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The onthinktanks interview: Simon Maxwell (Part 1)

Simon Maxwell, former director of the Overseas Development Institute, is now a Senior Research Associate of the ODI, he chairs the Climate Change and Development Knowledge Network and leads the European Development Cooperation Strengthening Programme. He is also currently Chair the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Humanitarian Assistance. Other engagements include being a Trustee of the Fair Trade Foundation, a Member of the Policy Advisory Council of the Institute of Public Policy Research and Specialist Adviser to the House of Commons International Development Select Committee. But most crucially for onthinktanks, Simon led a significant drive of change within ODI during his tenure as Director.

In this conversation, Simon Maxwell (SM) and I (EM) discuss the current work and future prospects of think tanks. I must say that I found this exchange quite enlightening with respect to the way ODI had been evolving while I was a researcher there. Simon’s description of the reasons behind some of ODI’s most important choices in the last decade provide an insightful account into the type of decision making demanded from a Director.

Read the second part of this interview.

Enrique Mendizabal:   When I arrived at ODI in 2004, you welcomed me with a description of ODI as a think tank. However, I got a sense that most in ODI still saw the organisation as a research centre –a few even disliked the term think tank. What is the difference between a think tank and a research centre – is there any?

Simon Maxwell:  It’s interesting that people should have been questioning the direction of ODI and the mission statement, even as late as 2004! I think today there would be less debate, except perhaps as a running joke in the annual retreat – though I no longer work at ODI, so can’t verify the kitchen gossip.

Why did I use the term ‘think tank’ (and why did the Board sign off on the new mission statement in 1998?)? When I first joined, in 1997, I spent some time thinking about and asking people about the USP, the Unique Selling Point of ODI. I had come from the Institute of Development Studies, which often described itself as the national research centre on the topic. I knew just how many university departments, research institutes and centres in the UK worked on all our themes – rural development, international trade, aid, even humanitarian policy. What did we or could do that marked us out as different? One answer was that we were one of the few Institutes in Central London, so could capitalise on a geographic advantage. DFID was round the corner, Parliament was up the road. ODI had a great reputation for the quality of its research, but also for its Briefing Papers, meetings and parliamentary work. It seemed logical to develop that side of our business, well-described by the term think tank.

However, it was not a trivial change. As well as a new Mission Statement, it meant gradually learning to write our Business Plans in a different way, organise our budget differently, develop new competencies, and bench-mark ourselves against a different set of institutions, the London think tanks concerned with domestic policy, rather than the university departments concerned with development studies. We set out to do all that without undermining the quality of research. It was not a project you can ever declare finished, probably, but by the time I left, we were producing far more outputs directed to policy-makers, were organising something like 80 public meetings a year, and were working closely with parliament and with all the political parties.

In addition, we had a pioneering programme, of which you were part, researching and training on the link between research and policy, and on the role of think tanks. I’d also like to think that all those induction meetings, like the one I had with you, contributed to a gradual change in the culture of the organisation. Do you remember, I used to give everyone four pictures on their first day, and suggest they kept them under their pillows at night? The four pictures were of the four role models of think-tank work: Scheherezade, the story-teller; Paul Revere, the networker; Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the engineer; and Rasputin, the policy fixer.

EM:   Were there risks in this approach? For example, ODI describes itself as ‘independent’. But is there such a thing as neutrality when you are actively trying to change policy? I have always had the feeling that so-called independence or neutrality masks ideological beliefs that do exist among researchers within the organisation. Can we do research and promote poverty reduction while being ideologically neutral?

SM:  Yes, there were risks, not so much that we would be seen as carrying the flag for global poverty reduction, which was unlikely to make us many enemies, but mainly that we would be seen as party political. That would have been very dangerous for us, as a determinedly independent institute, living in a political system which sees regular change of ruling party – especially since a good chunk of our funding came, and comes, via contracts from the Government. ODI always says it doesn’t do advocacy, but of course, when researchers have carried out a piece of research, they reach a conclusion and want to see it implemented! We squared that circle in a number of ways. First, by saying that the institution did not take positions, but that individuals could. Second, by differentiating products, so that Briefing Papers were relatively neutral, but Opinion pieces more outspoken. Third, by avoiding overt political controversy, even at the cost, sometimes, of blunting our public messages. And fourth, by bringing all the main political parties onto the Board of ODI, as a guarantee of propriety. I made some mistakes by being too outspoken, especially at the beginning, but learned a lesson from a German counterpart, who said to me ‘everything can be said, but not everything can be said publicly’. Good advice.

EM:  You have always emphasised the policy influencing mission of think tanks.  International development think tanks seem obsessed with measuring influence, but many think tanks funded by the private sector or philanthropists tell me that they do not bother with measuring impact; they know they are influential and are satisfied with media presence and access to key networks. Why is this?

SM:  To take the first part of this question first, I’m actually surprised by how few ODI-like independent think tanks there are in many parts of the world, including in Europe. For example, the group of think tanks we work with on European development policy contains several that do not really think of themselves as think tanks in the same way as we do, and we are constrained in our expansion by not being able to find counterparts in areas like Scandinavia. Of course, as Jim McGann is always reminding us, there are thousands of think tanks around the world, though not all on his list are independent, and some are not really think tanks.

As to measurement of impact, well, we want to know, partly so we can learn –‘improving not proving’ is the name of the game in modern evaluation. In addition, however, we do need to ‘prove’, since future funding depends on being able to demonstrate value. As you know, the results agenda has become ubiquitous in development discourse. The main challenge is not to be captured by simplistic models of change, and to capture the full complexity of social, political and institutional change. I call this Results 2.0. The RAPID programme at ODI has done some great work on measuring impact in this new paradigm, for example using stories of change. We need far more, from all think tanks.

EM:  Are there any differences between ‘international development policy’ think tanks (ODI or IDS) and ‘domestic policy’ think tanks (IPPR or ResPublica)?

SM:  An obvious difference is our target audience: international policy-makers on the one hand, domestic on the other. That makes our life, as international think tanks, far more complicated. We have to target DFID, for example, but also the UN, the World Bank, the WTO, the UNFCCC, whatever. A starting point for think tanks is to ask ‘who is making what decision, when are they making it, and what product do you need, and when, to influence the decision?’ Usually, you can’t reach the international decision-makers on your own, so you necessarily need alliances –a model I have called, from an analogy with airline alliances, ‘policy code-sharing’. That also means a different way of working, especially with new think tanks in developing countries. On the other hand, no country now lives in isolation, and the global agenda drives domestic policy – look at the global financial crisis, or climate change, or the current food crisis for examples. I think that means the days of the purely inward-looking domestic think tank are numbered. Some realise it. Some do not.

EM:  Many think tanks in developing countries have developed a model that works: they do excellent research, produce high quality outputs (international journal quality) and provide advice directly to policymakers and donors through well established relationships of trust. However, they worry that this may not be good enough in the future. That, in the future, if they are not online, not in the media, not promoting public debates, their days as an influential and respected think tank may be numbered. Taking their research to the media, however, poses great risks and threatens their relationship with policymakers. How can they, in the words of a researcher in Indonesia, remain a trusted critical friend of the government and at the same time be accountable to the public?

SM:   We’ve already talked a bit about how to preserve trust, so let me pick up the point about new media. These days, we all have websites and most of us have blogs. Some, though not me, yet, communicate through Facebook or Twitter. There are two issues here. The first is about choices. If you spend your time writing blogs, the chances are you will produce fewer journal articles. In a research institute, that might be highly detrimental to your career, and to research funding for your Department. In a think tank, it might be the best way to reach your audience. Reward systems may need to be adjusted to recognise good communication, alongside, sometimes instead of, traditional publications. This is an issue for all development studies, actually, with the last research assessment exercise in the UK much preoccupied with how to value publications in indigenous languages or via new media. The other issue is speed. In the old days, someone would write a journal article or a book, and months later a review might appear, then, after a further interval, a reply. Now, think tanks work to the same rhythm as a newsroom, and need to plan accordingly. The Heritage Foundation is said to be first rate at this. I see think tanks in London who also set out to shape the evolving news agenda.

EM:  Research funders have become extremely interested in communicating the research they fund. But most efforts seem to be about communicating the findings of the research –the fact, the evidence- rather than developing complete and convincing arguments –that make appeals to values, morals, law, etc. . . . What makes, in your view, a good argument?

SM:  There is a literature on this. For example, I very much like Drew Western’s book, The Political Brain. He argues that we need to appeal to both the rational and the emotional side of the audience –which I take to mean facts and figures, combined with good stories. But also, we need to understand policy-makers’ perspectives, and try to help: as Mrs Thatcher used to say, ‘Don’t give me problems, give me solutions’. A case in point in the UK just now is helping Ministers to make the case for development cooperation, at a time when aid is protected from swingeing public expenditure cuts. That doesn’t mean lying, of course, but it does mean addressing the question of how to explain the long-term impact of aid. ODI has been doing work which explores detailed case studies of development impact.

One other point. I talked earlier about blogs and twitter feeds and the rest, but, actually, I see that really well-written books can be enormously influential. Paul Collier is a role-model in this respect: a serious researcher, author of many quantitative journal articles, but author also of books which Ministers read.

EM:   Thanks. We will pursue this conversation in a second round, looking particularly at some management issues, like the role of the Board, and managing change.

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