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Posts tagged ‘GDNet’

Politics and Ideas: a new think net

Politics & Ideas, a new think net focused on the study of the relationship between these two fundamental forces in policymaking has been launched. This is a collaborative initiative open to interested and committed researchers and practitioners in the South

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Communication as Organisation: Implications for Policy Research

In this post we hope to briefly introduce new ways of thinking about communication and working with it to understand human behavior, social change and policy reform.

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The Dilemmas of Budget Advocacy via the Media

[Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing project to study the challenges involved in communicating complex ideas. It has been written by Muhammad Maulana, Research and Development Coordinator at Seknas FITRA, and Bagus Saragih, a journalist at the Jakarta Post Daily. You can find the book here: Communicating complex ideas: the book]

In the Indonesian context, it is no easy task to encourage transparent and publicly accountable expenditure of State budgets directed squarely, as the Constitution requires, at the promotion of public welfare. This has certainly been the experience of the National Secretariat of the Indonesian Forum for Budget Transparency (Seknas FITRA) which for years now has been advocating greater budget transparency and accountability in Indonesia.

Policymakers in both executive and legislative bodies, from the central government down to local administrations, have not automatically taken on board the analyses and ideas advocated by Seknas FITRA. Instead, they have tended to ignore them, along with recommendations advanced by other civil society groups (CSOs) generally.  This situation has arisen because the institutions to which policymakers belong generally have their own policy analysis and research units; and policymakers have been content to rely on the work of those units.

But Seknas FITRA’s studies have shown that these “in-house” units have not been working properly. One indicator of this has been the  government’s failure to translate  constantly larger budgets into equally constant  improvement of people’s welfare.

Seknas FITRA believes this situation is not only due to incompetence in budget policy formulation. Dozens of officials have been convicted of abusing state budgets and many others are standing trial. Court hearings have shown that rampant intentional misuse of taxpayers’ money has been perpetrated for both personal and political gain. This provides “powerful” motivation for culprits to resist outside criticism and to use research by the in-house units as alibis to isolate budget processes from any kind of interference from NGOs.

Despite Indonesia’s relatively new Freedom of Information Law, poor public access to budget-related documents persists —a problem compounded by  lack of public awareness of budget processes.  When combined with the government’s chronic red tape, the result has been a complex situation, hampering Seknas FITRA’s efforts to promote public participation in budgetary processes.

To address this, FITRA turned to a strategy focused on communicating its policy recommendations via print and electronic media—an approach that the organisation had been using consistently since mid-2009 until now- instead of directly talking to government officials.Seknas FITRA believes in the power of the media; and that collaboration with journalists must be able to put more pressure on government to listen and to change.

During the first year of implementation of this strategy, however, the media (both of electronic and print) in national level did not give much coverage to findings of FITRA’s budget research, even though FITRA issued an average of no less than two press releases per week. Moreover, journalists were often conspicuous by their absence from FITRA’s press conferences held to announce research findings.  Overall, only two of Indonesia’s five national media outlets made meaningful room for FITRA’s research findings.

One problem was that daily news was dominated by cases of corruption involving public funds; and, as a result, the media paid more attention to information from CSOs focused on eradicating corruption than proper and transparent public budgeting. There was likely a lack of understanding within the media of the true importance of budget transparency and accountability: advocacy on issues related to budget management were equated with efforts to eradicate corruption. In response, FITRA also improved communication to some journalists personally to explain them the importance of budget issues.

But the media has its own reasons for doing what it does. Promoting and protecting the public interest are among the basic and fundamental goals of any kind of journalism. Hence, when the media tended to be reluctant to allocate space for coverage of Seknas FITRA’s findings, there was clearly something missing in FITRA’s media strategy. The media’s role is like that of a bridge:  when the bridge is missing, catastrophe ensues.

A change of strategy

This situation led Seknas FITRA to think about how to get the media to treat its press releases as newsworthy in their own right. To make that happen, Seknas FITRA studied the specific characteristics of individual media outlets and concertedly developed personal links with specific journalists. FITRA hoped that prominent media coverage of its research findings would help policymakers better understand its ideas and insights on budget management; and, more generally, would make information on budgets more available to the general public.

Today, Seknas FITRA is receiving good coverage in the media and has also become an important source of “second opinions” on budget-related reporting.  Good relationships have been established with journalists; and, some of FITRA’s analyses—for example, on budget-related corruption and budget appropriations for the House of Representatives or the Office of the President—have become headline news.   Any Google search of current news will advert to the existence of some FITRA report or other; and, at worst, not a week goes by without the publication of some kind of news report sourced to Seknas FITRA.

It has taken a long time for FITRA to figure on the media’s radar screen to the point where its research findings are taken up by the media as newsworthy stories.  As FITRA has reflected on this process thus far, it has come to appreciate that budget-related research findings cannot be presented for media coverage in isolation; they need to be placed in the context of other issues already in the public eye.  In other words, budget issues never stand alone: even when they may come to the public’s attention in their own right, they need to be contextualised: how they sit with findings on budget misappropriations, as well as with human values, propriety and justice.

Even with good relations already established with the media Seknas FITRA still faces a number of dilemmas in communicating its budget research findings via the media.  Often, the media only tells part of the story and does not go to the substance of budget policy changes being advocated by FITRA.  The media’s predilection is for “shocking news”. Also, on occasion, its reporting does not accord with information FITRA provides.

Indeed, it sometimes happens that budget-related media reports are presented as being based on FITRA’s research, whereas in fact they are not. From time to time, a particular FITRA researcher is quoted as giving a second opinion, even though the staff member concerned has not done so. In such cases, FITRA does not react: This may seem to be off-handed on FITRA’s part, but FITRA adopts this approach in order to maintain good relations with the media outlet concerned.

The study: learning from the experience

In our study, entitled Where’s our Money Going? Challenges of Budget Transparency and Accountability in Indonesia, Seknas FITRA will reflect in depth upon and analyse its experiences, between 2009-2012, of conducting budget advocacy via the media. The paper will canvass the factors that led Seknas FITRA to adopt the strategy of communicating its research findings to policymakers via the media.  It will reflect upon why the media has carried some it its research findings but not others, taking a particular look at FITRA’s reaction to cases where its material has not been published.

The paper will also include the perspective of the media itself. Have journalists changed their way of treating Seknas FITRA’s releases as it has developed its communication strategy? Has Seknas FITRA managed to raise its profile in the eyes of editors? When one media outlet has chosen not to publish a Seknas FITRA finding while others have done so, what factors did they take into account? How have the variety of media types (online, print, television) and the segmentation of each outlet’s audience affected the exposure given to Seknas FITRA’s research? Have particular outlets had agendas of their own that prevented the research from being published? Or, have those agendas prompted certain media to abuse Seknas FITRA in some way? To what extent would the media take Seknas FITRA as a good source of a news story?

The reflection and discussion with the media carried out in this paper will also help analyse policy changes assessed to have occurred in the wake of the release of FITRA’s research findings.

It is hoped that, so far as Seknas FITRA is concerned, this paper will present an accurate reflection of the effectiveness of its advocacy work thus far so that aspects of that work needing further  development, modification or even revision can be identified, thereby helping Seknas FITRA to achieve its goal of realizing popular sovereignty over State budgets.  As for readers, it is hoped the paper will be a useful point of reference for comparing and contrasting experiences of other CSOs engaged in policy-related advocacy in general or budget advocacy in particular.

If you have any comments or questions for the authors please feel free to comment below. 

You can find the book here: Communicating complex ideas: the book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Specific demand

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

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

What did BCSP do exactly?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The People, The Planet, The Can: emerging lessons from policymakers’ perspective

[Editor’s note: This blog is the second from Shannon Kenny and part of an ongoing study on communicating complex ideas.]

My journey up until now, since my last post, has been somewhat slow. Other work commitments and not being able to engage with some prospective interviewees has hampered my progress a little.

That said, there have been some interesting developments since my last meeting with Enrique Mendizabal.

I have had an interview with one policy-maker who is the head of nutrition in a provincial government Department of Health. This person has a scientific research background, has been working as a policy-maker within the public sector for more than a decade, and has championed and been instrumental in instituting a number of policy reforms within their field and works closely with several researchers. They have also experienced working in the same capacity in 2 different provinces, each with their own approach to research uptake, policy implementation, and communication. For this interview, I requested they speak in their personal capacity and from their personal experience rather than on behalf of the department. This, I believe, would yield far more valuable insights than an official statement ’ about the relationship between policy-makers, researchers, communicators, media, and civil society.

What emerged was:


  1. The burden of responsibility for good public health policy rested with them. What was best for society needed to be the watchword and goal for all policy debate and implementation and they were fortunate to have a team of colleagues who were committed to this.
  2. They felt that they had a good relationship with researchers with regard to communication and understanding of research ideas, since they were speaking to peers – fellow scientists. They speak a similar ‘language’ and have a similar structured, detailed approach to work. They were often an integral part of the research process, through their inclusion on advisory committees, facilitating the movement and access of researchers through and to the system and their ability to influence the research agenda in respect of the benefit for the Department of Health and its aims with regard to better policy implementation. Since they (and ergo, their department) are also part of the initial research process, it is much easier to ‘sell’ research into policy. In one province in which they had worked, though, they felt that there was too much expert (by researchers, academics) debate around policy and research.
  3. Political support and commitment is not just helpful but vitally important for effective and timely policy implementation. That said, change does not happen over-night and wisely navigating the political landscape was a key strategy for the championing of specific research ideas that they felt needed to be implemented into policy. Working in a province such as the one in which they operate requires a steely resolve on the part of them and their colleagues, since there are no ‘small issues’ in an area with high levels of poverty and disease that ultimately affect the population as a whole.
  4. On the other hand, the great need to improve the health and decrease the mortality and morbidity of a poverty-stricken population, they believe, has provided an opportunity for innovation and faster implementation of better policy. And where traditional approaches have been less effective or failed, they have had the opportunity to operate with more latitude and flexibility to take calculated risks.
  5. Support from agencies such as the WHO and UNICEF carried great weight and therefore their support was very valuable for political buy-in.
  6. Their relationship with communications agents and the media, though, was a less than satisfactory one. The greatest disconnect, they felt, arose in the area of communicating policy to civil society through the press and other media.
  7. They were inclined to feel that there was a general disinterest from the media (press and broadcast) in public health issues resulting in shoddy, irresponsible reportage and an emphasis on sensational stories, and resistance from publications to give a rebuttal the same coverage. There is also a feeling that, existing problems within the public health sector notwithstanding, there is a general hostility from the press who seem to resist reporting good news stories. They felt that there was a need to cultivate better relationships with the media and find sympathetic allies in this sector, yet this required time which they had precious little of.
  8. They have a long history of engaging or being assigned ineffective communications agents (who had come with glowing references) but who had no real knowledge or understanding of the policy issues and messages that need to be communicated. This has resulted in them (policy makers) having to operate in a capacity in which they are not skilled – as communicators. This person recognised the difference between knowing what needed to be communicated and knowing the mechanism or medium that would be best suited for the message and recognised that many of their own efforts at communication with the public were lacking in creativity.
  9. The policy-maker suggested that perhaps meagre budget allocations for policy communications strategies could be part of the problem, since the more expensive and therefore more skilled communications agencies, in their opinion, would not be interested in taking on a project that could not pay for their services.
  10. The policy-makers are also often reliant on outside funding sources such as PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), US CDC (Centre for Disease Control), UNICEF and the WHO for these communication strategies. This can result in the communication of some policy issues being sidelined in favour of what the funding source deems more important or urgent.
  11. The result of a strong and often negative media voice and poor policy communication on the part of government often resulted in a public who received confused messages.


My task from here on will be to further examine the statements made by the policy-maker and whether their perceptions are matched by reality, with regard to the local media and its attitude specifically towards government policy around breastfeeding and also at the current communications media that government has used to promote breastfeeding.

Furthermore, a representative of a major funding partner/agency in a subsequent interview echoed some of the policy-maker’s sentiments with regard to working with researchers and the media, but diverged somewhat on the issue of research and policy-debate.

More about this in the next blog-post.

Public poisoning as ‘communication’ in Ecuador: Lessons from the perpetuation of harmful technology

[Editor’s note: This blog is part of an ongoing study on communicating complex ideas. This study will be carried out by Stephen Sherwood, Andrea Ordóñez and Myriam Paredes. You can find the book here: Communicating complex ideas: the book]

To consider the intricate relations between practice, communications, and policy, we will reflect on over a decade of action-research on the use and harmful consequences of highly toxic pesticides in Ecuador.

Beginning in the early 1990s, research on this issue focused on potato production in the northernmost province of Carchi in Ecuador –a region that has been described as “the model of agricultural modernization” in the Andes. Although this could be thought of as a positive description of the region’s agriculture, pesticides were in fact becoming a dangerous companion of farmers’ daily lives.

This was confirmed by medical researchers who found that Carchi had among the highest reported rates of pesticide exposure and poisonings anywhere, with two-thirds of the rural population affected at levels that would justify legal indemnizations in many developed countries. Additionally, all research sites reported deaths of young children. This case is not isolated: according to the World Health Organization, globally, highly toxic pesticides may kill more people each year than homicides and wars combined.

What is behind this persisting situation? Pesticide dependence can be viewed as a “second-order” problem: it is born from the success of past technology and policy, in this case agricultural modernisation to address the shortcomings of traditional agriculture and the need for an intensified production model. Universally adopted in Carchi, pesticide technology was generally successful in controlling insect pests and diseases. This success turned pesticides into a key ingredient of the cultural and social landscape, tied to people’s identity as farmers. For example, one farmer told the researchers, “I do not know if I believe in a God, but I believe in pesticides. Thanks to pesticides, my family eats.’” Others found that being exposed to neurotoxins (for instance not wearing protective clothing or equipment) had become a marker for masculinity. Such realities made the prospect of safe use of pesticides, in particular the highly toxic ones, unrealistic.

Beginning in the early 2000s, a growing network of people working in rural communities, consumer groups, NGOs, universities and research centers began working on changing both the farmers’ practices in regards to pesticides and the laws that regulate them. The research, carried out from economic, environmental and health perspectives, was instrumental in helping farmers, the public, and policymakers to better understand the hidden costs of pesticide technology, recently leading to legislation to ban the sale and distribution of highly toxic pesticides. This process, however, was not free of challenges and lessons.

Two perspectives on communications

One of the purposes of this chapter is to reflect on two different perspectives of communications that the authors have faced in their work. On the one hand, we have the traditional view of communication within think tanks or research centers which is focused on conveying expert or scientific knowledge in such a way that a given proposal or idea is taken into consideration by policymakers. Andrea comes from this background and is much more familiar with a top-down approach of change: changing policies to impact society. The other view is that it is throughout our daily actions, activities and choices that we communicate. Myriam and Steve are more familiar with this approach were scientific knowledge can change practices at the personal and community level.

It is almost predictable that for most researchers communications comes as an after thought. After all, researchers have learned to focus on methods, validities and citations. As a result, communications may be undervalued by researchers and oversimplified to the tasks and chores that must be implemented to convey ideas to policymakers. Other times it is still viewed as a matter of elites and networks, in the sense that researchers focus on understanding the ‘who is who of politics’ to find the best connectors to reach decision-makers and convince them of their idea or policy change. The public and those directly affected by policy tend to be hidden on the process of communicating overshadowed by those making policy decisions.

The other perspective is more comprehensive: communications is not only the use language but more so it is about how practice ultimately becomes a public display of what is possible and what is desirable. From this perspective, practice and communications go hand in hand; which is why it becomes important to carry out creative activities. For example, in this story, researchers introduced fluorescent tracers into backpack sprayers and then returned to homes at night with ultraviolet lights as a means of helping families to see contamination pathways into the home.

The dialogue between these two perspectives of reaching out for change will bring important lessons for communicating complex topics that have become deeply rooted in a community.

If you have any comments, please add them below

You can find the book here: Communicating complex ideas: the book

Civilian control of the military in Serbia

[Editor’s note: This blog is part of an ongoing study on communicating complex ideas. This post has been written by Goran Buldioski, Director of the Think Tank Fund, but the team includes other members of the Belgrade Centre for Security Studies. This paper did not make it to the final book. You can find the book here: Communicating complex ideas: the book]

There are no easy policy changes. Yet, some are more difficult to influence than others. The civil oversight of the military is one of the essential tenets of democracy and perhaps one of the most complex issues in setting up democratic governance anywhere. The Belgrade Centre for Security Policy (BCSP) has been engaged in the civil oversight of the Serbian security sector since it was founded 15 years ago with unmatched success by any other local or regional independent organisation. The research that a small team of BCSP and I will conduct this summer will:

  • Look into the research uptake in an ever changing political context; explore how the policy context has changed alongside BSCP communication attempts;
  • Reflect on the changes BCSP made in their communication approach throughout the last six years; specifically how they have used their educational activities to increase the traction of their advice in the decision-making circles;
  • Explore the reasons that led them to hire a full-time communication specialist, and how this has changed the communication of research findings; and
  • Collect lessons learned for BCSP and other researchers on how to improve the research uptake on such a sensitive policy issue.

Context and related research questions

In the early 2000s, not so long ago, the civil oversight over the military and other state security agencies was a topic off limits to NGOs and other independent actors outside the administration and the political elite in Serbia (and in the Balkans in general). In the last 12 years, with a lot of help of international organisations, the international community and local think tanks such as BCSP, the topic has reached the public domain. While there are a number of policy options available to countries reeling out of an armed conflict or moving away from an authoritarian rule, each of those are easier designed than implemented. To start with, the very idea of civilian control over the military is mostly contested than embraced by the local powerful, military, and political elites. Under such circumstance,s further exacerbated by fierce power struggles between outgoing and incoming elites, independent actors such as think tanks have to tread very carefully. The chapter will look in the way the researchers have pushed the idea of civilian control into the public domain and the interest, resistance, support and concerns they have faced in this process.

BCSP, throughout their engagement, touched upon some of the most politically (and ideologically) sensitive questions in Serbia: e.g. its role in the many regional conflicts in the past 20 years and potential accession into NATO. On the other hand, it has also dealt with more technical issues related to the design and implementation of reforms in the security sector (by-laws, ‘small reform initiatives’) that have improved its performance. We will look at how researchers have reconciled these two in communicating the center’s research findings.

Capturing the specificity of BCSP approaches

In the Serbian context, the image of academic quality of research may take priority to the clarity of the message. BCSP aspiration to earn respect by the academic community has affected the type of analytical products they have drafted as well as the choice of audience and the manner(s) of interaction. Looking at the dialogue between the academic research and BCSP work with practitioners in the field would be our particular interest. Additionally, external evaluators have emphasised the role of educational work in reaching out to different audiences to not only place BCSP research findings on their radars, but also as a better way of communicating complex ideas. We will explore the contribution of education activities to research uptake.

Human factor

We will also look at who has been tasked with the research uptake and how these responsibilities have shifted from being solely on the shoulders of BCSP researchers to now being shared by a specialist staff (full-time communication expert) and the researchers. Exploring and comparing the practices of securing research uptake under these two regimes should yield some more valuable lessons to be learned.

The methodology

The design comprises of two key research methods. First, we will carry out qualitative and quantitative analysis of BCSP research products, events and educational activities. In doing so, we will create a single timeline with three dimensions: BCSP research products, events and educational activities. This timeline will be then juxtaposed with the timeline of key events in the sector. While finding correlation between BCSP approaches and the changes is the sector is not our immediate goal, we will try to identify trends and patterns of research uptake as well as approaches by BSCP researchers. Second, we will conduct some 25-30 in-depth semi-structured interviews with two key audiences: a) researchers and other BCSP insiders, and b) policy makers. With the former we will aim to deepen our understanding of the BCSP approaches, while from the latter we would aim to extract the impact and the real research uptake achieved by BCSP.

We look forward to enriching ourselves and the field in this process.

If you have any comments or questions for the authors please add them below. 

You can find the book here: Communicating complex ideas: the book

The People, The Planet, The Can – The social marketing and re-branding of breastmilk

[Editor’s note: This blog is part of an ongoing study on communicating complex ideasAnna Coutsoudis, established the first community-based breastmilk bank in South Africa and is a founding member of HMBASA (Human Milk Banking Association of South Africa) which she currently chairs. Shannon Kenny and Patrick Kenny and independent communication consultants; creative directors, Mixed Media, Durban. It was written by the authors. You can find the book here: Communicating complex ideas: the book]

South Africa is one of the countries with an ever-increasing infant mortality rate. In fact it is one of the few countries where this has happened. Coutsoudis, Coovadia and King cited in The Lancet that research has shown how infant mortality is on the rise because of the increase in Formula Feeding. Breastfeeding decreases the risk of infant mortality. Unfortunately, formula feeding is increasing despite the fact that breastmilk is scientifically proven to be immeasurably better.

Unfortunately, breatmilk/breastfeeding do not have the advantage of better marketing and advertising. One solution to this problem is the re-branding of breastmilk/breastfeeding.

“The People, The Planet, The Can” started life in 2011 as a multi-media communication strategy for effective breastmilk marketing that recognises the need to involve all of society (not just women and expectant mothers) and seeks to convince them of the facts by addressing their aspirations to ultimately affect and effect a cultural change.

The chapter we propose for this book is a critical analysis of our relationship as a researcher/communicator team within the framework of this policy issue. We will address how and why this relationship came about; our strengths and how these have been built upon; our limitations and how these have been overcome/compensated for or steps being taken to do so; etc.

We also hope to explore the relationship between policy makers and their funding partners (aid agencies, foundations, the private sector and business) and the roles of these funding partners as de facto policy-makers and the manner in which policy has traditionally been communicated to the broader public via the media and information or education campaigns, for example.

As a researcher/communicator team, we are of the belief that at the heart of the challenge to effectively communicate complex research ideas to policy-makers should lie a clear communication strategy that includes the knowledge that these ideas/findings ultimately will need to be communicated to civil society.

Based on our experience, we would like to put forward the case for more and better researcher/communicator partnerships around policy issues. While our relationship has been a healthy, long-term one, so to speak, we cannot claim to be experts in this arena but merely ‘experienced’ at conducting just such a relationship.

From experience we have learned that:

  • Constant critical evaluation and review of communication methods is necessary. Critical evaluation will involve admitting that ‘we got it wrong’ or ‘we could do it better/differently’ when presented with evidence.
  • Communication is a process and there has to be a recognition that no strategy, method or medium will be appropriate for every context.
  • Sometimes, ‘getting it right’ will require taking an opposite view or looking at the successes of one’s detractors.
  • There has to be a long-term commitment to creating and refining communication methods.
  • Policy-makers are as much a part of society as any other member of civil society and are therefore influenced by prevailing cultural norms, advertising and promotional material.Therefore, when communicating ideas to policy-makers that conflict with a prevailing cultural norm, researchers and communicators need to take into account that the facts accompanied by a strong emotional argument will be more persuasive than mere facts.
  • Formulation of a communication strategy may require partnerships with individuals or organisations who have resources in the form of skills and/or funds of which the team has little or no in offer.

Most importantly, what and how we communicate ultimately affects the lives of people – individuals, families, communities, nations -and in our specific case, is very much a matter of life and death.

The research process to test these lessons will include, where possible, interviews with and drawing comments from policy-makers and their funding partners and supporters; individuals and organisations with whom we have partnered as well as those opposed to current policy; the media (press and broadcast media); members of the broader HMBASA (Human Milk Banking Association of South Africa) team and members of various sectors of the diverse South African public.

If you have any comments or questions for the authors please add them below. 

You can find the book here: Communicating complex ideas: the book

Middle East education reform think tank project

[Editor’s note: this post is part of an ongoing project on communicating complex ideas. You can find the book here: Communicating complex ideas: the book]

Ted Purinton and Amir ElSawy at the American University in Cairo have set up a blog for the project where they will keep us updated of their progress. From their introduction:

This blog is a component of a project we are working on regarding the communication challenges that think tanks have in conveying complex research to diverse audiences. Our work is a subset of a larger project organized by GDNet. Our specific aim is to examine how think tanks communicate research–and most importantly, policy recommendations–to policymakers, reformers, journalists, and other researchers in the Middle East, specifically on the topic of education, at both the university and pre-university levels. We are concerned with the issues that arise from disconnects between the international trends in education reform and the local beliefs and institutionalized practices of education in Arab countries. With this in mind, we would like to introduce ourselves and the format of this blog.


Of course, it is not appropriate to generalize across MENA countries, or even across MENA countries that have been sites of protest in the past two years. Yet, with a common language and religion, MENA countries are often targeted simultaneously by think tank research and advocacy messages. We are interested in understanding the complexities, contradictions, commonalities, challenges, and successes of think tank research and advocacy for educational reform. We will begin with Egypt, but we will also explore Gulf countries, and a few other countries undergoing social and political change. Our intent is to understand how the shaping of messages can take into account the complicated regional changes and still promote positive and productive educational reform. Our main interest, of course, is indeed educational reform, and especially coming from an “American” university, even our efforts are highly questioned within Egypt. Yet if we desire to influence educational reform, we have to ensure that our messages, and the vehicles we use to convey our messages, are appropriate, sensitive, and targeted. Understanding how to do so is the purpose of our chapter.

You can find the book here: Communicating complex ideas: the book

Can think tanks have the cake and eat it too? CIPPEC´s dilemmas in promoting electoral reform in Argentina

[Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing project to study the challenges involved in communicating complex ideas. It has been written by María Page, Coordinator of the Politics and Public Management Program at CIPPEC. She was involved in the Single Ballot project from the very beginning. You can find the book here: Communicating complex ideas: the book]

In Argentina, we use the French ballot voting system: each political party prints, distributes and supplies its own ballots during Election Day. The system worked fairly well while there were two main parties of relatively equal in size, territorial outreach and resources. But after the 2001 socioeconomic and political crisis, extreme party fragmentation rendered the voting system archaic, ineffective and inequitable. Ballot proliferation is now so extensive that it is almost impossible to cast an informed vote; ballot theft has become widespread; and the larger parties and incumbents enjoy an important advantage due to greater capabilities for printing, distributing and watching over their ballots.

In the 2007 national election there were numerous accusations of ballot theft and serious shortage of party monitors. As a consequence, opposition parties and civil society organisation began to demand the adoption of the single ballot system. CIPPEC joined the choir. In spite of our claims, the national government continued to be consistently reluctant to consider the change.

Back then, we were completely caught in the incumbents-opposition confrontation dynamics, blended in the civil-society-plus-opposition group.  How could CIPPEC, a think tank, make a difference in advocating for the adoption of the single ballot? How to find a distinctive and more constructive approach? The challenge, we concluded, was to reintroduce the issue in the public agenda with a completely new perspective.  We had to change the terms of the public debate.

We didn’t know at the time that it was the beginning of a road that took us from evidence based advocacy to implementation and evaluation. It has been quite a ride, with no few dilemmas and difficult choices. And it has not ended yet: the National Congress is now discussing a reform to change the voting system and we have been asked to provide a technical opinion for the Constitutional Affairs Committee.

Building the case was relatively easy; we shifted the argument from equity among parties to citizen´s rights. By adopting the single ballot system the State takes on the responsibility to grant every citizen the supply of all electoral options, thus protecting a fundamental political right: the right to choose and be elected. International experience and the specialised literature were on our side. But once we had a solid case, how could we communicate our arguments to inform the public debate in a constructive way? How to translate them for the media? How to make them attractive for our policy community?

CIPPEC´s advocacy for the Australian ballot was made public by disseminating a short document among policy makers and journalists and several op-eds published in the national press. Our citizen-oriented approach to the issue was key to make our voice stand out as distinctive, equanimous and qualified.

We succeeded to positioning ourselves as Australian ballot champions. Which, in turn, lead us to being involved in the implementation of the reform. In December 2010, the province of Santa Fe -the third electoral district in size- introduced the Australian ballot, to be used for the first time in the 2011 provincial primary elections. The governor -the first socialist to run an Argentine province- requested CIPPEC´s support for the implementation of the new voting system. We had mixed emotions –and interests: we were thrilled to be a part of this pioneering experience, but we also knew that there was a considerable risk in getting involved. What would happen if the election went wrong? Would a failed first attempt affect our role of evidence-based champions? We decided to take the risk.

Our journey had one more unexpected twist. The government of Santa Fe requested us to conduct an evaluation of the implementation of the single ballot in the provincial general elections. Did it make any sense? Could we stand on both sides of the desk?

Our case study will seek to share, analyse and discuss the various challenges, hazards and choices we had to face as a consequence of involving in the different phases of the policy making process and the different communication tools we used along the way. We will also consider how, if any, different communication and research approaches could have improved this process. For us, it has been a fascinating and extremely educational ride, and we’d like to share it with others.

If you have any comments or questions for the authors please feel free to comment below. 

You can find the book here: Communicating complex ideas: the book


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