News, events and job announcements from think tanks and donors around the world for think tanks and think tankers.
Posts tagged ‘IDRC’
Research communications support: why do donors, think tanks and consultants keep making the same mistakes?
[Editor's note: Caroline Cassidy is the Research and Policy in Development (RAPID) Programme's Communication Officer. This post is a response to: Developing research communication capacity: lessons from recent experiences and can be read alongside Vanesa Weyrauch's own response -coming up this Wednesday]
Building capacity to develop research communications skills and competencies for policy influence is not a new thing. There are a multitude of players involved in the process who have been working in this area for years. And evaluating that capacity development is not really a new thing either. So why then should I be writing this blog if what I am about to say is nothing new? Because, despite clear recommendations for better support, time and time again, donors, think tanks and consultants keep coming up against the same challenges, leaving research communication to the end of the project, then getting caught up in a cycle of workshops and interventions that are unlikely to have the desired impact, and when researchers or teams are already looking to their next area of work.
I arrive at this type of capacity development from ODI’s Research and Policy in Development (RAPID) programme where I have been working with the team to build on ODI’s years of work helping to develop the capacity of researchers and organisations in a variety of contexts, to have impact in the policy realm. Enrique and Martine’s evaluation findings from a recent communications project that RAPID and INASP worked on for IDRC last year identify some very interesting (though sadly not all new) issues that frequently surface when we do this type of work: contextual concerns – in a short space of time, can a consultant really get to the crux of the project without having a strong working knowledge of the context themself; support often comes at the end of a project so that therefore it feels like it is ‘tagged on’ as an extra dimension, rather than an integral one; and ensuring you have the right people in a team involved in the first place, who can benefit the most from the support.
One recommendation from Enrique and Martine that I don’t think we at ODI have seen before is assessing demand and talking directly to the grantees who need support before a contract is even signed, then deciding whether this capacity support should be provided and to whom. This is also related to another report lesson on researcher incentives and pressures beyond communications and the fact that many do not believe it is their role to engage at all – that it is someone else’s job. Therefore, assessing the demand and finding the right people within the organisation to work with as early as possible is absolutely critical, (and then re-evaluating this throughout the duration of the support, as circumstances alter). And if it looks as if it’s not going to have the necessary impact – consultants and think tanks should have the ability to just say no from the outset.
Yet, despite these and other well-established, clear and very sensible principles, there seem to be a few key confounding factors that often impede their implementation:
The first is funding; although there is a growing consensus of the importance of communicating research, funding for communication has undoubtedly suffered at the hands of the economic downturn and the growing ‘value for money’ agenda. It is not always seen as a major priority in the research cycle and often too closely, and even wrongly, associated with branding and marketing, rather than policy influence. Moreover, even in the communication arena donors often favour interventions that lead directly to visible outputs like, the workshop.
Secondly, as Enrique and Martine emphasise, there is often poor planning: donors and organisations realise quite late into a project and budget cycle that the teams need extra support in this area, but with not much time and little funding, a ‘quick’ workshop is often seen as an immediate ‘magic wand’. As a blog by my colleague, Ajoy Datta highlights – workshops do give a good introduction to the topic and some initial support, but are unlikely to make a real impact once the participants have left the building.
I also think that there is still the misconception, at some levels, that researchers and teams shouldn’t be thinking about the communication of their work until later in the process or indeed towards the end. However, whoever leads on communications needs to engage with stakeholders as early as possible to ensure relationships are cemented and that ideally decision-makers have buy in.
And finally, well even if they could do all of the above, donors frequently do not have sufficiently flexible mechanisms and incentives to support a more appropriate response, as discussed in a recent ODI background note: Promoting evidence-based decision-making in development agencies.
So faced with all this doom and gloom, what can be done? While workshops can still be useful, in RAPID, we are now trying to incorporate them where possible, as part of a wider and longer involvement in a project, and one where ideally we are involved from the beginning. For example, we are currently working on a two year project with the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie) on communications support to their grantees, knowledge management development (at an organisational level) and another three year project on monitoring and evaluating grant policy influence. The latter is in consortium with three other regional organisations: CEPA (Sri Lanka), CIPPEC (Argentina) CommsConsult (Zimbabwe). It is an exciting, though we recognise, rare opportunity to work at different organisational levels to do some thinking, develop tools, research and capacity work in a ‘quality learning laboratory’. Support will be provided by locally based teams working in context, prioritising face-to-face engagement (which does include workshops!), but also using online engagement where necessary. All of this will hopefully help to ensure better impact, longevity and buy in through stronger, more collaborative relationships between researchers and policy-makers, and from our side, better contextual knowledge.
And for other projects, where we are working with smaller organisations and donor budgets, we are trying to ensure that there is additional support around the workshops through mentoring, field trips, local partners and we will certainly take on board the recommendations put forward by Enrique and Martine. And sharing evaluation findings in early discussions with donors can make a big difference. An organisation I am working with decided to implement more face-to-face support, because the donor read and assimilated the recommendations from another project evaluation report.
Communications capacity development is a constant learning process and there is no best-case, winning magic formula. But nor should there be – because good support is so dependent on the organisation, project, participants and the context, and just ‘shoehorning’ a ready-made approach or template is not going to work. This report contains some useful principles to guide new forms of support and to encourage donors, think tanks and consultants alike to not fall into the same traps of short-term support that frequently only deliver mediocre results. And above all, interventions are far more likely to become embedded into the life of a project (and hopefully beyond) if they are part of the project from the beginning and not left as an afterthought.
[Editor's note: Vanesa Weyrauch's response will come out on Wednesday but if you'd like to join the conversation with a post of your own, please send us an email or tweet. See the original post for inspiration: Developing research communication capacity: lessons from recent experiences]
Almost half a year ago I wrote some unsolicited recommendations for the future head of the Think Tank Initiative. This week I’ve had the chance to share some of them with the incoming Program Manager: Hans Gutbrod. Over the last few days here in Cape Town he has also expressed his own views on twitter and in conversations with think tank directors and researchers at the event. Today, after a long day at the TTIexchange in South Africa I sat down with him for a quick chat about his motivations and expectations.
Why did you apply for the job?
I am passionate about making research work, but making it work in a way and in places where it’s even more important that research gives citizens and their countries a voice. And this is what the Think Tank Initiative is about. Think tanks, at their best, anchor expertise in a country and allow research to make a difference in the long term. But nothing lasts without the right individuals and institutions (that the TTI is supporting).
What is your think tank experience?
I worked for almost 6 years with a research organisation focused on the delivery of empirical research: a Fact Tank. (Hans was Regional Director at Caucasus Research Resource Center.) In a context where even the basic numbers were contested (unemployment levels, levels of destitution, etc.) there was a need for this approach. A fact tank can be a think tank. This strategy worked well for a highly polarised context and our centre did this work rather well and gave citizens (who were finally being counted) a voice via our research.
Can think tank make a difference in unfriendly contexts?
Even in difficult contexts when the constraints faced by think tanks in different situations are sizeable, the opportunities are there too. Small policy fixes can make huge differences to the majority of citizens. But to be effective under these circumstances, think tanks need to be highly responsive and in a way contribute to create their own opportunities for success. Once this happens, success is cumulative, melting problems away once you get going.
Do you have a definition of a think tank?
Ask me in 3 months. It is important to make sure that we have one that in inclusive whilst meaningful. But if I was to outline some principles: it would have to be interested broadly in the public good, be non-for-profit, and it should apply judgement to generate the appropriate type and level of knowledge that can feed into policy and practice.
What do you mean by appropriate?
That it responds to the context. That it addresses the problem: is it ignorance or disfunctionality? These require different types of knowledge. In doing so they need to behave like entrepreneurs. When people try to generate knowledge that adds value they take certain risks; risks similar to those taken by entrepreneurs. They must also develop and sustain influencing processes; similar to the enterprises taken on by entrepreneurs.
But back to the definition. Think tanks, at least in the idealised version, start with a concern about an issue and research is at the core of their response to it. In other words, research is central to their credibility and identity.
You are right. When deciding what is and what is not a think tank we can ask ourselves what we think of when we think of an organisation. Amnesty International, for instance, may do research but that is not the first thing that comes to mind when I think of it.
I know you’ve had only a few days to get to know the grantees and the initiative but is there anything that you have found particularly appealing?
Difficult to pick… Maybe that in 10 to 15 years it is possible that the idea of think tanks in the ‘south’ will be seen as normal and central as they are in more developed economies. This is now possible because of the internet. From my own experience I know how central it was for us to succeed in a difficult context. Even in hard circumstances we had access to information about our role models half way across the world. They were only a few seconds away; closer than the bookshelf.
That the discussions we have had today are now available to people on the internet in a radical development.
And what about concerns?
Leadership is critical to success. But the kind of leadership that is necessary in research in one with an element of productive paranoia. Leadership is an authority claim and for this claim to be credible it needs to be rigorous. So leaders in the initiative need to ask themselves again and again what works and what doesn’t and why. They need to surround themselves by an environment of discipline pluralism.
And the conversation, I expect, will continue. It has been (so far; the exchange still has another day to go) a great opportunity to learn more about think tanks and their staff. I will continue to blog about some of the main issues that emerged over the course of the plenaries and workshops (and coffee breaks) over the next few weeks. And I hope, of course, to welcome Hans to onthinktanks.org again.
[Editor's note: Jeanne Muller is a Latin American, Latino, & Caribbean Studies major at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, working as an intern at Grupo FARO, in Ecuador. This is a new version of a post originally published in GRUPO FARO INTERNSHIP]
Think tanks always seemed like rather mysterious entities to me. I imagined them as places, over there in the Capital, where men with big brains and suits cooked up solutions to problems that I couldn’t even begin to understand. More than once my friends have asked, jokingly, “So, like, are you going to think in a tank?”
I’m currently assisting Grupo FARO’s Research Director Andrea Ordóñez put together a report for an upcoming conference in South Africa organized by the Canadian International Development Research Centre (IDRC). Through its Think Tank Initiative (TTI), IDRC seeks to support, both financially and technically, independent research institutions in developing countries. Grupo FARO is one of 49 grantees of the project and is currently coordinating and writing a document profiling and analyzing stories of successful policy influence by various think tanks in Latin America, Africa, and South Asia.
We’ve been working on this project for several weeks now and still I find myself unable to coherently answer the most basic questions. What are think tanks? Where do they come from? What do they do? I’ve got experts by my side, websites and blogs a click away, and a pile of books sitting on my desk and I’m at a total loss of how to begin answering these questions.
The term think tank is a rather ambiguous one and definitions vary. After having read twelve accounts of how think tanks from all over the world have been able to influence public policy as part of the project, I can say that think tanks can be as different as the colors of the rainbow. They come in all shapes and sizes, have different core values and missions, work in a range of different issues, use different methodologies, and employ different strategies to reach different targets. Many of the authors I’ve consulted define think tanks by comparing them to other entities: “universities without students”, “more intellectual variants of pressure groups”, “idea factories”. Yet these descriptions are hardly satisfactory and only capture one facet of what a think tank is.
At the most basic level, a think tank is a place where people (hopefully smart ones) get together to explore and come up with solutions to important problems. I believe think tanks are most often conceived as independent research institutions that are made up of intellectuals and seek to influence government policy. In the scientific tradition, they use evidence derived from investigation to form and inform public policy. In Spanish “think tank” translates to centro de investigación aplicada or instituto de investigación de políticas públicas (literally “center for applied research” and “public policy research institute”, respectively) (Correa & Mendizabal, 2011, p. 14). Research becomes practical, a tool to create policies that better serve society. Think tanks are institutions that seek to create better societies.
Mine is a very general lay understanding of think tanks. Here are some other definitions and characterizations that I’ve come across so far:
- Diane Stone (2004) writes that most definitions of think tanks fall into one of two categories: those that emphasize the organizational structure as the defining quality of a think tank and, alternatively, those that examine its functions and what it does (specifically policy research) as the main evidence of its think-tankiness (pp. 1-2). The latter definition has become more popular as think tanks have become more widespread and transformed.
- Donald E. Abelson and Ever A. Lindquist (2000), speaking on North American think tanks, write, “…think tanks are nonprofit, nonpartisan organizations engaged in the study of public policy…” (p. 38). They point out that few scholars have tried to differentiate between think tanks and other non-governmental organizations. What’s more, there is increasing overlap between the natures of think tanks and interest groups as each one attempts to adopt strategies of the other. According to the authors, there are about 300 think tanks in the United States excluding university-affiliated institutes.
- John C. Goodman (2005) of the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) describes think tanks as “idea factories” where intellectuals come together to investigate alternative solutions to policy issues. He distinguishes between “one roof” model think tanks, in which intellectuals are physically gathered, and post-Internet “organizations without walls” which are considerably more flexible and efficient but potentially less established and renowned. Furthermore, Goodman describes think tanks as businesses that work for results; “intellectual entrepreneurs” use knowledge to create change and think tanks “market” themselves and their ideas.
- Yet the predominant and rigid Anglo-American definition of think tanks fails to accommodate the growing number of think tanks in other countries. Diane Stone explores the complexities of defining think tanks. I was attracted to the following description of hers: “think tanks collect, synthesize and create a range of information products, often directed towards a political or bureaucratic audience, but sometimes also for the benefit of the media, interest groups, business, international civil society and the general public of the nation” (2004, p. 3).
- In his blog onthinktanks, Enrique Mendizabal offers a definition of think tanks based on what they are not. “The more narrow definition: an organisation not governed by the rules of academia, policy, the media or the private sector and that seeks policy influence through research (also broad) informed arguments,” he writes (2011). Rather, a think tank is at the intersection of all these dimensions and something more.
These are just some of the scholars I’ve consulted so far in my quest to learn more about those enigmatic organisms we call think tanks. I plan to keep building on this knowledge, and of course, to keep you all updated as I do!
P.S. The books I’ve been reading are:
- Think Tanks and Civil Societies: Catalysts for Ideas and Action, 2002, edited by James G. McGann and R. Kent Weaver
- Think Tank Traditions: Policy research and the politics of ideas, 2004, edited by Diane Stone and Andrew Denham
- Thinking Politics: Intellectuals and Democracy in Chile, 1973–1988, 1994, by Jeffrey M. Puryear
- From Thatcher to the Third Way: Think-Tanks, Intellectuals and the Blair Project, 2003, by Robert Carl Blank
- Vínculos entre conocimiento y política: el rol de la investigación en el debate público en América Latina, 2011, edited by Norma Aste Correa and Enrique Mendizabal
This blog has always strived to provide useful information about think tank for think tanks. Announcements like these are important (if you would like me to forward similar announcements about new projects or appointments please do not hesitate to contact me).
The CIGI announcement reads:
The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) is pleased to announce the appointment of Rohinton Medhora as president, effective May 19, 2012.
Dr. Medhora is currently vice president of programs at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), a federal crown corporation that supports research in developing countries to promote growth and development. Previously, he was director of IDRC’s Social and Economic Policy programs and led the centre’s Micro Impacts of Macroeconomic and Adjustment Policies and Trade, Employment and Competitiveness initiatives.
Dr. Medhora knows think tanks well. At IDRC he has worked with and supported several think tanks in developing countries and actively participated in the Think Tank Initiative. He recently wrote a blog about think tanks’s policy communities.
By Marie-Claude Martin, Program Manager of the Think Tank Initiative (TTI).
This report focuses on the work of the 51 think tanks supported by the Initiative, the contexts they operate in and how they are addressing their challenges. By working closely with these think tanks, we have been able to document some of the common challenges they face – challenges around governance and leadership, retention and recruitment of researchers, meaningful engagement with policy actors, and long-term sustainability. These institutional issues, while key to their performance, are rarely accounted for in the planning and budgeting of individual projects or short-term consultancies.
The annual report gives examples on how core funding brings to an institution the ability to decide on what, when and how to invest their resources to face these challenges. Following its publication and the recent posts on TTI (and its next head!) on this blog, I would like to offer an additional reflection on how the Initiative is starting to build empirical and reliable evidence to make a serious case for core, flexible, predictable support to think tanks.
It is widely assumed that think tanks are important. They are so because they can enrich the thinking and implementation of better governance in the countries they operate in. When the Initiative was created assertions such as the above were based on a few scoping studies led by the Hewlett Foundation as well as on IDRC’s experience supporting policy research in developing countries. Three years later, there is still limited evidence to support this claim.
A first step in generating evidence is to generate data. The Initiative is creating a database that contains quantitative and qualitative information on the institutions we fund. This data encapsulates the diversity of the think tanks: the big and the small, the new and the well-established, the research-focused and the advocacy-oriented, and so on. The data also captures information on their early achievements: from becoming a voice that informs public debate in a particular country to providing solid, robust evidence to back the development of transformative policies. But this is only one side of the equation; we also needed to understand better the demand for policy research, so the Initiative carried out a polling exercise of the policy communities in which these institutions work (and will do so again in 3 years).
TTI therefore has and will continue to collect a large amount of information on both the supply and the demand side of policy research in (23) developing countries. Some of this data is exclusively for the use of the TTI supported institutions. But most of it will be aggregated and will be made available to others interested in mining the data and building empirical evidence on think tanks.
We are embarking on a 10 year program and the field of knowledge regarding policy research institutions is emerging. Given the enormous potential for the role that think tanks play in national development processes, other fundamental but “unsearched” questions on success, failures and the many dimensions related to effective local research will be investigated.
Research in social science is a public good (at least most of it), and hence it is underfunded. We expect that TTI outputs, which will also be public goods, will help convince others that policy research must be supported.