[Editor’s note: This post is part of a series of interviews with Directors of Latin American think tanks addressing different aspects of think tanks’ management and leadership. You can access the series at the On Think Tanks interviews Topic page. This is the first part of a two-part interview Nicolás Ducoté (CIPPEC’s co-founder and former Executive Director and General Director). You can read the first part here.]
A think tank is a pulley for transmission: it takes the raw material from the world of knowledge and intentionally displace to the policy world.
Leandro Echt: What do you think is the right balance between academic or research knowledge and the management capacity that a think tank director has to have? What are the career niches that are most appropriate for an individual that aspires to be at the head of a think tank?
Nicolás Ducoté: First, a formation in public policy, public administration, social policy, in general terms, are more useful when trying to comprehend complex processes that have impact on the state. Second, I think an adequate education, which isn’t intellectual but based on experience, in volunteering: I was a volunteer from the age of 16 in every organisation possible, because it teaches you to mobilise people and manage organisations without resources, to get people to work out of commitment and motivation.
It’s important that they show service, be it in politics or civil society. Thirdly, and this is something that we lacked in our youth at CIPPEC, is experience with the state (out of the four founders, the only one with very brief experience in the state was I). If I had to start a think tank today, I would try to approach people with experience in the state, because it helps to understand the client and the space you’re trying to make an impact on.
LE: What was your experience of being co – Director of CIPPEC alongside Miguel Braun like? Why was the Directorate designed that way?
ND: When we started CIPPEC, the founders made de decision of establishing institutional mechanisms that would limit the personalisation of the institute as much as possible: from press releases mentioning CIPPEC and not individuals, to positions. CIPPEC’s presidency was rotated among the founders every year, until we decided that after the first two years, two out of the four founders would leave the Board so that there would be three external members, so by the second year we had five members and the majority of them were independent. Afterwards, the other two founders left and by the third years we had a Board that was 100% made up of external individuals. That left the administrative positions to the founding members. When assigning positions and tasks, the decisive factor was that the other three founders had stronger areas of expertise and I had a more general managerial profile having studied public policy, and had more of a vocation for management and administration. That’s why I took charge of the Executive Directorate, under the condition of staying for four years and then rotating the position.
However, among the founding members, one of them went to live abroad (Sonia Cavallo) and another went into politics (Antonio Cicioni), which is why Miguel Braun and I were left, with the intent that when I left the position, Miguel would lead the organisation. The possibility of me leaving came in 2008, with the idea that the organisation would acquire capacities and diverse approaches than what I had, with seven or eight years in charge, and at the same time having the rest of the donors and key actors for CIPPEC feel that the organisation was left in the hands of someone they could trust. Miguel was the best option. So, in 2008 I left the Executive Directorate to assume the position of Director General and Miguel took over the Executive Directorate, in charge of the day-to-day decisions.
I maintained only three scopes of influence, that didn’t have anything to do with working with the rest of the organisation, so that I wouldn’t have double authority: putting together an endowment, that consolidated with the acquisition of a building, which went beyond the usual search for financing; the idea of putting together a policy and process manual to institutionalise many of the ways that CIPPEC did things; and a process of Board renovation, which would be set in place once we left the organisation, towards our tenth anniversary.
We had set the goal that after ten years we would be able to leave CIPPEC in the hands of people who did things as well or as better than us. In the two years between 2008 and 2010 I began to recede from my commitment and dedication, acquiring a role that included participation but with less of a say in the Executive Committee meetings. Finally, in 2010, I was only available if they needed me. In 2010 both Miguel and I were ready to leave.
LE: How was the Executive Directorate (from Miguel Braun to Fernando Straface) transition designed and implemented?
ND: We had foreseen that I would leave first and that we would do something similar to before: choose an Executive Director and Miguel would stay in the general directorate to help out, and that we would both leave by the end of 2010. Taking into account political circumstances, Miguel received an offer to direct the Pensar Foundation, which is why we decided to leave at the same time since the candidate selection process was going well, with an open competition, and finally Fernando Straface was chosen. This facilitated our exit, since it was somebody who knew the institution well (Fernando Straface was the Director of the Politics and Government Administration Program at CIPPEC).
Between April and May of 2010 we left leaving the organisation in Fernando’s hands, and we helped out during four or five months with weekly or monthly meetings, trying to be available for whatever was needed. Luckily, it took less than what we had foreseen, so it was easier to let go of CIPPEC’s day-to-day activities. At the same time, the continuity of the Board was very well-managed. During the transition the Board put a lot of energy in not largely changing its leadership.
We left then feeling very satisfied, since most of the people that we wanted to stay, stayed in CIPPEC. And also trying to make sure that our exit towards different but complimentary political spaces wouldn’t hurt CIPPEC. We assumed the commitment that we wouldn’t take anybody with us in the first year and we kept that promise. Everything began to fall into place once Fernando became more comfortable with the role of Executive Director, and we felt that we could let go more of our role as founders with advice to give.
LE: What advice did you give to the new Director?
ND: For us, the biggest risk had to do with the staff, that the oldest staff members would leave, specially the directors, which is why Fernando had to put time and energy into being a “leader among equals” and try to head an organisation in which the directors didn’t feel that the spirit and capacity for them to be protagonists was lost. Fernando took the position knowing the flaws and virtues of each of the programme directors. We felt that it was an intelligent transition because most of the people that we wanted to stay did so. There were three people that we specially felt was fundamental for them to stay, since they were the pillars of the institutional infrastructure: the Fund Development Director (Ines Castro Almeyra), the Communications Director (Laura Zommer) and the Administrative Director (Cecilia Cabrera), and that each of them would coordinate their own transition (some of them had more than ten years in the institution). As for the programmes directors, there were few replacements, supported by us, since they were people who had already fulfilled a cycle. That way, Fernando could incorporate new profiles that would work with him in his new stage at CIPPEC.
LE: What personal and professional characteristics does a think tank director need to have?
ND: Firstly, I consider that they must have more of a general knowledge than just specialists in one issue. What I mean by that is that they shouldn’t be strongly associated to one discipline, since that could bias the work of the institution towards his or her area of interest. They could have areas of interests (in my case, it was political reform, public administration) they must be impartial and not take advantage of the use of the institution’s time and resources. The think tanks that I know work at least on two or three areas of public policy. It’s easier to achieve impartiality if the Executive Director isn’t completely involved in one area of expertise.
In second place, they should have a sufficient academic formation, but not have too much of a bias towards academic production; they must be able to understand and value academic considerations, but not have an academic vocation. Continuing with what I mentioned earlier, the director has to have more of a vocation for doing than for reflecting or explaining an issue. I tend to look for “doers”: people who can mobilise resources, people, who propose objectives and achieve them, and that they’re not academic production objectives but the transformation of organisations. Ideally, they must have some academic recognition such as a master’s degree or PhD, which gives them authority to discuss with an area director (in my case, even though I didn’t have a PhD, people assumed that having studied at Harvard gave me sufficient intellectual credit to discuss issues with the area directors). However, an individual that was an excellent manager but that didn’t have enough academic standing would not have been as respected.
Thirdly, they should worry about the organisation’s structure (especially communication, fundraising, and management) and they should show it with the time and resources they assign to those areas. At CIPPEC, I took the desire to prioritise the institutional aspects over the programmatic aspects to the extreme, even getting into strong arguments with the other founding members. For example, the Executive Committee was balanced as to the representation of the institutional administration and of the programs. In general, in a think tank there is more interest in investing in research programs than in the institutional areas. I made a very strong decision to invest nearly 20% to 30% of our resources in communication, in an adequate building, in having a good capacity for project management, in an impeccable administrative process, in knowing how to mobilise funding, etc. And for every cent that you spend on that, you feel tempted to spend it on impact.
Therefore I’m guilty that CIPPEC perhaps misspent a good amount of resources on institutional strengthening, but I’m convinced was what distinguished us from all the other NGO’s: we learned how to communicate well, how to develop funds and manage projects, and that’s why we grew in a sustainable manner.
Finally, you have to be good in public relations. People who work in this area (in corporations or in the government) are more willing to communicate about their institutions or their bosses but not about themselves. The role of Executive Director has to be about facilitating, and people who are willing to communicate, to approach people, to establish dialogue, are much better suited for this task (careful that the programme directors don’t feel that they’re losing prominence). Directors must be the first to help, the one who “opens the game”, and not the ones who takes all the credit. The Executive Director must be willing to serve and not take advantage of his or her position.
LE: After so many years heading a think tank, do you have a definition for them?
ND: It is a legal person that takes knowledge from researchers, be it because they’re within the centre or in academia, and shifts that knowledge towards the political arena. It’s a pulley for transmission that works in many cases as a translator, turning this prime material that it takes from the world of knowledge to the world of public policy, and tries to insert it into the decision maker’s agenda, and turns it into proposals that can be implemented. It organises knowledge and capacities so that political decisions within the state can be made in a different way than they would be made without the think tank’s involvement.
LE: Why did you leave CIPPEC?
ND: I had set myself the objective of co founding a civil society organisation that achieved less than it did (and that’s why I left with great satisfaction), but since the day it was founded I was convinced that there was a deadline by which we had to leave, so that the institution wouldn’t become personalised; we had decided to expel ourselves so that this would acquire a dimension above individual people. It wasn’t easy because no work would ever be as good as in your own organisation, in which you had everything mapped out in a comfortable and stimulating way, and where you proposed the challenges. It was more a question of leaving the place where I was than going somewhere new.
The second reason, which complements the previous one, is that I have a huge vocation for all things public and for transformation, which is why leaving CIPPEC raised the question of how I was going to keep exercising this vocation, and I didn’t feel like putting together a new NGO, so that left me two other choices: either I became a public servant and helped the community through the state, or I entered into politics, trying to generate change by mobilising people with political objectives. This is what I chose. I felt that I had been able to make a valuable contribution to civil society, and I intend to make an equally valuable contribution in politics. Knowing that there are learning curves, that during the first years I’ll be acquiring the capacities I need, but looking to, in ten years, having left a partisan space for one that integrates people who can do politics in a different way as we did in CIPPEC.
LE: How do you see today, from a political point of view, the role of think tanks? As a public officer, would you work with think tanks?
ND: I have a huge conflict of interest that nearly no other public officer has: I know nearly every think tank Executive Director in Argentina, which is why it may seem that I want to hire my friends. That’s why I don’t hire think tanks directly, even though I pressure others to count on them, to consult them, etc. I do recognise and greatly value the contribution that social organisations make, especially those of public policy to the political decision making process. I am a consumer of the goods they produce. I follow their activities. But just like when I was at CIPPEC and I insisted that we link ourselves to the state, from this new environment I feel that discussions between the state and social organisations are still at an academic level, which is why I would like to see public policy organisations paying more attention to the needs of public officers, their times tables, etc.
I understand that organisations have their agendas, but within the state there are many opportunities to have an impact. Today, if I look at my agenda, I can identify three or four areas of impact in which, if there were organisations willing to work, with or without resources, they could transform, through the decisions I have to make, public policy. But they’re not there, because they don’t have the resources to subsidise that effort, or because they can’t adapt their work to others’ needs, etc. But if I had to go back and recreate CIPPEC, I would start by calling a group of public officials and ask them to call me every time they need something, and then see how we finance ourselves later.
LE: You are a member of the Think Tank Initiative’s steering committee. What do you think of it? What lessons do you take out of the process until now?
ND: It’s an incredibly innovative and valuable experience. It’s valuable trying to group together experiences like I had at CIPPEC and share them with think tanks from other countries, and go over what was learned during that time and think about how our organisations can have more capacities to improve the way we do things. It’s also valuable because it provides institutional funds to modify certain processes, for which organisations don’t always have the resources. I think the biggest challenge during these times is financial sustainability, since they’re very large amounts and for many organisations. Lastly, I think that it could have bigger impact on organisations that are not a part of it if it manages to adequately communicate what this small group has learned.