The study of think tanks brings together a range of academic disciplines and allows for multifaceted analyses, encompassing the concepts of ideas, institutions, influence, interests, and power. The literature on think tanks addresses a ubiquitous policy actor as think tanks have been around for a long time, especially in advanced liberal democracies. However, they have also become established actors in authoritarian regimes and in the developing world. Nowhere is their influence on policymaking or the public debate easy to pinpoint. The definition of a think tank has been contested ever since the study of think tanks took off in the 1980s and 1990s. Some scholars have devised typologies around organizational form and output, with a focus on whether think tanks are openly partisan or rather emphasize their political and ideological neutrality; others propose that the think tank is not so much a clearly discernible organizational entity but rather should be seen as a set of activities that can be conducted by a broad range of organizations; others again see think tanks as hybrid boundary organizations operating at the interstices of different societal fields. What most scholars will agree on is that policy expertise is think tanks’ main output, that they seek to influence policymakers and the wider public, and that they try to do so via informal and formal channels and by making use of their well-connected position in often transnational policy networks encompassing political parties, interest groups, corporations, international organizations, civil society organizations, and civil service bureaucracies. Think tanks’ main output, policy expertise either in the form of concrete proposals or “blue-skies thinking,” is underpinned by claims that it is “evidence-based.” The widely used positivist notion of “evidence-based policymaking” has been of benefit to think tanks as organizations that claim to “speak truth to power” by producing easily digestible outputs aimed at policymakers who profess to want evidence to make policy “that works.” Think tanks are active at different “moments” in the policymaking process. John Kingdon’s agenda-setting theory of the multiple streams framework helps us understand think tanks as “policy entrepreneurs” who are most likely to have influence during the moments of problem framing, the search for policy solutions, and the promotion of specific solutions to policymakers and the public. Think tank studies should take into account the relationship between the media and think tanks, and how this relationship impacts on whether think tanks succeed in agenda-setting and, thereby, influence policymaking. The relationship is symbiotic: journalists use think tanks to inform their work or welcome their contribution in the form of an opinion piece, while think tanks use the media to air their ideas. This relationship is not without problems, as some think tanks are in privileged positions with regards to media access while others barely ever cross the media threshold. Think tanks are, in the 21st century, challenged by an “epistemic crisis.” This crisis consists of a loss of faith in experts and of information pollution and information overload. This development is both a risk and an opportunity for think tanks. Concerning the latter, policymakers increasingly need curators, arbiters, or filters to help them decide which information, data, and policy expertise to use in their decision-making processes.
Advisory groups and their dynamics play a critical role in crisis management. If they function well and complement the leadership styles of political leaders, advisory groups can provide broad information search, diverse advice and perspectives, and reinforce a leader’s own strengths. They can surround an inexperienced leader with advisors possessing policy expertise or experience in an issue area. On the other hand, advisory groups can also easily fall into more dysfunctional patterns where they do not compensate for a leader’s weaknesses, fail to provide varied perspectives or alternative views, and engage in limited information gathering. Advisory groups can help seal an administration into an “alternative reality bubble” during crises, resulting in policy decisions being made based upon faulty perceptions instead of realities. How should we seek to understand advisory groups and crises? The first cut should involve the consumer of the advisory group’s inputs themselves, the leader. Advisory groups almost always serve at the pleasure of the leader, not themselves, and therefore the leaders will play a major role in determining their influence, how the groups will function, and their importance during crisis decision making. Important variables such as leadership style, sensitivity to context and need for information on the part of leaders, how much control they require over the policy process, and how their prior experience or expertise leads them to rely more or less upon advisors must be examined. The second focus should be upon the advisory groups themselves, their internal dynamics and reactions to stress, how decision rules and policy formulation occurs, and how group pathologies can undermine their crisis performance. Variables such as group malfunctions resulting from stress and the needs for cohesion during crisis (like groupthink) or the splintering of group consensus to warring factions that undercut cohesion (like polythink) must be considered. The stage of development an advisory group is in (i.e., newgroup versus established), the stage of the policymaking process involved (i.e., deliberative versus implemental), how sequential decision-making processes function, the composition of the group members (i.e., experts versus novices), the type of crisis the group faces, and the bureau-political dynamics involved all impact crisis management.