Secretary (DAS) of State for Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy last 29 August 2018. DAS Douglas elaborated on an Indo-Pacific strategy, first introduced by President Trump during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings in Da Nang Vietnam. The strategy fosters a transparent and rules-based system, which, in turn, will encourage private sector investments to come into the region, focusing on three key areas including digital economy, energy and infrastructure.

DAS Douglas also announced that the Philippines will receive the largest chunk of the USD 300 million security assistance fund under this strategy. This assistance will cover peacekeeping and maritime domain awareness, among others. This is especially timely given the deteriorating situation in the South China Sea. By facilitating conciliatory agreements and arrangements, stakeholders could reach a détente so that the millions of fishers coming from Vietnam, Malaysia, Borneo, Brunei, Indonesia and Philippines and China, could peacefully rely on the contested sea for their livelihoods.

A think tank’s advocacy work on trade and investment is equally important. An initiative such as USPSI, for instance, has in a number of ways played a significant role in promoting greater trade and investments by providing policy recommendations to policymakers that could improve the investment climate.

In essence, a think tank assumes the function of a social laboratory where relevance, multilateralism, diversity, advocacy and sensitivity to social environment are put into cohesion to produce actionable information. From this actionable information, the public in general and people in particular could make an informed choice. Consequently, the government is also offered affordable political actions for its consideration and adoption.

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