The onthinktanks interview: Orazio Bellettini
Orazio Bellettini is the Executive Director of Grupo FARO, an Ecuadorian think tank, which he co-founded. He is a graduate of the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard Mason Fellow (2004), Ashoka Fellow, and, since 2008, a member of AVINA’s sustainable development leaders network for Latin America.
Orazio is the author of several studies on the relationship between research and policy and a great think tank thinker. We collaborated on a book on think tanks and political parties in Latin America, for which he co-authored the chapter on Ecuador; he recently published a paper on the role of evidence in policymaking in Ecuador; and has written on think tanks functions.
Grupo FARO is a grantee of the Think Tank Initiative.
In this interview, Orazio describes the challenges he faced in setting up Grupo FARO and his vision for the centre. He discusses how to mobilise domestic funds, finding the right balance between public engagement and direct influence, and offers a few recommendations that should be taken into account: namely, that to develop, think tanks need competent leaders and they, in turn, need support.
Enrique Mendizabal: What motivated you to set-up Grupo FARO?
Orazio Bellettini: After working several years in the private sector, I decided to start a new phase of my professional life by working in a development NGO. There I learned to appreciate the contribution that civil society organisations (CSOs) make by generating ideas and creating opportunities for the most vulnerable groups of society. This experience also helped me recognise that the work of CSOs usually focuses on specific groups rather than on changing the system that allows the appearance of problems such as social exclusion and environmental degradation.
I decided then to promote the creation of an organisation that would focus on delivering innovative solutions for social problems. My idea was to create an organisation that promotes citizen participation and encourages public-private collaboration to change the rules of the game; an organisation that, as described by Ashoka (a network of social entrepreneurs I belong to), does not just teach a (wo)man to fish but reinvents the fishing industry. I became convinced that one of the best way to achieve this goal was by influencing public policy.
EM: Many think tank directors successful in Latin America are graduates of the Kennedy School of Government. Do you think education, and a particular type of education, can be a driver?
OB: When I made the decision to establish a think tank, I realised I needed to learn about public policy (at that time I had completed an undergraduate degree in agriculture engineering and a postgraduate degree in political science and business administration). I applied to several public policy programs that allowed me to combine the empirical approach I gained during my studies of agricultural systems with the analytical skills I developed when I studied political systems.
On the application forms to these programs, I wrote that I would use the knowledge obtained in the classroom for the creation of a think tank in Ecuador. So, from the first day of classes I shared this idea to everyone who showed interest. Soon, I met professors like Andrés Velasco and graduates line Fernando Straface who generously shared their experiences setting Expansiva in Chile and CIPPEC in Argentina.
Knowing about these experiences was key to the beginning of Grupo FARO. Not only because it helped me understand how a think tank works in Latin America, but above all because I gained confidence on my capacity to make this idea a reality.
However, even though the lessons learned at KSG were key to start Grupo FARO, there was not a course specialised on developing the skills and knowledge required to run a think tank. There are programs like the one organized by NDRI (a one-week program call “Think Tank Managers” I had the opportunity to participate a few years ago), but I am convinced that the ecosystem of policy centers would be benefit from new courses offered by universities around the world. The challenge is sill there…
EM: What were the main challenges faced in your efforts you to set-up and to get Grupo FARO off the ground?
OB: I have always believed that the three pillars for the success of any enterprise are: ideas, people, and financial resources. In the beginning, Grupo FARO was just an idea. I was convinced it was a good one but just an idea after all. Therefore I needed to find people and resources. Elizabeth Coombs, a classmate at KSG, decided to join the team and become the second full-time member of Grupo FARO.
In late 2004 and early 2005, Ecuador was experiencing a period of intense change with a widespread distrust in politicians and politics (between 1996 and 2006 Ecuador had 7 presidents; several of them ousted by citizen mobilizations). For this reason, I did not invite people with experience in public administration to become co-funders but rather a group of young people committed to the transformation of Ecuador and Latin America. María Paula Romo, Carolina Vizcaino and Kar Atamaint belong to this group. The challenge of this decision was that, at that time in their professional careers, they had little social or institutional capital to bring to Grupo FARO.
Thus, we formed an advisory board composed of Ecuadorian and foreign academics who, by accepting our invitation, generously agreed to bring to our very young organisation the credibility and expertise associated with their names; some of the members that joined us back in 2004 were Augusto de la Torre, Fernando Reimers, Robert Klitgaard, Rafael Correa, and Merilee Grindle. The impacts of this decision did not take long to be felt: when the people we visited at international agencies and public institutions to present Grupo FARO recognised somebody in the advisory board, the interest in what we had to say increased significantly.
EM: Who help you the most? What do you think motivated them to ‘bet’ on your proposition?
OB: The founding members performed an act of faith by signing the by-laws of Grupo FARO. So did members of the Advisory Council, many faculty members from prestigious universities who did not hesitate to join and support the idea with enthusiasm. Without the trust of these people it would not have been possible to establish this independent, non-partisan, and secular think tank in Ecuador.
EM: Many think tanks are stepping-stones for their researchers it is my impression that Grupo FARO is a place where its researchers and the staff in general get along really well. They all seem to be friends. How important is this relationship for its success?
OB: Grupo FARO was born as a small organisation in which its members addressed its challenges over lunch. Since the beginning we established a culture of collaboration and open communication that allowed the generation of a community of diverse people who share values, principles, and a passion for what they do.
The organisation has grown over the years and our challenge now is to combine the need to formalise certain procedures with the strong identity and culture of community we have had since the start. We have directed our efforts to define what it means to be a “farista” (the name we give to somebody that works at Grupo FARO) and created both formal spaces such as open houses or training workshops as well as informal spaces such as the celebration of the birthdays of our colleagues to promote a culture of communication, creativity, and collaboration where people do not seek to generate the idea of his next research project in secret, but that innovation exchange occurs in a climate of tolerance to different opinions.
Nowadays, we are designing and implementing a comprehensive strategy to manage our human talent to increase our capacity to attract, retain, and motivate intelligent and committed people to maintain excellence without losing the spontaneity that has characterised this organization.
EM: Who are the members of your board and why did you choose them?
OB: The board members of Grupo FARO are people of diverse professional, ideological, political, religious and cultural backgrounds; each of them has a proven record of contributions to the development of Ecuador and Latin America.
In the early years of the organisation they were invited by me as the Executive Director of Grupo FARO. However, the process has been formalised and there is now a nominating committee in charge of identifying people with potential to integrate this collegiate body.
EM: What roles do they play?
OB: The Board of Directors monitors the compliance with the mission, vision, values, bylaws, and policies of the organisation. Additionally, its members ensure the technical and financial sustainability of the think tanks for which they review and approve the strategic plan, the operating plan, and our annual budget. Finally, they appoint and evaluate the Executive Director. We would like them to start having a more active role in fundraising strategies, especially managing our relations with the private sector as well as international donors.
EM: Who are the members of your senior management team?
OB: Group FARO has four programmatic areas and three transversal in charge of ensuring that our initiative apply our modes of intervention (research, capacity building and policy influence). Additionally, we have a Financial Administrative Director, a Deputy Director, and an Executive Director. This group of 10 directors make up the Executive Council who is in charge of implementing the Strategic Plan and Annual operating plan approved by our Board.
In this way, we try to establish internal “checks and balances” that allow us to remain faithful to the principles of the organisation, transparently and efficiently managing the resources entrusted to us by our donors and allies.
EM: Does this team include someone in charge of research communications or more directly policy influence?
OB: Yes, we have a Director of Communication and Policy Influence. So far, this area had placed emphasis on the “Communication” dimension for which we have worked with journalists to promote the use of the results of our research in the news and reports published by the media.
But given that in Ecuador there is a growing polarisation between public and private media, we have decided to put the emphasis on “policy influence” dimension. This means reducing our work with the media and increasing the use of “person to person” strategies that enables the evidence and ideas we generate through our research to reach policymakers, the private sector and s civil society organisations’ leaders directly. This is an enormous challenge for Grupo FARO because it demands expanding our capacities to develop more precise messages directed not only to wider audiences but to the organisations and people involved in making decisions regarding the public policy on which we want to influence.
EM: What keeps you up at night?
OB: One of the biggest challenges we have is how to grow without becoming a bureaucratic and rigid organisation that loses the humility, flexibility, and innovation we have had from the beginning.
Additionally, we understand that we cannot promote change in society on our own. In the last few years we started promoting an ecosystem of public, private, and civil society organisations that value the use of knowledge in public policy. Therefore, we are actively working on developing the capacities of other organisations to generate and use knowledge to improve the design, implementation and monitoring of public policies.
In addition, since our staff out-grew our office space, we decided to build a space that reflects our values of transparency and collaboration and that is an example of sustainable construction for its use of recycled materials, renewable energy, green walls, etc. We hope that the “House of Citizenship and Public Policy” (which is how we call this project) will soon become a reality and encourage plural and informed dialogue between different actors in society to promote more effective, transparent, and citizen-oriented public policies.
We also hope that the new Grupo FARO headquarters will house a Research Center on Urban Sustainability, where researchers and students will be able to access case studies and references on the use of “green” technology in urbanism and sustainable buildings. This will serve to enrich public debate, encourage new practices, and develop leaders in this field.
This, of course, depends on having the financial resources to complete this project. Which brings me to the financial challenge. Now that Ecuador is considered a middle-income country, resources coming from the international cooperation will decline in the coming years. So our challenge is to inspire individuals and private companies in Ecuador to contribute with Grupo FARO. We will achieve this goal to the extent that we have the ability to convince them that our organisation is important for Ecuador’s and Latina America’s development and that, by supporting us, they can be part of the change.
Finally, we face the challenge of managing our human talent. Since we cannot compete with the State on wages, we are designing non-monetary incentives that attract and retain bright young people from different professions to Grupo FARO as a unique space to generate and implement ideas that can make a difference in society.
EM: As you say, this is all linked to funding. How hard is it to find domestic funding for Grupo FARO? Why are there not enough philanthropists in Latin America willing to invest in think tanks as there are, for instance, in the U.S. and in Europe?
OB: Almost 99% of Grupo FARO’s financial resources come from the international cooperation. Although this has helped us to strengthen our image as an independent and rigorous think tanks, capable of meeting the highest quality standards, we are convinced that we need to increase the proportion of our budget coming from small donations. We need this not only to diversify our sources but, overall, to increase our legitimacy due to the fact that our proposals are supported by individuals and organizations that believe in our organisation , principles and impacts.
I am optimistic that in Ecuador and Latin American there are entrepreneurs that value the importance of independent think tanks to improve the quality of public policies that directly and indirectly affect the functioning of markets and the State and therefore the possibilities of our countries to develop. Confident in the validity of this hypothesis, one of the goals we have set out to achieve in 2012 is to increase the proportion of resources that come from individuals (including the Ecuadorian diaspora living in the U.S. and Europe) and private companies so as to achieve not only greater financial sustainability but also legitimacy of our actions.
EM: How do you measure Grupo FARO’s value for Ecuador? Is it just about influencing policy?
OB: Influencing public policy is only a means to promote a more democratic, sustainable, equitable, and prosperous society. Grupo FARO aims to contribute to promoting, in Ecuador and Latin America, societies that looks to the future and that are collaborative and action-oriented.
Envisioning the future: Grupo FARO is convinced that think tanks have a key role not only supporting public reforms that govern the present, but proposing those required to drive our countries towards the future. This is particularly important in countries like Ecuador, where the urgency of changes sometimes makes it difficult to step out of the fog of everyday life to think about who we are and who we could become.
Hence we need public policy centres with the ability to see beyond current events and generate knowledge that can create and develop new institutions and propose policies for an increasingly interdependent and knowledge-based world. To do this, we must learn to complement deductive and inductive logic to conduct research with the use of a different kind of method based on what Charles Peirce called adbuctive logic that enable us to make “logical leaps of the mind” and generate new models.
This is what motivated us to take the initiative “Ecuador will be (Ecuador Será)” aimed at carrying out research aimed to examine prospectively how to reconcile the aspirations of establishing a knowledge society with the challenges associated with natural resources such as global warming, biodiversity loss. We focused the first edition of “Ecuador will be” on the challenges we face to become a knowledge society. We concluded that several megadiverse countries in the south could lead the next wave of innovation generating knowledge around natural resources: renewable energies, green nanotechnology, industrial ecology are just a few examples
Collaboration: From our perspective, Ecuador is characterised by high political, social, economic, and geographic fragmentation. Consequently, changes have occurred in Ecuador by the imposition of a particular economic, political, ideological, regional or ethnic group on the rest of society.
We are convinced that lasting change occurs only when different groups of society agree on the definition of a problem and, above all, take shared responsibility for solving it. Grupo FARO seeks to diminish fragmentation and improve public decisions by combining a top-down and a bottom-up approach to reach policy-makers and grassroots organizations as well as individual citizens.
Action-oriented: From the beginning, Grupo FARO calls itself a “think-and-do” tank because we are convinced that in response to fragmentation there has been inability to act for the collective good. Therefore, we are working towards a culture of action and responsibility that enable us to channel entrepreneurial ideas into actions that improve the lives of people.
In short, we believe that organisations like Grupo FARO exist not only to inform public policy, but above all, to support our societies to envision a different future and develop their capacity for dialogue and action that are necessary to prepare today for the challenges we will face in the years ahead. In order to achieve this challenge, Grupo FARO needs to learn to generate narratives not just evidence. Narratives, arguments, big ideas are what inspire individuals and societies to promote long-term changes.
EM: Let me go back a bit to where you say that you are moving away from a more public engagement via the media to a more focused approach to influence individuals. It strikes me as a bit odd for Grupo FARO, that is so clearly interested in building consensus, opening the debate, bringing different voices together, etc. that it may choose a more private pathway for change. How to maintain the balance between public accountability (being transparent to the Ecuatorian public) and achieving change (if, as you say, this requires to do some things in private)?
OB: Grupo FARO believes that public policy could be influenced from top-down (i.e. decision makers) as well as from bottom-up (i.e. citizen mobilisation). We have learned that the media is not the only way to promote citizen engagement and, consequently, we are actively seeking other methods. Grupo FARO has developed its research agenda in dialogue with several actors from the public and private sector to ensure that our research questions are relevant for decision makers as well as civic leaders. In addition, our knowledge products (e.g. policy papers, books, etc) are publicly available and shared with a broad audience through our web page, social networks, among other channels.
Keeping this commitment to transparency and plurality, our challenge now is to establish a communication strategy that enables us to develop messages that, based on the evidence generated in our knowledge products, are tailored to those who participate in the formulation of a policy we would like to influence. By doing this, we will continue promoting citizen engagement using the media and social networks and, at the same time, increase our capacity to target and inform those with power to improve the quality of public deliberation and public policies.
EM: Grupo FARO has received long-term funding from the Think Tank Initiative. How do you plan to use These funds?
OB: These funds have enabled us to improve our governance by strengthening the functioning of Grupo FARO’s Board, to improve our ability to conduct policy applied research, improve our administrative and financial systems, as well as implement strategies to enhance our capacity to communicate and influence policy.
In 2012 the funds received from TTI will be used primarily to: Organise the second edition of “Ecuador will be”, a prospective research project that allows us to bring together representatives from various sectors of Ecuador to exchange ideas for what we could do to achieve development in a generation; launch and begin the implementation of our Research Associates Program; design an advocacy strategy aimed at more specific public decision makers; and design and implement a resource mobilisation strategy.
EM: What kind of support or services does Grupo FARO (and other organisations like it) need to meet its objectives?
OB: We need several things. From knowledge management systems to methodologies for evaluating the impacts of our research. If I can pick one aspect that Grupo FARO shall focus it will be the need to improve leadership skills of think tank managers.
Grupo FARO has identified the need to strengthen the quality of its leadership, both among the members of the Board of Directors as well as the Directors in charge of managing different areas within the organisation. Members of the Board of Directors of Grupo FARO are aware of the importance of their role in the governance and sustainability of the think tank and have expressed their willingness to participate in programs to improve their capacity as board members of a think tank as well as exchange experiences with their peers at other think tanks to improve their capabilities to better fulfill their roles. [Editor’s note: it may be worth remembering what Simon Maxwell had to say about the roles of the Board at ODI).
As part of the challenges of leadership we, myself as the Executive Director and the Directors of Areas, need to improve our ability to lead teams of researchers to become policy entrepreneurs.
Therefore, we believe it is critical to develop specialised programs for think tank leadership since, as we know, these are organisations with particular characteristics (not an NGO or a university, nor a government institution; although they has similarities to all of them). Improving the quality of leaders and managers at think tanks is key to improving the independence, relevance and impact of organizations that are key for the present and the future of our societies.
(You can follow Orazio on Twitter)