Think tanks have become a noticeable actor in the G20 process. This is a result of the changing nature of the G20 itself, which evolved from a crisis committee into a network focal point. In this process, it has become more inclusive vis-à-vis transnational networks of societal actors such as business, civil-society, women’s organisations, and labour unions. Complex realities need different perspectives – and they also need analysis and research-based recommendations, which is the task of think tanks.
The growing role of think tanks is also a result of their increasing interest to engage with the G20 process. A key facilitator of think tank (inter-)action is the Think20 (or T20 for short) which is a network of research institutes and think tanks from G20 and non-G20 countries.
The T20 has come a long way, but we argue that it needs to make the next step to use its full potential to support the G20 in addressing the most pressing global challenges. In this blog we take a closer look at the T20’s effectiveness as well as its internal governance and present some ideas on how the T20 process should be reformed.
Evolution of think tanks’ role in the G20
The involvement of think tanks in the G20 process started in 2012 during the Mexican presidency and evolved over the years in a comprehensive process that includes hundreds of researchers and dozens of think tanks from around the world. In 2017, the T20 revamped its institutional structure and started working within thematic Task Forces. The T20 is usually coordinated by two or three think tanks from the country that is chairing the G20.
Before we take a closer look at the T20’s current model and its effectiveness, let’s consider the different roles think tanks can play vis-à-vis the G20 process.
First, there is the role as a provider of analytical input into the G20’s decision-making processes. Producing empirical insights on practically relevant research question is the day-to-day business of think thanks and research institutions. In the G20, however, this role is attributed to the international organizations that are part of the decision-making process at the G20 table.
Second, the T20 has made its mark in recent years by providing independent recommendations which are based on empirical evidence. These recommendations are being developed in Task Forces and are often aligned to the thematic agenda of the respective G20 presidency. The provision of policy-relevant recommendations has been the main focus of the T20 process since 2017. Relatedly, the T20 can also help to hold the G20 accountable by reviewing the implementation of its commitments.
Third, the T20 can also play the role of a facilitator of policy dialogue by bringing G20 decision-makers together with researchers to discuss global challenges. If the G20 aims at jointly contributing to the global common good, it needs to hear and weave together an array of global perspectives, both to be policy-relevant and to provide legitimate solutions. In its joint work, the T20 foster personal and institutional networks and thus help to develop a shared understand of the global challenges as well as local capacities to cope with them.
Fourth, the T20 can play a role of a promoter and stabilizer of international cooperation in particular in times when some governments adopt isolationist and/or nationalist policies. The T20 is uniquely placed to play such a role “below” the level of high diplomacy as it brings together think tanks from all G20 countries and increasingly also involves think tanks from non-G20 countries. This function is particularly important with regard to the relationship between the G20 and countries and regions that are not sitting at the table but are often addressees of G20 actions, just take the example of the African continent.
It goes without saying that the T20 cannot fulfill all those functions at the same time. And it shouldn’t. For example, we don’t think that the T20 should compete with international organizations in providing analytical input on topics that are high on the agenda of the respective annual presidency. Furthermore, there are inherent tensions and trade-offs between the different functions. As a promoter of policy dialogue think tanks have to develop a close relationship with government officials which may proof to be too close if they would want to be in a position to provide critical and independent policy recommendations.
In our view, the T20 has an important role in international cooperation; an increasing number of researchers and think tanks participate in T20 events and write T20 policy briefs. This success needs to be acknowledged and it helps to develop a joint mindset around global challenges and agendas, such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development or the reform of the World Trade Organization. It helps policy responses to take local circumstances into account. This increasing global think tank network should be further leveraged to underpin policy dialogue processes of the T20.
Action points: Clarity, timing, fresh thinking – and living up the transnational potential
Let’s focus on the T20’s core mission: clear evidence-based policy recommendations are the basis for informed policy choices in the G20. The T20 has been very good at producing policy recommendations – and might choke on its success. During the past T20 cycles, around 100 policy briefs have been put forward, sometimes even more than that. True, the G20 agenda has become more differentiated and complex over time. And yet, this flood of policy briefs risks drowning out key messages. More than 20 policy briefs in one policy area alone (e.g. on Climate Change and Environment) are, in effect, undermining a core function: to reach the attention of G20 policy makers and provide guidance. And if these policy briefs are published just before the Leader’s Summit, the chance to influence the G20 decision-making processes is close to zero! The work of the Task Forces is often completed by the time that policy briefs are published. Figuratively speaking, it is of little help to chuck a stack of policy briefs over the fence, for summit participants to pick them up. Briefs need to come earlier and need to be properly discussed, as policy debates take place in working group meetings – well before the summit itself.
Assembling key policy thinkers should be a dynamic process with interactive formats and room for testing ideas. Yet, the T20 often works in thematic silos and there is little coordination and discussion across the boundaries of the Task Forces. Coordination with other Engagement Groups, is currently limited to an occasional joint statement. It should further intensify to influence the G20 on key areas where positions overlap.
The T20 is a broad transnational network that brings together academic experts from across the G20. It would thus be ideally placed to address the G20 chair and all the other 19 governments sitting at the G20 table. Time is of importance, again: Deliberations between different perspectives need space and require actors to keep their eyes on the ball: who needs to know (and change) what – by when? Such a coordinated policy advice process, unfortunately, rarely happens. The T20 should also think beyond the annual G20 process and engage the incoming presidency to offer its strategic advice on the shaping of next year’s agenda to ensure that those issues are on the table that deserve global responses.
Change – to stay relevant!
In brief: the governance of the T20 is in question. We are sure that our T20 colleagues and G20 policy makers will have more points to add on how to make the T20 the impactful think tank network the G20 needs. Alas, there is no place discuss reforms.
Astonishingly, the T20 is the only Engagement Group that has no Steering Committee or any other form of multi-annual, overarching institutional structure! The T20’s governance rests on the shoulders of the think tanks from the country that chairs the G20 process. While this is important in particular to build strong relationships with the G20 chair, so much institutional knowledge and continuity is lost from one T20 chair to the next. With a different governance, the T20 needs to work on its relevance and reflect its knowledge production, dissemination and policy impact.
Instead of reinventing the wheel every year again under huge time pressure, the T20 should embed the annually rotating presidency of the T20 in a steering committee, possibly as a troika. This structure could build on the expertise of the outgoing T20 chairs as well as leading global think tanks (on a rotating basis). It would also involve think tanks from the next G20 presidency to help them gain experience in running the show. And it would create space for necessary institutional innovation and evolution.