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The peculiar use of training activities as vehicles for policy research uptake in Serbia

[Editor's note: This blog is part of an ongoing study on communicating complex ideas. This post has been written by Goran Buldioski, Director of the Think Tank Fund, and Sonja Stojanovic, Director of the Belgrade Centre for Security Studies. Their first post can be found here: Civilian control of the state security sector (with special focus on military)]

Capacity building can be both an opportunity for building a network and a vehicle for validating research results. Can it also be designed to help a long-term influence? In this blog we share some of the preliminary findings of our exploration into how the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy (BCSP) used trainings for the latter.

Capacity building is the very first thing to come to mind when someone from a think tank mentions training activities. Many think tanks in Central and Eastern Europe as well as around the world have prospered thanks to their excellent training programmes. Cohorts of researchers, civil servants, decision makers, journalists, NGO professionals and many others have honed in their analytical skills, sharpened their understanding of the policy processes or improved their policy expertise on a given subject  thanks to various programmes organised by think tanks.

The second thing to come to mind is the building of networks of contacts. To any given think tank, the trainees become an ever-increasing network of contacts: entry points to various public and private institutions, avenues to increase their publicity, potential partners and allies, future consumers of the analysis offered by the think tanks, and a budding constituency as a whole. BCSP has turned these contacts into a powerful tool for communication. Their mailing list has increased due to their training activities leading BCSP to expand their distribution channels.

However, using training activities as a key vehicle for research uptake is surprisingly not as common as might be expected. To be fair, many think tanks expose their trainees to the analysis they have produced in the past, and use their reports and projects as case studies throughout the training to explain an idea or illustrate a point. Yet, most  of these activities are aimed at capacity building and are not consciously designed and structured as a means for research uptake.

The practice of the Belgrade Center for Security Policy (BCSP) of using training courses as a key (central) tool for communication of policy research is therefore worth noting. BCSP has consciously designed a series of training courses addressing the democratic control of the armed forces as the best vehicle to secure the uptake of their research finding by the military elite. The seminars came in different formats: from half a day awareness raising discussions at the military barracks to a year-long accredited MA course in International Security organised in partnership with the Faculty of Political Science. Some seminars were organised only for military officials and civilians employed in the Ministry of Defence, although the majority targeted a more diverse groups composed of young politicians, representatives of civil society, media, and different government agencies.

What made BCSP to take such a step (key factors)?

Context

Between 2001 and 2008 when civil and democratic control of military was a ‘hot topic’, the military elite and mid-ranking officials nurtured deep mistrust in BCSP (at that time known as Centre for Civil-Military Relations). The mistrust had a lot in common with other military professions all over the world: a) an overarching mistrust towards any military outsiders, and b) specific skepticism at how an external civilian analytical centre could analyse the armed forces better that its in-house research and strategic institutes.

A specific factor for Serbia was the suspicion of foreign espionage masked under the work of civil society, due to the recent conflict with major international actors. Moreover, due to BCSP founders’ vocal criticism of the military’s involvement in politics and the Yugoslav conflicts, some officers distrusted the capacity of BCSP to provide “objective and constructive knowledge without an activists’ agenda”.

Specific demand

Immediately after the democratic transition, the political elites made of the former opposition to Milosevic’s regime opened a window for BCSP’s engagement as they were more receptive to non-military advice on the modern military arrangement within a democracy –a type of society that Serbia was trying to become. While military officials were skeptical of the changes, there was a still tendency among the some high-ranking and the majority of the mid-level military officers to learn about different realities elsewhere in the world and understand the implications of any incoming reform. Hence a minority was genuinely interested in the reforms, while the rest engaged in order to improve their public image and demonstrate to the political elite they were not opposing the upcoming reforms. Later in the process, the military’s human resources policy was changed so to encourage career officers to seek additional education as a requirement for promotion (this is when BCSP initiated a formal academic programme in partnership with the Faculty of Political Science at the Belgrade University).

This target group, having been groomed by the most rigorous education system in the former Yugoslavia, was more prone to ‘being educated’ than simply told what to do by external independent analyses aimed at influencing their decisions. Given that in Serbia spoken word takes precedence over written communication as well as that equal importance is given to the messenger as to the message these people would rather attend a training course than read a book/analytical report.  The centre’s founders were relatively well-known to the military officials, albeit not necessarily liked or trusted at the very beginning. Finally, while actively engaged in training delivery and convening a lot of meetings with various stakeholders, the centre never strayed from its key function, i.e. To generate new knowledge and provide timely analysis on actual events in this sector in Serbia. All these factors secured the attendance of the officials at the scheduled courses.

What did BCSP do exactly?

BCSP designed these training courses with two goals in mind: a) train/share knowledge on the substance matter and b) systematically present their in-depth research findings interwoven into the training sessions. Once these two goals were agreed to, the key challenge was the design of the courses. The centre opted for an interactive design with a lot of original simulation exercises and role-playing session in addition to dryer lectures.

The background documents for the simulation exercises and the role play sessions all contained references BCSP analysis. The background documents for the simulation exercises and the role plays all contained references to BCSP’s analysis. Observers to the field may object: ‘Nothing new – many organisations use their own research to support their training activities’. BCSP differed in two ways. Frist, they complemented the existing (and already published) work with new unpublished data or analysis. Second, the training design allowed for space for testing the key messages and pitching the data to the relevant policy makers – all in the safe setting of a training course and not at a public event.   Sometimes even by the Chatham House Rule could face the same problem: policy makers are not willing to discuss matters in front of their political opponents, or the discussion becomes a showdown of conflicting arguments (this is very pertinent to Serbia where the open discussion and constructive criticism in public debate are yet to take root)

The flexible design also accommodated discussions among the participants if debate over some substantive point overpowered the educational element. Third, the training courses were also used to further develop the research by getting first hand access to data otherwise very difficult to obtain e.g. data on values of the military. Having this at hand, BCSP could validate its research findings from different sources and then formulate realistic recommendations.

In sum, the training course became a vehicle to accommodate the presentation of research findings and mini seminars   in a manner that was conducive to promoting a debate over some of the key issues.

Lessons learned and their application -or what can we learn from this practice?

  1. Different mindset/expectations. Decision makers and other policy stakeholders go with a different mind-set to training course as opposed to attending a presentation of a research study or a seminar to discuss a policy issue. By design, the training course centers on the individual participants’ priorities and needs. Naturally, such an approach lowers ‘their defensive guard’. In the case of military, this does not happen at once. At the seminars with security professionals, participants were initially reluctant to speak as they were afraid of being reported by their peers. Another inhibition stems from being perceived as being critical in front of a higher raking officer. Therefore, BCSP’s facilitators guided senior officers to open and speak up or confront other government institutions (e.g. independent oversight bodies) as a way of gaining their trust and that of others. It is also important to demonstrate valuable knowledge and ‘show your good intentions for your country’. Also, in a learning environment, there is no emphasis on making decisions –choosing one policy alternative at the expense of another. These are all considered (by the learners) as secondary interests throughout the training and so the pressure is quite low. Add the good educational design to this and BCSP were able to establish an open learning environment.
  2. Trainings are susceptive to the presentation of policy analysis in covert or overt ways.  With the target group being ‘softened’ by the learning environment, the training design should seamlessly interweave the educational components with the data/analysis to be presented within the training sessions. To be clear, the training event is not used as a cover for a policy analysis presentation. That would be a manipulation. Instead, it is a skilful usage of ‘fresh’ analysis as part of the learning process and consciously designing space for positive externalities to emerge. This is easier said than done –designing interactive sessions is hard in its own right. Adding the think tank’s analysis as part of the background documentation, case studies, role plays and simulation exercise and being able to separate it from the daily reality (simulation to be very much pertaining to the reality, but not exactly analysing it outright) is an art in itself. BCSP has managed to design a successful approach within its policy context. It has also put an emphasis on non-formal and interactive learning methods –an approach that does not come naturally to think tanks given that most are more prone to academic-style teaching. While the very design of these courses may not be transferable to other topics and/or realities, the awareness about this possibility and using interactive non-formal learning methods as key vehicle for communication of research findings are.
  3. Not a panacea. This works and should be tried only when the more conventional methods such as one-to-one or group presentations, seminars and workshops do not manage to secure the research uptake.   Should the policy makers be cooperative and responsive to the conventional tools, the training course would be nice layer, but may not have the vital role as in the case of BCSP. Yet, one should consider trainings as a tool for research uptake when changing the organisational culture is part of the policy objectives.  In other words, you can ‘sell’ a message to a relevant stakeholder during one-on-one meeting, but you are unlikely to influence the values and organisational culture without broader interaction.  The freedom to debate and disagree provides an important opportunity to change people’s mindsets. BCSP has designed and carried out many of their training activities with these mid- and long-term policy goals in mind: changing the system as well as the way people discuss military issues.
For a longer debate on capacity building and the use of workshop: Developing research communication capacity: lessons from recent experiences
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