Rethinking the think-tank

Like our colleagues at many think-tanks across the country, the Centre for Trade Policy and Law (CTPL) is grappling with questions of constituency, relevance and funding in an era of government fiscal restraint and changing public expectations about what governments can and should do.

To move forward, our conclusion is that it’s time to rethink the think-tank as a model to encourage public policy reform. With more relevant brainpower per city block than anywhere else in the country, Ottawa may be the best place to start finding solutions.

CTPL was established in 1989 to encourage government, business and the non-profit sector to think about and promote a discussion about how Canada could benefit from a closer economic relationship with the U.S. and increased integration into the world economy.

By bringing together the resources of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (NPSIA) at Carleton University and the Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa as co-sponsors of this new institution, CTPL’s founders recognized that Ottawa was a centre of creativity on public policy issues. The idea was to leverage the resources of government and the two universities, the talents of policy-oriented academics and former practitioners, and its physical location in the nation’s political capital to meet the increased interest in Canada’s international trade policies.

The policy agenda has changed significantly since then. The political divisions over freer trade with the U.S. have been replaced with a broad consensus on its benefits. The pillars of Canadian trade policy – membership in the World Trade Organization, NAFTA, and key bilateral agreements – are in place. Canadian business is expanding internationally and doing well within these frameworks.

Combined, these and other developments have meant that trade policy does not have the controversy or cachet it once had in Ottawa. For CTPL, this has forced us to think hard about how to reposition ourselves for the future.

We’re making great progress. But we need more ideas.

This fall we will be launching a new initiative called B2T2 – Building a Better Think-Tank – to engage a broad spectrum of people and organizations interested in public policy issues. We’re taking an “open source” approach, posting ideas on our website and encouraging discussion and debate. One of our objectives is to attract people who have never worked with a think-tank before but are intrigued by the idea.

To get the discussion started, here are five ideas we’re grappling with right now:

1) Throw out assumptions that are no longer valid. As the saying goes, old habits die hard. One of the oldest in the think-tank business is assuming that all good ideas deserve government funding. A better starting point for getting traction in policy circles is having a strong and broadly-based constituency for new ideas. We need to spend more time expanding the number of people and groups we work with and the issues that we consider. Our analysis has to be consistently rigorous, innovative and policy-relevant. These kinds of steps will help us get more attention inside and outside government.

2) Operate more like a business. We need to learn more from business and especially from the amazing work of social entrepreneurs around the world who successfully meld business practices and social purpose to achieve their goals. That means taking more calculated risks and becoming less opportunistic and more strategic in our decision-making. This is very hard to do, especially with limited funds. But, sometimes necessity really is the mother of invention.

3) Go local. A continuing advantage for CTPL is the ability to draw on the expertise and experience of a talented group of policy experts inside and outside of government. We need to continue to tap into this local expertise and encourage others to do the same. It will have a catalytic effect, promoting Ottawa as a source of creative talent to address Canadian and global public policy challenges.

4) Compete and co-operate with other think-tanks. The think-tank industry in Canada is fragmented with most think-tanks too small to realize fully their ambitions. Some merging and consolidation would make the industry stronger and more financially sustainable. The remaining smaller “boutique” think-tanks should concentrate on becoming even more specialized and partnering with these larger organizations on specific projects.

5) Expand the brand. We used to refer to ourselves as the Centre for Trade Policy and Law, but we now simply use the acronym CTPL. We’ve had a lot of success in Canada and around the world helping governments design, negotiate and implement international trade strategies. But the traditional market for our services has shrunk to the point that focusing exclusively on trade issues is no longer a viable business model. We’re building on our solid reputation in the trade area to expand into other areas. CTPL opens us to new opportunities and signals that we’re welcoming change.

Our most recent success in “expanding the brand” is in the area of international public health diplomacy, where we are developing a solid reputation for practical work. With our partners at Carleton University and the University of Ottawa, we are looking at other policy areas as well.

These ideas are just the beginning of what we hope to a vigorous discussion about how to make think-tanks in Canada more relevant and sustainable in today’s world. Join us in the discussion at:

Phil Rourke is the executive director of the Centre for Trade Policy and Law.

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