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Posts by Leandro Echt

The On Think Tanks interview: Martín Benavides, Executive Director, GRADE

Martin Benavides offers a brief yet thoughtful informal exit interview. He discusses his own career path to the top of GRADE, the challenges he faced as Executive Director, and the organisation's transition plans. He pays particular attention to the impact that the Think Tank Initiative has had on GRADE.

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The On Think Tanks interview: Roxana Barrantes, Director of the Institute of Peruvian Studies

Roxana Barrantes, Director at the Institutos de Estudios Peruanos spoke to Leandro Echt about IEP and the challenges that Peru's oldest functioning think tank faces.

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Factors to consider when collaborating with other think tanks

Leandro Echt writes about the challenges involved in think tank collaboration. This post was originally written for the On Think Tanks Exchange, an initiative co-supported by the Think Tanks Fund, the Think Tank Initiative and On Think Tanks.

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Latin American think tanks meet in Rio to strengthen collaboration

The most recent meeting of Latin American think tanks held last month in Rio de Janeiro was a moment of reflection on the challenges and opportunities that think tanks in Latin America face when trying to impact and influence the development of better public policies for the region.

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Latin American networking for think tanks: a decade in meetings

Latin American think tanks have been meeting each other and sharing lessons for a very long time. In the last decade, a number of efforts have slowly helped build a community of practice that is, now, coming of age. The future of think tank collaboration in the region looks bright.

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The onthinktanks interview: Mónica Galilea, CADEP’s former Director of Communications

In this opportunity I interviewed Monica Galilea, formerly responsible for communication at the Centro de Analisis y Difusion de la Economía Paraguaya (CADEP), a think tank in Paraguay. Monica tells us about the process that led to the institutionalisation of communication processes within CADEP, why they decided to create a communication area and what were its attributions.

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Improving the quality of a think tank’s publications: Lessons from CIPPEC

This discussion with Dolores Arrieta, Coordinator of Communication at CIPPEC, reflects on the process CIPPEC follows to improve the quality of its production.

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The onthinktanks interview: Nicolás Ducoté (Part 2 of 2)

This is the second part of a two-part interview of 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.

The onthinktanks interview: Nicolás Ducoté (Part 1 of 2)

Continuing our effort to keep the knowledge and experience within the organization and to share that experience with other think tanks through our platform Executive Directors of Latin America (DEAL) and Bridging research and policy in Latin America VIPPAL and its newsletter (see the interview to Laura Zommer), I recently interviewed Nicolás Ducoté, co-founder and former Executive Director and General Director of CIPPEC, where he worked for 10 years (currently, he is the Undersecretary for Political Affairs at the Ministry of Government, of the Government of Buenos Aires, Argentina). The interview (translated by Andrea Moncada from onthinktanks.org) is very interesting for current think tanks’ heads, but also for those who wish to found a new one and need more information on organizational processes. In the interview, Nicolás talks about what inspired him to establish CIPPEC, what were the main challenges at the beginnings, how was the experience at the head of the institution, and how CIPPEC successfully managed his departure. He offers some tips for those who want to engage in a project of creating a policy research institute and highlights some personal characteristics that an executive director should have.

Someone who wishes to start with a think tank project should ask himself about where to find the best human resources to meet the needs that a think tank has, wherever it is: where to get the people who want to communicate, who want to raise funds, who want to study issues and propose a policy agenda

Leandro Echt: From what think tank models did you draw your inspiration from when you founded CIPPEC?

Nicolas Ducoté: I got to know a small think tank in Boston, the Pioneer Institute, from whom we took three things. First of all, interdisciplinarity: contrary to what most recommended, which was having focus and dedication, at the most, on two or three subjects, this institute understood that public policy problems were many: ten or fifteen at least, and so they built a model with many areas. The second issue was the focus during implementation: while you could invest time in analysis, research and writing proposals, at least half of the energy had to be placed on how we affected and influenced the public policy process. The third element was working with other actors, because the capacity of an organisation to produce change in public policy is limited. Therefore, we needed a coalition with several actors, or to pass along battles that last ten or fifteen years, like the public information law or co-participation in Argentina. We knew then that CIPPEC would not be able to work alone, which led us to invest an important amount of time in articulating efforts with other executive directors, including the Vida Silvestre Foundation, the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), Greenpeace, the Association for Civil Rights (ADC), and several other organisations. So, from the get-go, we began working in a collaborative rather than a competitive manner.

LE: What motivated you to establish CIPPEC?

ND: I was convinced that in Argentina there were no institutions that were strongly and perseveringly dedicated to taking the best ideas in public policy and pushing them towards the political process. I was very interested in putting together people whom I was approaching, who had an interest in causes such as education or health, and who did not have a vehicle to take their ideas to the world of public policy. And so, together with my associates and friends I decided to create an institution that would support entrepreneurs who wanted to change the Argentinean reality and who worried about what was important: that the things they proposed got done.

For them to be able to accomplish that, they would be free from some administrative tasks in the institution; we told them, “come work at CIPPEC and we will help you get funding, we’ll take care of communications, administrative issues, etc.; you just do the best you can to have impact, to put together a good team and to insert your area of knowledge into others, because most problems are interdisciplinary”. That is how we began with the idea that this would serve as a platform for public or social entrepreneurs, to integrate public policies, and to do it with a very strong focus on implementation; not just producing papers, but having an impact on the decision making process.

LE: What were the main challenges that you faced at the beginning and how did you manage to make a place for CIPPEC in Argentina’s public policy space?

ND: The main challenge was for people to get to know us, which is why we put a lot of effort into communicating “face to face” and into grabbing their attention so that they would have us on their radar. We would generate products, like the Legislative Directory, that didn’t have great aggregate value but that allowed for a lot of people to know about us. For example, all of the legislators, who we would go visit one by one, got to know us during the process. That way, 270 people who we wanted to influence, would have some sort of contact with us. At the same time, the Legislative Directory was a tool used by all of those with some connection to public policy: the institutional departments, the Executive branch, the media; in relation to which we placed ourselves as a bridge that many people wanted to cross.

Other products of that calibre were the NGO Directory and the budget analyses. We also worried about communication and the press, although, at the beginning, it was beyond our capacities: we tried working with a news agency, but we didn’t have the capacity to produce the press releases that they would ask for every week.

So instead we found out who were those people who wrote about our topics, and we created links with them, we put ourselves at their disposition: when they asked us about a fact regarding some topic, we would kill ourselves to get it, even if it meant distracting ourselves from other projects, because we thought that if we delivered they would be more willing to talk to us in the future. Therefore, we became an habitual source of reference, and naturally, other actors began to recognise us as knowledgeable in certain subjects, and so we gradually became a mandatory source of reference. By 2004 or 2005, we had the capacity to put on the agenda certain issues that were central to different policy topics.

At the same time, our efforts in getting people to know us were linked to our search for funding: it would be easier to get financing as more and more individuals knew us. Alongside all of this, we put forward a process of institutional investment that wasn’t visible: we would put 10% of all of our revenue each year into creating an anti-cyclical fund; we sought to buy our own offices, etc.  Sustaining institutional strength was a challenge because donors, particularly those who had a strong outlook on impact, like the international cooperation, had no incentive to finance institutional strength, and CIPPEC was always expensive for donors: we had all of our employees on the payroll, we did everything in a neat and demanding way, etc.

In summary, the mix of effective communications, fundraising, and strengthening the institution made a lot of very talented people want to approach CIPPEC. When we communicated, they got to know us; when we raised funds they knew that they could count on a good salary; and they knew that we were a ship that had all of its flotation devices put in place in order to continue with its course.

LE: What were the key sources of financing in the beginning?

ND: Most importantly, we wanted to obtain funds from individuals, and we didn’t think in the thousands but in the hundreds. That way we identified a niche of individuals who we would ask for considerable amounts, dealing with them in a personalised manner. During the first year we held around 100 or 150 meetings to ask individuals to work with us, and some of those individuals became contacts who couldn’t give us money but who could open the door to those people who could give us resources or who got other institutions to support us. At least in Argentina, although I imagine that the same thing happens in many countries, there’s a lot of overlap between people who could donate a lot of resources and companies, which is why in many cases the initial search for funding turned into financing from the corporate sector: when I sat down with someone to ask them for their support, they would channel it through a company, which is why the necessity to take care of the company’s needs materialised.

We created a fundraising area within CIPPEC that went from dealing just with individuals to dealing with individuals and companies. Afterwards, with the crisis at the end of 2001/beginning of 2002, we went through a period of scarcity of individual donations (mainly out of fear, uncertainty on how Argentina would turn out, what would happen, if investing in public policy was worth it, etc.). This, added to a currency devaluation, made us think straightaway about getting external funding. So 2002 was the first year that we invested part of CIPPEC’s resources to assign someone to search for funding from the international cooperation sector: we invested 12,000 to 13,000 pesos and we got 80,000 in the first year, with which we opened up a whole portfolio of international projects. We learned a lot about how to finance ourselves internationally, having discussions with other actors that were doing that long before us (e.g. the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), and Poder Ciudadano) and later CIPPEC was also generous in helping other organisations get external aid, such as Help Argentina, the Argentinean Network for International Cooperation (RACI), etc.

When the institution grew stronger, in 2004, we began a search for funding among state actors, which at that time was marginal (5 or 10% of the budget, which in general was more a cost recovery from some projects), because we found that state financing came with a larger capacity for impact: establishing links with the ministries of the provinces to provide them with a project ended up giving us more leeway to convince ministers of things, and we also noted that when the state paid for something it gave more attention to it. We created that mix, and I had the idea of reaching a point in which at least 30% would be financed by public national sources, and 50 or 60% would come from individuals and corporations. What was true is that, taking into account devaluation, the international cooperation sector acquired a more important role and through the years we became better at collecting corporate funds. I would say that there were four sources, 25% each, with a preference for increasing state funding and depending less on few big donors, trying to broaden our financial sources

LE: What do you think is CIPPEC’s contribution to public policy in Argentina?

ND: The biggest contribution was allowing that many people with a calling for public service could drive transformations; it was a platform for people who wanted to dedicate themselves to public policy. What I emphasize the most is not the changes public policy, but on people’s lives, by letting them work on what interested them. There wasn’t a space in Argentina that gave young people a possibility to work on education policy, justice, etc., and to do so in a professional manner. Nowadays, around 400 or 500 people must have gone through CIPPEC and are now mostly public entrepreneurs, people who found a way to dedicate themselves professionally to their vocation. That’s the most transcendent transformation, because many of those people today are working within the state, and I think that CIPPEC will still permanently be a launch pad for different people to access the public space.

Secondly, I think we have made strong technical contributions in some public policy affairs. Thirdly, we generated a model, a way of working to influence public policy that many organisations later learned from, whether they did it in a formal or informal manner. Fourth, we generated a capacity for articulation between parts of the university sector, the private sector and NGO’s that didn’t exist before; we helped create groups of executive directors, of communication directors, of fundraising, the Argentinean Network for International Cooperation (RACI) and we developed a capacity in Argentinean civil society that it didn’t have before; and all that in part served CIPPEC’s interests.

LE: How can you measure this?

ND: You can measure it in a superficial manner, making a list of all the initiatives or laws that CIPPEC had some impact in, through the testimony of the political protagonists. But I think that the most transcendent or long-term impacts will be those that I mentioned beforehand: if we manage to demonstrate that from civil society a group of people can organise themselves to have an impact on public policy and transform reality, we will get many more people to commit to progress and development in public policy in Argentina.

LE: What advice would you give to someone who wants to establish a new think tank? What are the most important steps of this process?

ND: The first piece of advice I would give is that they have to work in a team: none of the issues we’ve discussed can be done alone. CIPPEC’s virtue is that when we decided to found it, we went out and looked for ten or twelve people who were willing to work with us on that enterprise. That team has to be complimentary: an individual who wants to begin a think tank project has to ask themselves about how to find human resources to fill the needs that every think tank has. How to get people who want to communicate, that want to raise funds, that want to study issues and propose a public policy agenda.

Also important is to have people who worry about the institutional dimension: investing time in thinking about processes to make decisions, developing an institutional memory, being transparent, etc. In the first year, as soon as the first two cents came in, we thought about accountability, which spoke of a vocation for certain processes, and not just a search for results. Thirdly, worrying that people who begin with the institution stay enough time: there are learning curves, the best performance of any of us in the disciplines that we work in doesn’t come in the first or second year, but usually it’s about five to ten year cycles, and if you have high rotation in important positions, the organisation suffers. CIPPEC managed to keep its area directors long enough to carry out orderly transitions.

Next week: Part two of the interview.

The onthinktanks interview: Laura Zommer (Part 3 of 3)

 This is the third part of a three-part interview of Laura Zommer, CIPPEC’s former director of communications. You can read the first part here and the second here.

There can’t be effective research without communication

Leandro Echt: What is the value of evaluating policy impact from a communications point of view?

LZ: The value is quite high. At the same time, it’s also a weak point that many think tanks have. Since we do not have all the resources in the world, and until now we haven’t found donors interested in properly evaluating the impact of those projects they finance, it’s hard for an organisation to invest institutional funds to evaluate impact, because it has other priorities. So we evaluate in an amateur manner: we think that it works and we get on with it. It’s like in life, one keeps doing what one feels is successful. But sometimes it’s useful to stop and think about why we keep doing something. At CIPPEC, those who are most critical regarding communication are the team members themselves, because the team is aware of the communication possibilities that are lost every day.

When planning communication at CIPPEC metrics are established: one time they were more quantitative and now we have more qualitative indicators. If at first we would measure just the amount of mentions in the press, later we realized that if you have 1000 or 1500 mentions it’s really the same, but what you have to measure is how many of these mentions are in favour of or against the government, how many of these mentions are supporting an organisation that has value or prestige, etc. We made it more sophisticated within the team, but we never had an external evaluation that could help us tell researchers that, while their work was of high quality, it had medium to low impact and that they should stop investing human resources in that strategy because it wasn’t working. So, even though the value of measuring impact is high, so far at CIPPEC we have evaluated much less than what we could.

LE: What is the most appropriate balance between research and communication in a think tank?

LZ: In a think tank, there can’t be effective research without communication. But there is not one unique, appropriate balance: it depends on the research’s objective, on the results, on the context and opportunities. For example, a train accident can give you the opportunity to show case the evidence you came up with a few years ago on the Argentinean transportation system. The researcher will tell you that he has to update the research data, which is fine and would be ideal, but if the tendency or conclusions of what you researched didn’t change, then its best to communicate it as it is.

On the other hand, sometimes researchers arrive at interesting findings and sometimes they don’t, and one has to know when to give up and recognise that if a certain research didn’t produce anything interesting, the best thing a think tank can do is conduct “low intensity communication”: if you’re saying the same thing, if every academic read ten papers on the subject, then don’t do it, especially if you’re going to do it in the same format. It’s best to send it to the experts, with a low profile, telling them there’s nothing new under the sun and consider it over.

LE: What are the advantages of planning communication?

LZ: The advantages are huge, because communication is intrinsically linked to current events. Just like politicians are always dealing with “urgent matters” and not what’s important, the same goes for communication teams. Planning lets you have clear goals, and so you will only hasten work if it fits into these goals. If you don’t plan communication, the use of resources, which in general are scarce, is bad because you will always be adjusting little things in a very instrumental sense. For example, a programme asks you to help in designing an invitation for an event, but it turns out that they’ll only invite five donors. The communications team must know if it’s more of a priority to fix the invitation’s format or, for example, putting together a policy brief for another programme aimed at the whole political class. If these things aren’t planned, you run the risk that, in order to “play nice”, you end up using your time ineffectively.

LE: How do you handle the institution’s reputation when dealing with governments of a different political orientation? How do you maintain independence?

LZ: I’m convinced that you cannot communicate things that aren’t true. It only lasts for a while. You cannot appear to be independent if you’re dependent, or appear to be plural when all of your staff is the same. The first thing is to be consistent. It’s the same with governments as it is with journalists. A good idea is that, if you’re going to write an email, title it or begin the first paragraph with something from the research that will seem emphatic to the recipient. And then in the third or fourth paragraph, or after ten minutes into the meeting, let them know that, besides the results that they find convenient, the research gave other results, and ask them if they have something to say about it.

If you have quality research (which depends on having good staff) and if you’re really independent (that is, if you have diverse sources of funding and you’re willing to work with governments that have different political orientations), even though the government may criticise you for saying something in favour of the opposition and vice versa, your reputation is safe. This happens in reasonable contexts.

In polarised contexts, however, the think tank must be balanced at all times, and must calculate the moment and opportunity to communicate.

On the other hand, in order to take care of certain aspects of your reputation, in CIPPEC we have the Executive Committee, made up of the Executive Director, three program Directors, the Institutional Development Director and the Communications Director, in which a pros and cons analysis is done regarding sensitive subjects for finance or public positioning, and is discussed as a group.

I’m convinced that one of the virtues of CIPPEC is that it has people who think differently, and this difference, far from being a problem, is what gives it value. If we can overcome this collective barrier, externally there aren’t many other people different from us, at least not among the relevant actors.

Besides, independence is achieved by knowing when to say no. There might be projects that seem very relevant in the short term, but one must ask oneself how one will look in front of other actors, even if things go well. If the answer is that the independence of the institution will be compromised, then the answer should be no. But for that there must exist processes that analyse projects and raise questions; if you don’t have them, if in your organisation the projects only come to be because the Executive Director orders so after a meeting with a relevant actor, no matter how much of an expert that Director is, he might not realise the negative effects that programme may have for the organisation. For example, if someone from the media wants to convince you to strike a deal to write for it, one must think how other media will read it, what is won and what is lost, etc.

LE: When it comes to organisations with several different programmes, what do you consider is the adequate balance between centralising communication and leaving it up to each programme?

LZ: I do not believe there is one answer to that question. It depends on the size of the organisation (the amount of people it has), the level of seniority and the quality of the programmes, and on how diverse the institution is and what kind of leaders it has. For example, if your organisation only focuses on social development topics, even through different programmes, but with different approaches to the subject, you´ll worry less about centralising communication. CIPPEC’s particular characteristic is that it has different themes, with very different approaches and with different types of Directors in ideological terms. Not centralising communication in this case can lead to losing coherence as an institution. If you let each one do what it feels that is best for its sector, it may not be the best thing for another sector. For example, the Education Program could be working with a Ministry of a certain province, and at the same time a project on subsidy transparency in that province comes up and creates a huge problem for the Governor. In that case, you need to coordinate communication. As for the quality of the programs, CIPPEC has programs that work with different standards of quality. As Communications Director I have to admit that for some programs communications centralisation was a drag, because they would probably do very well without the communications team, with acceptable standards of quality, or even superior to other programs that count with the communications team’s support. But when you have different standards of quality within the organization, centralising communication guarantees a certain base.

LE: What audiences should research institutions focus on?

LZ: It depends on the organisation, if it’s geared more towards academia or towards public policy. For example, if you work towards positioning certain issues in the public agenda, your key audience might be journalists or social media. At CIPPEC, we spoke more with the media than with politicians at first, because the latter didn’t pay us attention, and so we communicated with them via the media. Afterwards, when the political actors began to get to know CIPPEC more, we began addressing them directly. But at first, politicians would only answer the phone after you published something in the press. The logic then would be “tell me in what phase your institution is and I’ll tell you which audience you should focus on”. If you’re not a known brand, your objective will probably be the press or the population (if you’re looking towards mobilisation). If you’re already inserted in the public arena, your main audience will probably be relevant political actors for the issues you’re focusing on. And only later would I include academia and mass audiences. Also, it might be more beneficial for an institution to associate itself with a prestigious academic centre in countries with a strong, legitimate academia.

LE: What audience is more difficult to reach?

LZ: I think there are no audiences that are impossible to reach, you always have to find the window. But in the case of Argentina today, it is difficult for CIPPEC to engage the National Government because it has the power, many votes and doesn’t need evidence to justify their decisions. But there were probably things that we should have done ​​to find the right direction and we haven’t done yet.

LE: What should be the middle ground between external and internal communications?

LZ: When I began my job at CIPPEC, I was the only member of the Communications department; therefore I didn’t have the time to focus on internal communications. We had a weekly bulletin put together by the whole organisation and distributed by the Communications department. The Executive Director would also call a meeting once a year in order to work on internal communications. However, it is impossible to develop sophisticated internal communications strategies if there is not a team in charge of doing so.  Human resources are of vital importance, especially in a research institute, because they will not be able to work in an efficient and effective way if they feel unmotivated. In this way internal communications are important. Nonetheless, if you have a small team they should focus first on having good public relations.

LE: If you could give three main points of advice to the leader of a communication team who wishes to improve this process in their organisation, what would they be?

LZ: First of all, I would advise them to plan their work. They must also be fully committed to their team, since 30% of 40% of the time every action they make will be based on the current situation. Therefore, you need a flexible plan in order to be able to take advantage of the different opportunities that may arise. If this is not done, then they won’t be able to build effective communication strategies.

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