Canadian Think Tanks and How They Generate Ideas to Influence Policy

Osman Naqvi,  M.Mgmt.

Think tanks are agencies that search for meaningful linkages between academic and policymaking realms, and that strive to influence the creation of public policy that is informed by the latest research developed by academics from a variety of interdisciplinary fields [1, 2]. The ultimate purpose of a think tank, therefore, is to guide the creation of empirically based policy that best suits the needs of a particular industry, population, or political agenda [3]. There are many different ways in which think tanks seek to influence policy and decision-making communities, including consultations, the creation of customized research reports, the publication of annual briefings on popular topics and, in more recent years, the use of social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram. Indeed, as McGann et. al noted in 2014, there are more than four thousand think tanks and policy institutes around the globe, each with their own unique policy agendas and processes [1].

The generation of new and innovative ideas is a fundamental pillar of think tank processes. In order for a think tank to determine where it will best allocate its economic, temporal, and intellectual resources, it must select a research domain that is both politically and socially expedient. Like an artist selecting what subject to represent, a think tank must make decisions about which subjects to incorporate into its research agenda. These decisions are arrived at based upon a variety of different factors, including demands from the public, academic interest in the topic, and the presence (or not) of existing legislation or policy.

According to Diane Stone and Andrew Denham, for example, think tanks generate new ideas for local social, economic, and political reasons, but often against the backdrop of larger transnational or global factors [2]. In other words, Stone and Denham demonstrate that successful think tanks typically generate new ideas for research projects based upon international collaboration and information sharing, rather than the product of discrete activities of an individual think tank operating within national or regional contexts [2]. Accordingly, Stone and Denham’s research reveals that the most successful new ideas generated by think thanks are those drawn from an array of stakeholders at the local, national, and international levels.

James G. McGann also advances the importance of taking a global or transnational approach to the development of new ideas within a think tank. Like Stone and Denham, McGann points to the importance of think tanks generating new and innovative ideas within a global context, rather than producing a reactionary agenda based upon specific local or national concerns. Viewing think tanks through a global lens, McGann’s research identifies the ways in which think tanks work across, rather than within, national boundaries during the process of generating new ideas. However, inasmuch as McGann points to global trends as being a marker of where think tanks should strive to develop new ideas, similarly to Stone and Denham, he adds nuance to this conclusion by warning of the potential drawbacks of such an approach, arguing that no two governments are so similar that new ideas can be introduced verbatim [1].

Other think tank scholars reject ascribing the success of new think tank ideas to the adoption of transnational perspectives. Donald E. Abelson, for example, examines Canadian think tanks and the ways in which they prioritize and cultivate new ideas based upon local and regional factors. According to Abelson, among Canadian think tanks significant effort and resources are expended in generating new ideas that are tailored to the needs of regional stakeholders, such as elected officials, community leaders, subject experts, academics, and members of the public [4]. In this respect, Abelson suggests that Canadian think tanks, looking to mirror the influential success of their American counterparts, can improve upon their methods of cultivating new and innovative ideas through greater engagement with local, rather than transnational, community stakeholders [3]. Actions that Abelson identifies as being part of a successful idea generation campaign include, but are not limited to, the hosting of localized public forums and conferences to discuss new policy priorities, the encouragement of academics and scholarly practitioners to give lectures and publish papers on emerging topics and, finally, creating web and social media content that engages experts and community stakeholders in meaningful conversations about the direction of current policy with respect to a particular issue or topic [3].

Think tanks in Canada use different tactics and considerations to generate ideas, all in an attempt to influence public policy. However, the common link is a commitment to empirically based idea generation practices,  which allow think tanks to increase their impact and encourage public policy makers to implement the firm’s findings. Since think tanks act as an intermediary between academia and industry, it is important for society to understand and scrutinize the assumptions and approaches they use when influencing decision makers and elected officials.


1.     McGann JG, Viden A, Rafferty J. How Think Tanks Shape Social Development Policies. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press; 2014.

2.     Stone D, Denham A. Think Tank Traditions: Policy Research and the Politics of Ideas. Manchester: Manchester University Press; 2004.

3.     Abelson DE. Do think tanks matter?: Assessing the impact of public policy institutes. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press; 2009.

4.     Abelson DE. Northern Lights: Exploring Canada’s Think Tank Landscape. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press; 2016.