The long shadow of corporatism: scope and limits of think tank activities in Austria.

VerfasserKarlhofer, Ferdinand


In the bulk of the literature on corporatism Austria, together with the Nordic countries, has been ranking at the top of the various scales (cf. the overview by Dell'Aringa and Lodovici 1992; Molina and Rhodes 2002). Some twenty years ago, Lehmbruch and Schmitter stated "strong reasons to place Austria first on the scale of neocorporatism, since it ranks high on all relevant dimensions" (1982: p. 16). In a more recent study by Siaroff (1999: p. 198), covering 24 democracies, Austria achieved the maximum of 5.000 scores (followed by Sweden and Norway with 4.625 each). Indeed, a couple of factors back and support the effectiveness of corporatist arrangements in Austria: a small number of labour and employer organisations holding a monopoly in representing their respective socio-economic groups; a high degree of organisational concentration and centralisation; a high degree of autonomy of the elites from the rank-and-file; coordination and control of sectoral collective bargaining by the national peak organisations; inter-organisational networks of interest representation allowing for stable and calculable political exchange (Karlhofer, 2006). Although some of these properties have been challenged in recent years, they still provide the basis for cooperative relations between the actors involved in socio-economic affairs.

Given the strong role the labour market parties play in Austrian industrial relations, we can assume that, with regard to socio-economic issues, they also exert some control over the provision of policy advice to political decision-makers. The question that arises is to what extent a weakening of corporatist policy-making structures (what is, albeit to a lesser extent, the case in Austria, as elsewhere) has an effect on the government's openness to the advice provided by associations, too. And, furthermore, are there newly emerging, independent think tanks which manage to bridge the gap that has opened up with the--more or less enforced--retreat of corporatist actors?

Addressing these questions this article proceeds in three stages. Section one provides an overview over the growing number of think tanks in Austria, hereby distinguishing between academic think tanks, contract researchers, advocacy think tanks, and political party think tanks. The second section deals with the nature of corporatist policy advice restricting the access of "independent" think tanks to policy-making processes in social and economic questions. In section three the broader context of the recent changes in the relevance of corporatist decision-making for the legislative process, and the scope and limits for "independent" think tank activities resulting from this, are discussed.

  1. The landscape of think tanks: expansion of independent think tanks

    In a recent comparative study on think tanks in Europe (Boucher, 2004), Austria stands, somehow surprising, in the forefront: It ranks third with regard to the number of think tanks and the total number of staff (behind Germany and Great Britain), and even second (behind Germany) with the total number of researchers (Table 1). The study quoted here focuses on think tanks with an explicit European orientation concerning research and commitment. Yet, given the author's own definition of think tanks(1), the coverage for Austria (11 think tanks)(2) is incomplete, and must be supplemented.(3)

    In the following (the list is not exhaustive as well), the Austrian landscape of think tanks is described based on the typology provided by Weaver and Stares (2001: pp. 14-16) who distinguish four types: (1) academic think tanks, (2) contract researchers, (3) advocacy think tanks, and (4) political party think tanks.(4)

    (1) Academic Think Tanks.

    Such as in Germany and Switzerland (see the respective contributions in this volume), most institutions are academic think thinks. Most prominent are the leading economic research institutes IHS (Institut fur hOhere Studien--Institute for Advanced Studies) and WIFO (Osterreichisches Institut fur Wirtschaftsforschung-- Austrian Institute of Economic Research). Although, by the way, IHS and WIFO put more than two thirds of the total number of researchers indicated in Table 3, their size is considerably smaller than that of comparable institutes in Germany, such as Ifo and DIW.

    The IHS, founded in 1963 with financial support from the Ford Foundation, is in this context only to a certain extent relevant since its original purpose is primarily that of a postgraduate school in social sciences. Over the years, however, with its staff of nearly 100 researchers und lecturers, the institute has gained some importance as a socio-economic think tank being regularly consulted by the government, and working out and presenting, together with the WIFO, the annual economic outlook for Austria.

    The WIFO, established in 1926 by Friedrich August von Hayek and Ludwig Mises, has also a staff of about 100, with the difference that the personnel deals exclusively with research, thus its capacities for think tank activities are considerably stronger. The WIFO operates the largest economic database in Austria and claims (with reason) to be the leading provider of economic research and policy advice. Today, the institute is jointly financed by the government and the social partners who altogether contribute two thirds of the revenues; one third results from independent business activities (total budget in 2005: 9 million Euro). The close relationship with the social partners is expressed in the fact that the chair of the WIFO's supervisory board is held by the president of the Federal Economic Chamber. In return, the WIFO is the only external institution holding a permanent seat in the social partners' Economic and Social Council.

    Another economic research institute, the WIIW (Wiener Institut fur Internationale Wirtschaftsvergleiche-- Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies) was founded in 1973. The WIIW has a staff of about 40 and focuses on Central, East and Southeast Europe. Its budget is based half on public funding and half on contract research.

    One of the few Austrian think tank institutes affiliated directly to a university is the Europainstitut at the Vienna University of Economics. The institute was, in 1990, launched as a Research Institute for European Affairs and, in 2004, renamed Europainstitut. According to its mission, the institute "aims to contribute in an active way to the creation of an integrated, free, democratic, and prosperous Europe". The institute has a staff of about 20 researchers and is financed through EU grants (Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence) and project funding.

    With regard to the research focus rather similar, however not university-affiliated, is the Institute for European Integration Research of the Austrian Academy of Science. The institute has a staff of 10 researchers and concentrates on topics such as European Governance, European Public Sphere, and European Citizenship, thereby claiming not just to do research but also to provide national and supranational policy advice. The institute is financed through Academy funding and projects.

    In recent years, following a Europe-wide trend of outsourcing expertise, the Austrian government established several regulation institutes with private involvement. Most notably is the Austrian Research Centers GmbH (ARC) with the government holding a share of 51 per cent and private business holding the remaining 49 per cent. Comprising 10 units, around 850 employees and a budget of 109 million euro (2004), ARC, founded 2001 (previously Forschungszentrum Seibersdorf), is the largest nonuniversity research organisation in Austria, understanding itself as a "think tank and network node in the Austrian research, technology, regional and environment policy".

    A similar case is the Austrian Council for Research and Technology Development (in short: Austrian Council) which was founded in 2000. Composed of eight members with scientific background, the body is in close contact with experts and institutions, and provides strategic guidelines for the improvement of research and innovation. In order to contribute substantially to an innovative R&D policy the Austrian Council addresses, in its own words, "all players from the world of politics, business and research" with the aim of "shaping an innovative Austria that understands how to make use of its varied potential for the future".

    The Vienna-based European Centre for Social Welfare Policy and Research is an academic think tank with a clear international orientation: Founded in 1974, the Centre is a UN-affiliated intergovernmental organisation with national liaison officials in 19 European and non-European countries with about 20 researchers alone in Vienna. One of the institution's core functions is to be "a platform initiating future-oriented public policy debates on social welfare issues within the UN-European Region". Despite its intergovernmental nature, the Centre regards itself as independent (cf. Boucher, 2004: p. 40).

    (2) Contract Researchers

    The boundaries between publicly and privately financed academic think tanks are not entirely clear. All of the institutes described below are formally independent; at the same time, many of them rely almost exclusively on direct public funding or on contract research for public institutions. The business of recently established independent think tanks is mostly based on a mix of public and private revenues.

    The OIIP (Osterreichisches Institut fur Internationale Politik--Austrian Institute for International Affairs) is a small institute with 6 researchers and 5 affiliated researchers. Founded in 1979 on the initiative of Bruno Kreisky, the OIIP is financed by Austrian governmental bodies and the European Commission; its aim is to develop "realistic approaches to international problems and conflicts". Unlike the OIIP, the Austrian Institute for European Security Policy (AIES)...

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