The on think tanks interview: Fred Carden, Lead Technical Advisor, Indonesia KSI (Part 1)
AusAID’s Knowledge Sector Initiative (KSI) in Indonesia has been the focus of several On Think Tanks blog posts. Ever since AusAID first published its background papers we have offered analysis and opinions about the programme and the issues it deals with. After a long wait, the KSI is finally up and running. Fred Carden, the KSI’s Lead Technical Advisor, took some time off from his busy schedule to talk to me about the programme, the challenges and opportunities it faces, and, more generally, outline and explain the core principle of the initiative: support must be demand-led.
The Knowledge Sector program is a joint initiative between the Australian Government and BAPPENAS to improve the quality of public policies in Indonesia through the use of research, analysis, and evidence. The program seeks to achieve this by supporting the capacity building of think tanks to improve the quality of their research to meet policy makers’ needs, improve systems and regulations in government to support research-based policy making, and to develop effective models for procuring and using research to strengthen policies in education, health and social protection that will benefit the country’s poor. The program, projected to be 15 years long, started implementation in mid-2013.
Basic Project info:
- Timeline: 2013-2017 First phase of 15 year initiative.
- Total funds for first phase: AUD100 million.
- Funder: AusAID
- Main contractor: RTI International. Project partners include: Australian National University, the Nossal Institute for Global Health at the University of Melbourne and the Overseas Development Institute.
This is the first part of the interview
Enrique Mendizabal: What is your role within the Knowledge Sector Initiative?
Fred Carden: My role is as the Lead Technical Advisor, which doesn’t say a lot but what that means is that I’m meant to work across all the various components of the KSI. Also I’m a bit of a bridge between those relationships within the components as we’ve defined them, as well as outside the initiative, bringing other ideas and perspectives for people to work with.
EM: Is it like the research component of the KSI? When I was reading the terms of reference I thought that was an interesting job, the person in charge of the ongoing thinking for the programme.
FC: I’m one of the people in charge of doing that. I think ultimately if the programme is successful then it’s the Indonesians doing most of the thinking about the knowledge sector here. I think it’s also trying to ensure that we follow the model that we’re trying to follow, which is to be very much a demand-led initiative, which will be a challenge for us as a team and for AusAID as a donor.
EM: Let’s take a step back then. Very briefly, could you tell us a bit about your background and what you were doing before KSI?
FC: For the twenty years before I came to the KSI programme I was working in the Evaluation Unit in the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in Canada. For the last 7 or 8 years I was the director of that unit. I have a strong background in doing research around research capacity building – how does research capacity get built, how does research influence policy; which are the main preoccupation of the IDRC. [Editor's note: Fred Carden is one of the authors/developers of Outcome Mapping; a method that has had a great influence in the field of planning, monitoring and evaluating efforts to affect behaviours and policies.]
EM: Why did you decide, after 20 years, to leave IDRC and join KSI?
FC: I think the main reason was the programme design. I first came across KSI around two or three years ago. I saw this email come in saying “could you comment on this proposal because we’re in the middle of designing a programme”, and I thought “oh dear, another donor asking for another comment”. But then I read the design and I got very excited because it’s a very unusual program: to me it’s the most exciting donor funded program that I’ve seen in a very long time, in large measure because it does try to deal with a whole system. It tries to figure out how we’re going to cut across all of the parts of a knowledge system that need to be strengthened if you’re going to build an evidence based policy environment.
So just a tremendously exciting opportunity to try something out that hasn’t been done before, in a setting that I particularly enjoy. I was here for 5 years through a CIDA-funded programme in the knowledge sector, at that time (25 years ago), working with environment research centres in Jakarta.
EM: So you are familiar with Indonesia.
FC: Yes, I’m familiar with the Indonesia of 20, 25 years ago and I’ve been struck with how dramatically it has changed in many respects, particularly with the reform and the fall of the New Order. So there’s been tremendous change and it’s opened up a lot of opportunities in the knowledge sector.
EM: I guess it gives you a sense of an historical perspective that we forget about when looking at research centres or policy making. Taking a snapshot of how things are today doesn’t really explain much. You have to understand where they come from before you can know how to take them forward.
FC: I think that’s right; it helps to some extent. But obviously 5 years here 20 years ago doesn’t compare to many organisations and people who I’ll be working with who have a much deeper and richer history. But it was certainly an attraction for me because of my prior experience. And the excitement I saw then too in the academic community for the potential of academic centers to make more of a contribution.
EM: What is the Knowledge Sector? As you say, the programme design was interesting, was original, but it talks about the knowledge sector and that is not something you hear too much about. How would you describe it?
FC: That’s an interesting one, because when you think of a sector you think of health, or energy, or construction. To me it’s an appealing term because when you think about a sector you’re acknowledging that it’s not simple and it’s not involving a small group of people. It is about the relationships among the components that make up the sector. The knowledge sector, I think, cuts across all elements of a knowledge society. If your society is knowledge based, then you have research going on, people are using research for advocacy purposes, using knowledge for decision making, for money making, for all parts of life. It really does cut across how the academic community works, how the decision making community works, and how community groups work that want to improve their communities. It has legislative and governance components to it. You’ve got financial elements, education elements. It’s really trying to articulate the idea that it’s not about capacity building of researchers alone. It’s not about the capacity of decision makers alone or the capacity of the private sector alone. It’s about the ability to support relationships and exchange across all of those sectors to improve conditions in a society.
EM: I was in China last week for a day-long conference on think tanks and they were talking about the Chinese think tank industry, and towards the end of the day they started to talk about the marketplace of ideas and how it was necessary for it to be open to everybody: to independent think tanks, to banks, to consultancies, to anybody producing information and knowledge, as you said, across all sectors or areas. This, interestingly, created another challenge for them: how do you get a group of think tanks and researchers to open up to other groups they are not used to working with?
FC: Ultimately in a sector you don’t have to have everybody working together all the time because people have different roles. People working on advocacy and using knowledge for that don’t necessarily do everything in collaboration with decision makers and researchers. A sector has many pieces to it and sometimes they work together but the way the system works is that people do debate and challenge each other. They also operate independently of each other. I think that’s the beauty of a sector. It’s not just about what the scientists think or the public sector people think, all of that is part of it. There are relationships and sometimes they can be adversarial, or collaborative, or indirect. I think it’s legitimate for there to be both private and public think tanks in China and they may not be working with other parts system but they still make a contribution.
Carol Weiss used to talk about the percolation of ideas, one of the major ways that knowledge and research findings get into the decision making space. It happens over time and it happens as people filter what they’re learning into their own decision making processes.
EM: One of the challenges of being a sector, or industry or marketplace, is that – I take this from Steven Yeo – most of the time what think tanks produce has no buyer. It’s a strange sector in which a lot of the outputs are not being bought. You have to create a demand for it.
FC: But that’s what the private sector does. I think Steven Jobs used to say nobody knew they needed an iPod, but somebody created a demand for it, so in that respect it’s very similar to other sectors. Our collective challenge is around how to help generate that demand. That has to do with presentation of the product – in this case knowledge – as well as the quality of the product and generating the interest of users in buying it.
EM: I guess the difference is in the income generation. Whereas the private sector sells products think tanks give them away for free. Not all of them but most of the time they do -or want to. But let’s move on: what do you think are the main challenges of the knowledge sector in Indonesia?
FC: That’s a big question. I don’t think I’m in a strong position to say a lot about what the main challenges are. We’ve been talking to people and heard challenges about financing, legislation, recruitment, research capacity building: lots of different challenges. Which ones are the greatest I don’t think I can say. I think an emerging theme for us is sustainability. How can the sector and the institutions of the sector become sustainable? That covers a whole lot of things from the perspective of the think tank side: financial issues, organisational development issues, research quality issues, etc. They are all things that organisations have to put a lot of thought and work in to.
EM: You’ve had the chance to meet with a few think tanks, I assume..
FC: A few. We’re in the middle of selecting new partners who have applied to join the initiative. While the selection process is going on I’m not meeting with any of them because I’ll be in the final selection panel as one of the people who have not met any of them. We have a panel of people conducting interviews, we have a lot of background documentation and on the panel there are two of us who will not be part of the selection process until we have all the final information.
EM: But you must have a sense of what you’re going to build on or what might be a way in. What is your initial hunch?
FC: Absolutely. Certainly one of the greatest strengths that we have to work on, and I have met some of the organisations, one of the clear strengths I see is a high level of commitment by the personnel involved in them. They’re committed to the idea and the issues and are willing to put in the time. Strong personnel in that sense. Also highly qualified. I’m sure that there’s a number of areas of capacity building that we’ll get involved in, but there are many strong people already, many strong researchers.
We can always use more policy researchers and think tanks; we’re talking about a rather large country, one of the most populous in the world. In that sense it’s a modest project, it sounds like a big project when you see the main numbers, but when you think about the size of the countries and the number of issues to be dealt with we are actually a modest project.
EM: If it all goes well, do you have an idea of what the sector will look like in 15, 20 years?
FC: I think there will be a higher number of dynamic think tanks. The sector would be bigger and more active, much more involved in debate and collaboration also with the decision making bodies. You’d be seeing even more debate and dialogue going on. While we won’t be doing a huge amount of it, I think a much stronger tertiary sector in terms of research capacity and research strengthening; we’ll do a modest amount of that.
A lot more funding going into research, and hence a lot more use of research that is generated within Indonesia. One of the starting premises of the project is that a lot of policy research that’s been conducted here has been conducted by external agents rather than Indonesian institutions and researchers. What I would love to see in 15 years is a much more significant proportion of research being conducted by the latter.
EM: You mention funding. Do you envision an Indonesia where research is funded domestically (by the State, Indonesian philanthropists, foundations, etc?) An Indonesia that does not need foreign funding (including AusAID’s) for its research? Is this something you are aiming for?
FC: I do envision a situation where the government sees the merit in commissioning and funding research for policy purposes. But funding research comes from multiple sources. In the US or in Canada, there is significant government funding of research, but there is also funding by others, in these cases, foundations and the private sector, not all of them domestic. So it is not to suggest a situation where all research is government funded, but where research is valued and hence it is funded by many different organisations.
EM: Let me go back again to a previous question. You mentioned the relatively modest size of the KSI. Could you give us a sense of who the main partners are, what budget it’s planning to manage?
FC: We have a core team where we have advisors working with the research community, with the policy making community, and eventually with intermediary institutions. We have officers who will provide technical support along the way.
We’re in the process of selecting 10 additional organisations carrying out research, which means we’ll have sixteen partners that we’re working with what we call the supply sector, the research side.
EM: So these are 16 organisations that you’re going to support to develop their research and communications capacity.
FC: Yes that’s right. We are going to provide core support to 16 organisations. It will go to organisational strengthening, research capacity building and thinking about the translation of research to the policy environment, through communication or other mechanisms.
Also there are efforts to strengthen those organisations so that they’re able to think about funding beyond the project basis that they use now. In addition to those 16 we have several granting mechanisms around innovations in research, and building partnerships in research that will be open to the whole knowledge sector in Indonesia – not just for the 16 partners but to those who design the most challenging interesting proposals. We’ll have several of those at the same time. That’s on the research side.
EM: Are you calling it research side rather than supply side?
FC: The idea is the same. I would just say research rather than supply, we’re talking about the same thing.
EM: In a way I find it more appropriate to refer to it as ’research side’ because you can have research anywhere. You can have research in the policy making space, in advocacy, in the media, in NGOs. Building research capacity in Indonesia would be a cross cutting effort, whereas building supply side capacity in a way almost limits you mentally at least to institutions outside the policy space.
FC: That’s interesting because I don’t see that. I think that supply can come from everywhere as well. There are research sectors within government institutions, in all the ministries there’s a research group. There are other research centers within university, within government. So to me supply can come from everywhere, as well as demand. Demand for evidence is not only from national government but from subnational, too. There’s no reason why the private sector could not be demanding research, and intermediation is the whole idea of how you use the research in policy making process, how you translate evidence into ways it can be used, it happens everywhere in the system.
There are no clear boundaries, and I think the design of this project recognises that and talks about the very fuzzy nature of boundaries and the need to get some way to design the work. We have these pieces, we don’t know where they all are and it’s all going to be fuzzy but it’s clear the advisors that we’ve got will have to work very close together. If you’re working with a research center that’s doing research on universal health coverage, they are also going to end up working with government officials at the local or national level who are addressing that issue. So there will be a lot of cross collaboration and connection.
One challenge is that we have not been able to identify education policy research centers. There are groups that advocate education policy reform, and individual researchers. Education is one of the sectors that AusAID would like us to work with. There are advocacy organisations that are using research to push for change in the education policy sector, there is a lot of research around curriculum and the development of the education system. There is the work of the Ministry of Education in supporting the system but there don’t seem to be research centers that are individual so working with that sector will be different than from say, health, where there are research centers that are quite active.
EM: So besides looking at the knowledge sector in general, you’re going to tackle it by looking at more specific sectors, like the education sector, etc.
FC: It is about setting some boundaries so that we have space to operate. That it’s not an abstract issue if we have real problems and real issues that we’re supporting people to deal with. The way we’re going to be dealing with that is working with the research centers and over time with various government agencies to identify the core issues that the research centers are working on that have policy implications, and how can we help them in, for instance, translating those research findings into policy ready advice.
We’re working at a couple of levels with the supply side organisations, both in building their capacity as organisations but also in a very concrete way supporting their work in particular policy issues.
EM: And I guess that is going to help ‘assess’ some of the things you said before: e.g. the number and dynamism of organisations, the quality of debate, etc. It is easier to look at that and know that you’re moving in the right direction when you focus on a particular sector where you can map out key discussions, issues and players, and watch who is involved, how many they are, how are they changing over time, etc. It’s much easier than to look at the entire knowledge sector of the country.
FC: Other than looking at some important core numbers on how much funding is going to research, how many centres are there doing research, it becomes meaningless to look only at high level numbers for a whole country. I’ve always been a strong advocate of learning by doing. I think the way the organisations get stronger is that they do the work, and strengthen their mechanisms by reflecting on what they are doing and learning from it.
End of Part 1.
In the next part of the interview we discuss the KSI in greater detail.