In this post on supporting think tanks, Hans Gutbrod argues that supporting think tanks may mean encouraging new functions. Think tanks can make a contribution by generating the data that researchers and policymakers so desperately need.
Posts tagged ‘donors’
A former US Senator's investment in a new think tank shows that philanthropy is a common activity in rich nations - not so in developing countries. Domestic philanthropy must be promoted, and local donors must be persuaded to invest in local think tanks.
This article on how Western think-tanks got it wrong on the Arab Spring got me thinking about recent discussions about think tanks’ impact. A great deal of emphasis is placed on whether think tanks should measure their influence -and even on the individual tools that think tanks sometimes use to communicate their work. In the last few weeks I have been asked to review a couple of papers on monitoring and evaluating think tanks policy influence and a couple more M&E framework proposals. This focus on policy influence often:
- Forgets about all the other positive (and, at least, neutral) contributions think tanks can make to society (educate, provide oversight, improve political debate, break the consensus, strengthen parties, help fund research, etc.);
- Overestimates the influence think tanks have; and
- Tends to assume that think tanks are always right about what they say.
The fact is that think tanks play very small roles even in the most think tank savvy societies and quite often they do not know what they are talking about. This is a quote referring to Anthony Seldon that Emma Broadbent wrote for a study on think tanks in the UK:
Rohrer (2008) quotes Prof Anthony Seldon, editor of Ideas and Think Tanks in Contemporary Britain and biographer of Tony Blair, who believes their influence is overstated. Of the three major prime ministerial periods of post-war Britain, the Attlee, Thatcher and Blair eras, he believes only Atlee was significantly influenced by think tanks. For Blair, he says, “What is striking, as Blair’s biographer, is how little impact they [think tanks] made. You see hardly any influence on policy at all. It is very hard to see how ideas get into the system.” Seldon argues that “As the numbers of think tanks have accelerated their influence has declined. Influence comes from people who break off them and come into government.”
Last year, Prospect Magazine’s Annual Think Tank Awards had no real winner for the foreign policy category. According to the judges the winner would have had to predict the European financial crisis and the Arab Spring. None did. So not only are think tanks not as influential as sometimes we’d like to think they are, but they can also get it wrong; even where the resources and opportunities are as readily accessible as they are in the UK.
This is important for two reasons:
- According to the Prospect judges and to The National’s article think tanks play an important role not only in influencing policy directly (by telling governments what to do) but also by informing decision makers of things they may not be aware of. Think tanks, according to both political publications, fulfil a key function often overlooked by those too focused on tangible indicators of impact: enlightenment, information, inspiration… When attempting to assess think tanks contributions therefore we must pay attention to this more indirect yet crucial aspect of their work.
- Often, even the best think tanks, with all their resources and top academics -even with local offices and programmes, get it wrong or miss key processes and developments entirely. This means that we should not simply assume that everything a think tank says should influence policy. This would be quite dangerous. What we should be looking for is evidence that their recommendations have informed the public debate and the decisions made by those with the legitimate power to make them.
We should genuinely worry when donors put pressure on their grantees/sub-contractors to influence policy (and show them evidence of their influence). What they should be looking for is more informed policymaking and not just cases of policy influence.
[Editor's note: This is the first post by Hans Gutbrod, Director of the Think Tank Initiative. I'd like to welcome him to onthinktanks.org and look forward to his ideas and reflection on think tanks. Over the next few days and weeks we'll also be sharing some of the videos from the sessions organised at the TTI's exchange mentioned in this blog post.]
Bringing together more than 100 think tank executive and research directors from more than 25 countries, the Think Tank Initiative (TTI) Exchange in Cape Town, in June 2012 probably was one of the largest gatherings of think tanks from the global South held to date. Some of the substance of the event has already been covered, in various ways, by lively Twitter commentary. Short videos from the sessions, highlighting particular topics, will be made available in the coming days and weeks.
So what continues to stand out from this event in hindsight? Here are some personal reflections, not intended as a conclusive summary, but as points of discussion.
For think tanks to make a difference, they have to attract exceptional staff. Thomas Carothers, from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has made this point. It is obvious, but not trivial: think tank research needs to be both substantive and hedged, smart and safe, and, on some occasions, cautious and bold. As think tanks trade on their authority, they are particularly vulnerable when making claims. Raymond Struyk highlights this risk in the first page of his classic book on managing think tanks, describing this unsettling scenario:
A report on a high-visibility and urgent problem is sent to the Ministry of Finance with significant flaws in the statistical analysis. These flaws are discovered by an analyst from another organization after the report has been widely distributed. The think tank loses significant credibility with the government and other clients.
Not many people are good at responding thoughtfully and quickly, while getting everything right. Peer review processes can prevent errors, but given the pressure, any first draft has to be solid, and review steps need to be executed with great care.
That means not only do think tank leaders need to be remarkable (and there were a lot of exceptional people at the TTI Exchange), but they also need a remarkable team behind them. The success of a think tank depends on building a deeper team, on recruiting exceptional staff, and getting exceptional people to work together. Core funding is thus critical, as it allows think tanks to attract and retain exceptional staff. Some innovative funding arrangements notwithstanding, core funding remains a key feature for the type of local research that can improve lives, because it makes high-performing think tank teams possible.
Connecting to Conversations
Even with great teams, unnoticed loneliness at the top can be a severe challenge: since the leaders of think tanks rarely engage peer-to-peer on management questions, their loneliness is often profound. With a few exceptions, leaders mostly figure things out by themselves, maybe with a board or their personal circle. This loneliness sets them apart from people in other professions such as doctors, accountants, lawyers, or even managers in the private or public sector, who regularly discuss and enhance professional practice.
Yet the loneliness can go unnoticed, since the leader of any think tank will engage extensively with fellow researchers and policymakers, clients, maybe diplomats, scholars from abroad, journalists, interns and students. After six years at CRRC, my email address book had accumulated more than 4400 contacts. Yet except for two extended conversations that Goran Buldioski from the Think Tank Fund made possible, I not once – not a single time – in those six years, sat down with someone else who was running a research organization to exchange experiences on how we do things. And to me, the remarkable thing was that I didn’t even realize, until the TTI Exchange, that I had not discussed how to run a research organization with anyone other than my colleagues. Bringing think tank leaders together helps to overcome this loneliness, and gives them an opportunity to begin conversations and connect.
Communities of Practice
Following from this, I think it’s fair to say that there is no fully established community of practice – defined by Wenger as a “group of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis” – for running think tanks, especially not in the South. There are some personal links, and there are well-established practices of research in relevant academic disciplines, but these are different from the practices of generating policy research with the aim of improving people’s lives – perhaps as different as physics is from engineering.
If policy research in the South is seeking to have a greater impact, it’s probably worth cultivating habits of sharing more, deepening knowledge and expertise, and interacting on an ongoing basis. These are the kind of habits that are well established in other professions. Patent lawyers, insurance actuaries, heart surgeons and project managers alike – they all set up a trade publication, ways of exchanging information, and they get together regularly, to discuss how to do things. The formalization is not all happy: there is tomfoolery in most jamborees, but if you only pick up a handful of better practices, tell a few peers what has worked for you, and identify the colleagues you will call for advice when things get sticky in the office, you serve yourself and the profession, as well as the people your profession serves.
In the case of successful policy research in the South, strengthening a nascent community of practice could probably go a long way toward making better policies stick. On our end, at TTI, we are certainly thinking about how to cultivate such a community of practice. We have quite a few ideas on how to do this, but welcome ideas and input from others.
This is also why I’m contributing these reflections here in this blog. Onthinktanks.org serves as an excellent aggregator for many of the issues that are worth debating in the community. To broaden the debate, we will be making videos from the TTI exchange available in the coming weeks, and hope they find a good audience. Check our website or follow us on Twitter.
In addition to what has already been published on this blog, do you have any other thoughts on what we can do to cultivate a community of practice for policy research and think tank management?
Allen McDuffee of the Washington Post´s blog Think Tanked has recently written a piece on how the presidents of several large American think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the Rand Corp. are stepping down, some after a considerable amount of years in the position. This renewal of leadership, however, is taking place in the face of several new challenges that the new generation will have to deal with.
A new, often more diverse leadership is arriving in a rapidly changing think-tank environment. The policy field is more crowded, the flow of information is faster and the fundraising is tougher.
Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) believes that communications will be the biggest challenge for newcomers, due to “too much noise in public policy today”. This will require new presidents to become more creative about reaching out to their audiences. Brooks became AEI´s president in 2009, after Christopher Demuth stepped down after 20 years. He characterises these challenges as exhilarating and fun. However, James McGann, director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania, thinks that this approach, combined with less financial resources and more competition due to the appearance of more organisations in the think tank field, is contributing to the large amount of retirements.
McGann also is of the opinion that these think tanks have political considerations in mind when choosing their new leaders. Some have decided to maintain the status quo by choosing new presidents from among their own ranks, as was the case with Rand Corp. and the Peterson Institute of International Economics. Others have behaved differently, like the Centre for American Progress who chose Neera Tanden as its new director, signalling a change by forming part of the new wave of women leaders in positions traditionally filled by men.
In any case, these new leaders have their work cut out for them. Increased competition, donor expectations, the 24 – hour news cycle and the expectation to respond to politics will put a strain on think tanks, particularly when new directors do not have the same relationship with donors as their predecessors did. This means that they will not have the leverage to resist donor requests, and so research will come in danger of being dictated by politics. All of these issues will certainly keep new think tank directors up at night.
Here is an idea for think tank funders: do not fund them.
I’ve been thinking of this for some time. As more and more funds are being channeled to think tanks in developing (and many least developed) countries this might come as a surprise; but I think that more funds for think tanks (and I stress: in some cases) may not be the best way forward.
What I propose is that before funding think tanks in any given country donors ask a few important questions and consider alternatives.
Think tanks are important institutions -I would not be publishing a blog on think tanks if I did not think so. They are, in some cases, indispensable. However, think tanks cannot exist in a vacuum. Think tanks, as Tom Medvetz would have argued, are boundary organisations that define themselves by their differences and similarities with others. They need a strong academia from which to draw skilled researchers and ideas; they need a strong media with which to reach the general public; they need a strong political system and policymaking institutions to act as intelligent consumers and often competitors in the market of ideas; a healthy private sector that both helps to bring about change and provides the surplus wealth that may fund think tanks’ work; etc.
And of course, just as they need them, think tanks can support them, too.
In some cases, when all these other institutions are absent or are simply not strong enough, funding think tanks alone could be, in my view, a waste of valuable resources and have negative consequences on the think tanks themselves. And I think of it a bit as running before learning to walk.
For applied research funders (research focused on policy and intended to have an impact on policymaking), options can be rather limited. They are not in the business of strengthening the media, the public sector or the private sector. Although bilateral and multilateral agencies that do have the capacity to do so should consider how their research funding programmes or initiatives link up with initiatives focused on these other institutions. And this should be done at the country level, at least.
Applied research funders however do have an alternative to funding think tanks or other research-based policy influencing organisations or initiatives: funding academia.
If someone in the corporate sector was charged by their employer to expand operations in another country they would certainly start by assessing both the demand for your products and services as well the availability of inputs that they would need to carry out their business. If they worked for a bank, they would not plan to set up a 50 person office unless they knew they could find and hire sufficient bankers (economists, managers, financial experts, etc.). They would not want to find themselves unable to fill vacancies or having to offer salaries that were simply unsustainable in the long term. They would also no plan for a large scale operation if they knew that their market was limited. Savings and loans targets would have to be based on a detailed assessment of the market. Maybe, they would start small, slowly building up their market (informing potential clients about the products they offer, trying new services, slowly scaling-up operations) and possibly building their own workforce by employing promising young staff and training them on the job or offering to pay for their MBAs or MiFs.
At some point of course this is not something that can be solved by a company alone and governments will have to be made aware of the damage that under-investing in human capital can have in relation to their own efforts to attract foreign direct investment.
When it comes to funding research, and particularly research that is expected to influence policy, it appears as if some funders pay no or little attention to the market in which they plan to intervene and hence are investing (or in these cases, spending) much more than can be absorbed. Success then is almost just a matter of chance: where these other institutions exist or are being supported think tanks will succeed; but where they are not, think tanks may not fulfil their potential.
The problem of funding think tanks under these circumstances is that it can lead to overwhelming weak organisations, unsustainably high salaries (which cannot guarantee (high) quality research) or to poaching researchers (communicators and managers) from the private and public sectors, and from academia.
I would argue, therefore, that before funding think tanks in a particular country, donors should ask at least one question: who will work there? They could (and should) also ask questions about the rest of the research policy system like AusAid has done for Indonesia, but let’s start with this.
In other worlds, if more funds were made available to think tanks (or for setting up new think tanks), would it be possible for them to easily find highly qualified staff (researchers, managers, communicators, etc.) for them? Would their salaries be appropriate for the sector and country? For instance, would they be similar, in purchase power parity terms, to those paid in think tanks in the developed world, where the market of experts is more competitive? I think that a good proxy is to determine if salaries (or the cost of research in general) in nominal terms is at least equal (or more) to that paid in developed countries. (I should say that I am not suggesting that researchers, communicators and managers should not be paid good salaries. I’ve always said that although I worked for a charity I was not one. If we want quality we need to pay for it. But when salaries become so high that they are simply unsustainable for think tanks and distort the market of experts then we should be aware that this cannot be good for their purposes.)
If they are, then this is an indication that the most important input for a think tank, its researchers, is a scarce resource. High prices denote an excess in demand.
In these cases, the way to improve the role of research in policymaking may not necessarily be to fund think tanks directly (or to fund research, in general). Rather, it may be more appropriate to fund the formation of researchers.
What to do, then?
One thing that funders could consider is to allocate part or all of their budget to support the development of a strong tertiary education system. This will, of course, demand donor coordination (small amounts of money will only pay for a few workshops and this is definitely not what I am advocating for). Even if only a few young men and women get through the system at first, over time, the supply of competent professionals will continue to increase and think tanks (existing and new) will see themselves strengthened. Some graduates will probably join the public and private sectors (many will go back to teach and nurture the next generations that will have to make it through the system) -but increasingly, as more graduate, more will seek employment in think tanks.
In some cases I am talking about a Marshall Plan for tertiary education. If this is not possible for every country then maybe donors could pick a few universities to support and facilitate access to those from other countries in the region. They should not be afraid of working with private universities as well as public ones. The Chilean experience speaks for its self about the importance of a strong academia to produce the researchers that will then staff think tanks.
I must clarify that I think this funding should go to developing strong teaching and research departments on economic, management and business, sociology, law, engineering, architecture, journalism, design, ICT, medicine, agriculture, veterinary, biology, physics, chemistry, political science, philosophy, mathematics, etc. Professions, in other words. I do not think it should go towards ‘development studies’ courses or the sort.
This also means that donors need to develop a sense of perspective and accept that change (policy and otherwise) takes time. Outcomes and outputs will need to be reviewed to reflect this. Patience is the key word.
Another option is for funders to demand (or expect) think tanks to hire staff from a larger market -a global market of researchers, communicators and managers. When corporations hire staff they cast their net as wide as they possibly can. This helps them to find the very best candidates out there but also ensures that the salaries they offer are not necessarily limited to their own local markets. Many think tanks do the same. It would not surprise anyone to find researchers from all over the world at ODI or CGD. Even U.S. and British based and focused think tanks employ foreigners. The director of the Centro de Investigacion de la Universidad del Pacifico (CIUP), Cynthia Sanborn, is from the U.S. but that has not stopped her from becoming a respected intellectual and now the director of a think tank in Peru. Although this is not the case for Peru, where sufficient competent researchers, communicators and managers are not available in a given country, funders should support their grantees by helping them to reach other markets -regional or global- where they might find the right candidates.
Here I must emphasise that this does not mean paying expat salaries (with housing and transport allowances) as is often assumed. There are many young and experienced think tankers who want the opportunity to work in other countries and who would be able to carry out the work and also share their skills (and most importantly their think tank experience) with their peers. They will be happy with decent salaries. So if think tanks cannot find the right staff in their own countries they should look for them in the region, or even other regions of the world. Some skills (economic or policy analysis, management, communications) are easily transferable across contexts.
In other contexts, where the market of experts is more developed and where more funds for think tanks can be easily transformed into more and better research and policy advice with little other support then, by all means, donors should go ahead and fund them. (Although,they should also keep an eye on the academic sector and certainly make sure to do all they can to support universities and ensure that they continue to produce competent researchers.)
In any case, though, research funders must pay more attention to mobilising domestic public and private funds for research (I’ll write more about this soon -but if anyone has ideas about how to do this please let me know).
In summary then: If there are not enough researchers, wait; invest in human capital first.
George Monbiot has published a rather interesting commentary on Comment is Free about the damage that secretive think tanks can make on democratic institutions.
I have talked about this before, arguing that direct impact, without public debate, can be damaging to the development of necessary democratic institutions such as political parties (I dedicated a whole book to this), the media, parliaments, etc.
Monbiot here focuses on how ‘secret’ interests are funding public policy influence and the effect that this has on how we conduct politics:
When she attempted to restrict abortion counselling, Nadine Dorries MP was supported by a group called Right to Know. When other MPs asked her who funds it, she claimed she didn’t know. Lord Lawson is chairman of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which casts doubt on climate science. It demands “openness and transparency” from scientists. Yet he refuses to say who pays, on the grounds that the donors “do not wish to be publicly engaged in controversy”. Michael Gove was chairman ofPolicy Exchange, an influential conservative thinktank. When I asked who funded Policy Exchange when he ran it, his office told me “he doesn’t have that information and he won’t be able to help you”.
In other words, if think tanks demand better policy making then they must be ready to achieve this by the right means: they must be ‘better’ themselves. In this blog, Goran Buldioski has argued that think tanks can gain independence if they strive to be transparent. George Monbiot takes it to another level saying that if they do not then their action can in fact be damaging.
I would like to encourage other journalists and researchers to follow on his footsteps and call your local think tanks enquiring about the source of their funding. Paraphrasing Monbiot (I’ve replaced the words in italics):
I charge that the groups which call themselves independent think tanks are nothing of the kind. They are public relations agencies, secretly lobbying for the donors and NGOs who finance them. If they wish to refute this claim, they should disclose their funding. Until then, whenever you hear the term independent thinktank, think of a tank, crushing democracy, driven by the big Aid industry.
Interestingly, though, these efforts are likely to find that it is not unusual for think tanks in developing countries to openly name most of their funders. Many funders in fact demand that they give them preferential space on their websites and corporate communication materials. So is it then that, unlike their British counterparts, they are not undermining democracy?
No. I think that the issue of whether funding sources are disclosed or not is important but not crucial. If all funding was disclosed and all parties were open about the source of their funding -and ideas- then the public policy debate would be richer as a consequence and democracy would be strengthened. We, as citizens, would be better informed (even by ‘paid for by’ evidence that may hold some truth) and capable of make our own assessments and choices. The same applied to newspapers and the media in general. I think it is clear to anyone what to expect from The Guardian or The Times and so would not take what they write about at face value. By reading both papers however, one may be able to get a more balanced view on issues of public interest.
The worrying situation in some developing countries is that the funders of research and influence are foreign. Ideas and influencing efforts then are driven by objectives and targets that have been externally set and not by local interest groups, that exist in any democracy and are eventually accountable to local rules. We should remember too that local interest groups include unions, consumer associations, and civil society coalitions -it is not just large corporations.
A policy maker in Zambia told me earlier this year that he preferred to read the advice from business associations because he knew what they were interested in and could therefore make up his own mind about the reliability of the evidence that was presented to him. With NGOs, he said, you cannot know if it is what they really think or if they are saying whatever their funders want them to say.
Besides funding, then, what I’d really like to know then is how is it that the think tanks in my country developed their research and influencing agendas. Again, it is the question of autonomy that concerns me most.
Andy Williamson, writing for The Guardian offers an interesting view in the world of British think tanks. Does it offer a warning for think tanks elsewhere? According to Williamson, think tanks must be:
critical, imaginative, creative places where a culture of new ideas is backed up by rigorous research. Creating this kind of buzz is what makes a thinktank space special: lose it, and you become tired and boring. But what is the point of this without action? To put into practice the intellectual capital they generate, thinktanks need to become “do tanks”, and ensure rigour and intellectual stamina are not diluted.
This buzz is difficult to create -let alone sustain- for many think tanks. Often their researchers come from the academic world (donors like to fund academic research -but do not often realise that this is better funded in Universities, not in think tanks) and their mind-set is still closely influenced by it. Letting go of one’s ideas, expressing an opinion, publishing anything before re research is completed are things that take time to get used to.
Williamson warns that the economic downturn has affected think tanks in the UK:
The economic downturn has seriously affected the ability of many thinktanks to fundraise and function effectively. Building the necessary depth in the research agenda has become nigh on impossible, with the focus being instead on short-term, opportunistic pieces, which is hardly strategic or motivating – one of the reasons I decided to leave my post as director of a political thinktank after almost four years.
Although he is not talking on ‘international development’ think tanks I can see the parallels. Money has not been as difficult to get hold of for the likes of ODI, IDS or IIED; or their southern counterparts in Africa and parts of Asia. But increasingly, although with the exception of those benefiting from TTI funds, this money is coming in the shape of consultancies (or long term contracts with very specific expectations on outputs and impact) rather than long term commitments to the organisations’intellectual buzz. Work there too has become short-term, opportunistic and often in-coherent (with no clear overall argument or big picture).
The problem, he warns, is not just in the think tanks themselves. The system shows some inherent flaws (or should we call them tensions?). He points out that to stand out -to remain relevant and attractive to funders:
Many stake out ideological positions. This gives you a platform, making you attractive to certain groups who might fund or promote your work – as long as your ideology is in fashion. As the tide inevitably turns, you must run for the middle ground: a rather overcrowded space. So we have seen IPPR and Demos proclaim neutrality – indeed Demos reinvented conservatism alongside a rise in right-of-centre thinktanks, setting the whole cycle up for the next shift, like some Japanese deer scarer.
He argues that the alternative to this ideological affiliation is to remain non-partisan -but is this possible? (and does he really mean, non-ideological?). Think tanks that choose this route may be:
Less hostage to fortune, you can focus behind the scenes, less swayed by popular (or populist) agendas. [But] Non-partisan generally means non-radical too; you can be perceived as a little bland. The upside of blandness is that you’re safer for institutional funders, such as government. So that’s good? Well, no, because it’s fickle. In fact, right now funding has evaporated.
This approach, which is the approach that many think tanks in the international development industry (northern and southern based) have chosen (actively or simply by default) has critical flaws:
The biggest flaw though is that it ties a hand behind your back, forcing you to plot a course between sufficiently vocal critique to be worth bothering with and not gnawing too hard on the paymaster’s hand. Pressure comes from management to soften findings and minimise any direct criticism of the funder. When you know you must go back to the same shrinking pool for your next round of funding, it makes maintaining independence challenging.
The he makes a point I’ve ben trying to articulate for some time. Even since I left ODI I’ve been traveling quite a bit. I’ve spent time in Africa, Asia, Latin America -many times working with and within think tanks. I’ve noticed that much of the research updates I get from the international development think tanks that I follow online or via twitter feels increasingly irrelevant to the day to day concerns of local policy communities. They feel more and more out of touch:
That’s usually because they are. After all, they deal with ideas – theory – not actually “doing”. But the problem is more nuanced. If the thinktank is well grounded with good connections, then applied theory-led but praxis-based research is the valuable long-term valuable model.
What is the solution for developing country think tanks, then?
Some come to mind:
- Donors could try to mobilise (leverage) more domestic funding from private sectors or new generations of philanthropists.
- ‘Northern international development think tanks’ (inevitably the gate keepers of the industry) could attempt to do less and focus more -maybe even making way for new competitors in the market of ideas. Their funders should challenge them on the relevance and usefulness of their recommendations more often than they do: saying that someone must be more strategic is not a valid recommendation -anyone could do it.
- Where possible donors should consider if it may not be better to fund young and experienced researchers to do their work sitting in a local think tank instead of an expensive central london office. Sure they would not be known in the international circuits as much but their skills (if they have them) may the be able to focus on what is relevant to the countries that Aid is supposed to be helping rather than on what may be just interesting for them. (No need to pay too much for this, by the way, as more researchers and analysts should help drive the cost of research down.)
- Donors should try to reward innovation and commitment. For example, look for initiatives developed by the think tank themselves and offer to fund them to do more of it or to do it better. In Zambia, where I am right now, the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection has developed a Basic Needs Basket that is published every month in 12 towns. This is a great conversation piece and demonstrates commitment. Support more of that. See what else they may be able to develop with the experience they now have. Don’t just call them up to do work that a bunch of researchers and policymakers though of in an office in London. They may do it because it pays (that is the nature of the business) but not because they really want to.
To go public or not to go public… How to decide if it is time to adopt a new communication approach?
Many think tanks face the difficult decision over what to do about these new ways of communicating that seem to be all the rage with their funders and other competing organisations; media exposure, more accessible types of publications, public events and online communications may seem normal for some think tanks but for others they represent a significant departure from business as usual.
And this business, they feel, is doing alright; so why change it? For years (in some cases for decades) these organisations have successfully influence policy (domestic and international) by following a rather simple but effective approach: good research, good business management, and good relations with key decision-makers.
Now they are facing demand (from donors and sometimes from within) to change their approach. The pressure from outside is often motivated by donors’ branding and visibility requirements -and have little or nothing to do with what is needed to inform policymaking more effectively.
But sometimes, pressure comes from within -and for quite important reasons. Mrs Nuning Akhmadi (from SMERU, Indonesia) put it perfectly when she said:
How can we maintain the good relations we have with policymakers and still be accountable to the public?
Under pressure from funders, some cave in but others are still resisting -unsure about what to do but aware that their responsibility to the public must be met.
My advice is that before making a decision like this -which may involve a large investment and long and difficult change- you should attempt to answer two questions:
- Has the world changed? This is an important question and although easy to dismiss as obvious it may require more attention than often given. The world is not your world -made up of your think tank’s immediate sphere of influence. The reason why this doubt has emerged is that your world has not changed much -or at least that is what it feels like. It is likely that your publics, audiences and clients have not changed, that your funders (national or international) are the same, that the policymakers you’ve been working with are old friends or acquaintances, etc. But the world around you may have changed nonetheless. The media may be reporting on the issues you work on more actively thus attracting more public interest on them, social networks may be developing in your country enabling the general public to engage in policymaking in ways they had not before, and reliance on online sources of evidence may be increasing. More fundamentally, the way people learn, online and socially, may change the knowledge sector entirely. Even worse, new and better prepared think tanks (and other organisations) and new policymakers may be competing more aggressively in this new world.
Of course it is possible that the world has not changed -but is it changing? This is equally relevant. Are new generations of policymakers not used to your think tanks and modus operandi making their way up the power ladder -do they even know who you are? Are donors staffed with advisors who know less and less about your country and organisation? Are new donors paying attention to your organisation?
In a new world, the way you used to do things -most likely in private- will not work any more. If the world has changed then your audiences and funders will be looking for public debates, transparent research processes, engagement rather than dissemination, different types of outputs, multiple communication and learning channels, etc.
- If the world has changed, the second question to answer is: what should we do about this -how far and how fast should we change? Whenever someone tells me that they are thinking of setting up a blog and ask for my view I say: don’t do it. Any new way of communicating (before, during and after the research process) demands careful planning. The way you communicate, internally and externally, defines who you are -and how others perceive you. There is a good reason why this is such a difficult issue to address: going public is not just about sending a few press releases or posting semi-complete ideas online, but rather about redefining the role that your organisation seeks to play in society. Using the media to communicate says that you are accountable to the public -and not just your funders or a few policymakers; publishing online and using social networks says that you encourage debate and feedback from anyone -and not just your ‘expert’ peers.
In some cases I would not advice such radical changes -some think tanks may be better off, even in a new context, keeping a low profile and working through others.
Many of these changes involve letting go -giving up control of the research and communication process- and so you must be first confident of your position and functions.
The point is that you need to decide what kind of change is the most appropriate for your own organisation -and much of this will come from answering the first question. And unavoidable trial and error.
Both questions are researchable questions. Both merit time and resources -and, if they are serious about it, your funders ought to be willing to cough up the funds. Don’t just rely on communication ‘experts’ (or even advice from this blog) -after all, what else could they suggest if not to do what they know best? Attempt to answer these questions yourselves. Others can help but the final decision ought to be yours.
Wouldn’t it be quite ironic if they forced you (a think tank) to make a decision without the evidence to back it up?
There are some interesting examples (or attempts) of this type of research that may be worth looking into:
- A couple of years ago I edited a book on think tanks and political parties in Latin America with Kristen Sample that sought to better explain the changes in the political context of think tanks.
- This year I am working on another edited book with Norma Correa on the political economy of research uptake -it will be coming out in August 2011.
- CIPPEC in Argentina (and regional facilitators of the EBPDN), led by Vanesa Weyrauch, has undertaken a series of case studies on the way in which think tanks attempt to influence policy, a recent study was edited by Carlos Acuña. This work has contributed to make this a researchable subject.
- Harry Jones and I worked on a study on how DFID makes decisions to find out the way in which research and evaluations are used by the organisation. I came up with the approach, which Harry then used for the Asian Development Bank, after reading Gary Klein’s work on decision making. Unlike case studies, that track forward the influence of research (and consequently overestimate its importance), this approach allowed us to consider how the world of DFID worked and any possible trends in the manner in which knowledge was being used.
- Following this approach but applied to national discourses, Emma Broadbent is undertaking a study for the EBPDN on the political economy of four policy debates (HIV policy in Uganda, GMO policy in Zambia, downtown Accra decongestion in Ghana, and the chieftaincy reform in Sierra Leone) to assess the relative roles that research has played in each case -and the specific roles that think tanks may have been able to perform. Her work will be coming out later in the year but email her if you’d like to know more about it.
- Finally, a particularly interesting study (and that may be relevant for many think tanks) is this reflection undertaken by Frances Cleaver on the challenges she and her colleagues faced in their attempts to communicate complex water management messages to DFID -and others.