Independent Think Tanks Doktors Minus the Spin

In Berlin, a new breed of think tanks - those run by non-partisan groups - are competing for funding and credibility in a country where partisan politics is a professional sport. It's been an uphill battle.
The Beisheim Center at Potsdamer Platz in Berlin houses the Stiftung neue Verantwortung, the New Responsibility Foundation, one of a growing number on independent think tanks setting up in the German capital.

The Beisheim Center on Potsdamer Platz in the heart of the German capital is a grand edifice. Its entrance hall is all marble. Steel plates beside the elevators direct visitors to advertising agencies and recruitment offices.

On the fifth floor, it's a little less fancy. There, the tables are from Ikea and the well-worn sofas are reminiscent of a typical Berlin start-up.

In Germany, where policy consulting is considered the domain of foundations affiliated with political parties, interest groups or scientific organizations, the SNV, a think tank, doesn’t fit the pattern.

It sees itself as non-partisan, according to its homepage, working to “deliver constructive solutions with trans-sectoral support that strengthen the common good.” There are droves of similar think tanks in the United States, but in Germany the non-partisan approach is new and different.

Sebastian Rieger, SNV’s press officer, said he has to keep explaining the role of his foundation to Germans. “Independent think tanks are barely known here because the fight for the best political idea is not part of our political culture as it is in the U.S.,” he said.

The foundation pursues a noble objective: It seeks answers to political questions that serve the common good, bringing together young experts from politics, economics and academia to achieve it.

Fellows and associates invest a great deal of time in their work for very little compensation.

The foundation employs few full-time staffers, relying on “fellows.” These generally are people just starting their professional careers who undertake short-term research projects.

Currently, SNV is focusing on three areas: the future of governance, digital agendas and energy and resources.

The group recently put together suggestions for better controlling the German foreign intelligence service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst or BND, in the wake of the U.S. National Security Administration scandals. One would require BND agents abroad to remain subject to German laws.

Mark Fliegauf is one of the fellows. He studied in Tokyo and at Harvard and is completing his doctorate at Cambridge.

In Berlin, he's researching the Social Impact Bond or, as it’s called in America, Pay for Success Bond, to see if it will work in Germany. Under the scheme, cash-strapped municipalities would allow private foundations to pre-finance social projects such as reintegrating young offenders into society by enabling them to work at charitable institutions.

An independent researcher checks to determine whether the recidivism rate has been reduced as predicted.

Only when that goal is achieved do investors get back their capital and whatever returns it has generated. Mr. Fliegauf sees two advantages to the concept: The state isn’t required to give preference to the cheapest alternative while the private investor enjoys a success incentive without putting the state at risk.

Mr. Fliegauf didn’t develop the concept on his own.

He discussed it for a year with a group of “associates,” who work in management consultancies, associations and ministries.

They met every couple of months and stayed in contact through email and telephone to craft a policy brief with specific recommendations for action directed at policymakers. The labor ministry also participated in the discussions, but so far, Mr. Fliegauf’s idea has yet to be implemented in Germany.

Fellows and associates invest a great deal of time in their work for very little compensation. Yet Mr. Rieger said there’s a different payoff; young professionals beginning their careers are able to add important experiences to their résumés and connect with politicians in Berlin without joining a political party. It increases their opportunities to find attractive jobs.

Our idea is that a state secretary meets with small groups of students or junior professors to discuss things, and this takes place on an equal footing. Dominic Schwickert, director, progressive zentrum

Dominic Schwickert, executive director at Das Progressive Zentrum, or PZ, another Berlin-based think tank, called these fellows and associates “rising stars."

In contrast to the SNV, which strives to be non-partisan, the PZ sees itself as a center-left think tank. Among the group’s “circle of friends” are Thomas Oppermann, the parliamentary leader of Germany's Social Democratic Party and Cem Özdemir , chairman of the Green Party.

The PZ models itself on the Policy Network, a London think tank led by Peter Mandelson, a former European Union commissioner and close confidant of former Prime Minister Tony Blair.

“Our idea is that a state secretary meets with small groups of students or junior professors to discuss things, and this takes place on an equal footing,” Mr. Schwickert said.

His think tank also deals with subjects such as the digital transformation of the working world and the future of democracy in times of dwindling party membership.

Despite its close association with the social democrats and greens, the PZ can't count on solid financial support from political parties or parliamentary groups. It must find financial backers for each project, but this requires the group to think like a business, Mr. Schwickert explained.

That means the PZ has to be flexible, which has led to collaboration across the political spectrum, such as a one-year project on reforming party democracy, carried out together with one foundation affiliated with the center-right Christian Democrat party, and another foundation linked to the trade unions.

The PZ hopes to present the results this summer.“One of our proposals is the introduction of party memberships based around issues," said Hanno Burmester, PZ fellow and project director. "That could attract voters who are especially concerned about one particular policy, and it would accommodate people who move around a lot and are not able or don’t wish to be tied to one local organization.”

The SNV has about 20 sponsors ranging from the Mercator Stiftung to the executive search firm Egon Zehnder. Single contributions are limited to a maximum of 5 percent of the €1 million, or $1.1 million budget. The reason why SNV resides rent-free in a fashionable high-rise is that Otto Beisheim Holding is one of the sponsors. The think tank was founded in 2008 through an initiative involving the Federation of German industries, BDI, and German Olympic Sports Confederation among others.

Others on the SNV executive committee include Peter Tauber, secretary general of the Christian Democratic Union, and Michael Vassiliadis, chairman of the German Mining and Chemicals and Energy Trade Union, IG BCE, in another nod to non-partisanship.

Many question the impact that the ideas created by the Berlin think tanks have on political practice. Mr. Schwickert believes there is an advantage to the Progressive Zentrum not being independent at all costs, particularly when it comes to implementing policy. The close association with the Social Democrats and the Greens shortens the path to the Bundestag and the ministries.

It is true federal ministers occasionally seek the insights of the young visionaries. Above all, the think tanks function as a network for the potential leaders of tomorrow. At the close of the workday, ministry workers and members of the Bundestag can often be found in the PZ office.

According to Mr. Schwickert, they often are more important than their more famous politician bosses because they are “shapers of decisions.”


This article originally appeared in Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: [email protected]