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Posts tagged ‘Goran Buldioski’

Supporting think tanks series: From core and institutional support to organizational development grants

The Think Tank Fund is changing the way it supports think tanks. Its new strategy will encourage a more mature relationship with its grantees, make it easier to monitor progress, and provide the necessary incentives for think tanks to take their own development seriously. Goran Buldioski, its director, outlines the new model.

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Capacity building for think tanks: advice from Goran Buldioski

Goran Buldioski, Director of the Open Society Foundations' Think Tank Fund, offers some principles to follow when designing capacity development interventions for think tanks. He places a clear emphasis on buy in: "Training is provided only to those who demand it".

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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

Think tanks transparency and Twitter accounts

A few weeks ago Goran Buldioski published a post on transparency and I commented on an article by George Monbiot on think tanks’ transparency. Monbiot’s article sparked some debate on twitter and led Brian Dean from News Frames to put together a list of British think tanks’ twitter accounts to encourage the public to tweet asking them to disclose the source of their funding.

I have taken the liberty to use the list to put together a Twitter list of British think tanks.

I am not sure if as a consequence of this but Unlock Democracy already replied by publishing all their funding over £5000. 

Transparency should replace (strive to) impartiality in policy research

By Goran Buldioski,  Program Director of the Open Society Institute’s Think Tank Fund. His post addresses the persistent issue of how to ensure or review think tank’s independence.

We have all heard so many times that policy research is not value free. Some critics go one step further by claiming that impartial analysis is rather a far-fetched ideal than an attainable goal in the everyday work of a researcher.  In the other camp, more ‘scientific’ oriented researchers claim that it is only about the scrutiny and the quality of the process. Once complied with certain standards, the research would certainly result into an objective account of the problem and the alternative solutions. Given that think tanks (and NGOs) have taken on roles that historically have been part of the state, it will be necessary for a code of conduct to be aligned to the one we expect from the state. The more the think tankers boost of their own impact, the need for their accountability is greater.

The accountability of policy research is thus an aspect that has raised many debates hitherto. Not surprisingly, many of these debates have focused on the way that the research has been carried out. The aspect of who has been carried out the research (who – not only with regard to competencies, but also in terms of values and personal / organizational history) has not been neglected, but somehow treated artificially (including one of my texts cited below).

In the spring 2009 I published an article in the International Journal of Not-For-profit Law in which I advocated for think tanks in Central and Eastern Europe to devise and adopt codes of conduct:

Think tanks do not act alone in the policy environment. Neither are they obliged to be neutral or free of ideology. Many in the region are staunch advocates of certain doctrines and concepts about the development of their own societies. The only position a think tank should avoid is becoming the advocate of a certain client, because that loss of independence undermines the impact of a think tank’s research. It is essential for think tanks to be explicit and transparent about the ethical values underlying their research work and advocacy. At present, think tanks enjoy a reputation as neutral transmitters of scientific ideas and policy analysis. This independence is their key feature well positioning think tanks to promote good communication between state and society. Likewise, the media is also keen on using think tank experts who they expect are serving the public interest.

The lack of a “framework of values” and rules for conduct for think tanks—among the most resolute proponents of government transparency and accountability in CEE—could soon have negative consequences. In spheres of policy where governments are hostile to such organizations, think tanks have to guard against attacks on independent policy research. Defining a proper code of ethics and code of conduct is a way to do that. Think tanks in CEE can only benefit from proposals in this article by being resolute in formulating these essential and overdue codes.

In that text, my framework of analysis included three different pillars: the ethics of policy analysts, the codes of ethics for public service in the transitional democracies of CEE, and the NGO codes of ethics in CEE. If one looks at the full text, it is clear that I have covered more the objectivity (impartiality) of policy research complemented by some organizational safeguards. No surprise then that the text is ridden with values that we should all strive for and calls for more to developed within the think tanks.

This time around, while I stand behind my writing and still would argue for introducing such codes as part of the institutional framework of each and every think tank, I would like to call into attention the second aspect – transparency (which could, but not necessarily needs to, deal with values. The Economist’s Special Report on the News published on July 7th, although focusing on media and not on think tanks, helped me consolidate my thoughts on this issue. In this report, Nick Newman, former future media controller for journalism at the BBC, claims that transparency is the new objectivity in journalism. This catchy line resonated directly with my recent reflections inspired by three real-life situations that involved think tanks (in CEE, but also globally).

Story 1: Over a period of time, a think tank shifts its ideological stance from a proponent of liberal (social and economic) ideas to a zealot for patriot-cum-constructive nationalist agenda.

How transparency kicks in here: I see a need for the think tank in question to put a timeline of its products and a short history/story of its development online. It should mark the change, even if it does not offer a full-fledged rationale behind it. Since analysis is not free from ideology, it is best to let the readers utilize the analysis and recommendations and decide for themselves if the think tank’s ideological change matters to them at all.

Story 2: Few years ago, a gifted and up-and-coming scholar received a slew of scholarships to attain a number of educational degrees from a donor. In the meantime that person became a director of a prominent think tank. Both the individual and partially the think tank in question are harsh critics of the donor – former patron in its current political commentaries.

How this relates to transparency: Not everyone knows that the director has received scholarships in the past. Without entering into any need for justification, the think tank director should simply put his/her CV online and make this transparent. Such move may even result in a higher sence of value for the criticism (since the person does not shy away to criticize the former patron). More importantly, it would allow the stakeholders of the think tank and the public to have a broader picture of the history and context. Nobody needs to make value judgments, only be transparent. (I treat this as if this was a case of conflict of interests.)

Story 3. Many think tanks in Central and Eastern Europe are operating through two parallel legal entities: a not-for-profit organization and for-profit consultancy. I see nothing wrong in this arrangement, especially in the light of complicated and divergent donor practices that includes one of the other legal forms.

[Note: Often the crucial difference is that the consulting arm will work for a particular client producing (at least to some extent) private analytical products (not available to the public, or only available through the client which uses them for its own advocacy, lobbying or other purposes).]

The public (not-for-profit) think tank produces analysis that is publicly available (public good) usually paid for by a donor or from membership fees and other sources of income.

Why transparency is crucial in this case:  There is a web of intertwined aspects here. First, the public has to be aware of the duality of the brand; and who the clients and donors that are funding the organization are. Second, the donors need to know that there is no double dipping (often the two entities are staffed by the same people sharing the overall work and costs). Third, the clients have the right ensure that what they pay for on their ‘private good’ has not been turned out ‘public’ on the other end of the organization. Finally, if the think tank engages into political consulting, there should be clear bottom-line about who could appear as a client and who could not (simply jeopardizing the entire concept of analysis for public good). In my understanding, this bottom-line is context dependent and changes from one place to the other depending on different factors (level of political culture, the maturity of the consulting market and other…)

In conclusion, think tanks should do their best in insuring that the data and facts they use are from trusted sources and their analysis is as objective as possible. However, they should not forget to be transparent about who they are and where do they come. Even if at a first look, this information might seem ‘damaging’ it is always better for think tanks (as probably for everyone else in the policy/political arena). After all, it is better for think tanks to put out public the facts about themselves instead of someone else, usually with ill intentions, spreading rumor and gossiping about the same matter.

Goran’s recommendations on think tank rankings

Goran Buldioski offers another take on the rankings in his blog Goran’s musings and some very interesting recommendations that I republish below:

As someone who works with think tanks, studies think tanks, writes about think tanks, I see very little value in it. Therefore, it is high time to move to alternatives to this study:

  1. Best national think tanks (see the suggestion of Enrique Mendizabal) modeled on the UK’s ranking done by Prospect magazine. Note: Thematic categories could be also established.
  2. Best Policy study ( for example see the Policy Association for Open Society (PASOS) award for the best study penned by their members).
  3. Best advocacy campaign by a think tanks (consisted of a series of policy products (from op-ed to book), events (briefings, debates, seminars, conferences, training events etc.).
  4. Best online presentation. [Or maybe best online communications strategy?]
  5. Best design and communication strategy

I would add categories related to:

  1. Best long term policy research programme -that has maintained and developed a reputation on a specific issue with or without support
  2. Best prospective think tank -thinking about the future challenges of its country
  3. Best think tank to work for -to highlight the human capital development role that think tanks have
  4. Think tank to watch

I would also encourage categories related to the other members of the policy space:

  1. Best use of research based evidence by the media
  2. Best or most innovative funder
  3. Most evidence based political party manifesto

At this level, whatever category would provide an opportunity to have a real public conversation about think tanks and their contexts (and histories). No need for a ranking: one winner and some honorary mentions would do. And if there are disagreements then these can be aired publicly and addressed rather quickly before the next award.

It would encourage communication between think tank directors and with their audiences (and possible members of the panel), serve as a platform from which to launch important new policy ideas and debates, contribute to the development of more informed cadres of journalists, policymakers and funders, etc.

Do have a look at Goran’s comments about the inconsistencies in the ranking -they are quite to the point.


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