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Posts tagged ‘structure’

Resources for executive directors: competences, structure and tools

In this post we provide a synthesis of Tomás Garzón de la Roza's review of the literature and a few experiences on executive directors. He explores their competences, the structures they need, and a key tool they can use to improve their performance (and of their organisations).

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Recommendations for good policymaking from the Institute for Government -how can think tanks help?

I came across the Institute for Government‘s Better Policy Making theme a couple of weeks ago. They have recently launched a report on how to improve policy making in Whitehall (short of the British Government) that is worth reading and paying attention to.

Michael Hallsworth’s and Jill Rutter’s report outlines a number of important lessons and recommendations that are perfectly relevant for think tanks across the world. More importantly, though, the report (and the theme) illustrates the value of studying the politics of policies -and I stand by my number one recommendation to any think tank: make your own business a subject of study.

And the report’s recommendation may also provide some ideas or entry points for think tanks. I’ll address some at the end.

Back to the report.

The study arrives at two main conclusions:

  1. Any reform needs to recognise the real world of policy making. It makes no sense to set out and promote an idealised policy making process with little relevance to what actually goes on in reality. Work by RAPID and the Africa Power and Politics Programme, for example, have been addressing these questions in the international development context.
  2. Policy making must be adaptive. Changes in government, the financial crisis, and other expected and unexpected shocks demand rapid responses from the policy making process to adapt to new challenges and opportunities. The Institute for Government calls it System Stewardship.

What does improving policy making imply? For the Institute for Government this is:

To develop a process that is both resilient to the realities of the policy making system and appropriate for meeting future challenges.

This resilient process is made up by a set of policy fundamentals that together constitute ‘good policy making’.

These fundamentals are affected by a number of components or factors interacting with each other: Structures, culture, controls, politics and skills. Therefore, to improve the fundamentals it is necessary to address these factors.

So back to the fundamentals. The Institute for Government considers that good policy has these characteristics:

  • Goals. Has the issue been adequately defined and properly framed? How will the policy achieve the high-level policy goals of the department – and the government as a whole (with reference to the departmental ‘vision’, as stated in business plans)?
  • Ideas. Has the policy process been informed by evidence that is high quality and up to date? Has account been taken of evaluations of previous policies? Has there been an opportunity or licence for innovative thinking? Have policy makers sought out and analysed ideas and experience from the ‘front line’, overseas and the devolved administrations?
  • Design. Have policy makers rigorously tested or assessed whether the policy design is realistic, involving implementers and/or end users? Have the policy makers addressed common implementation problems? Is the design resilient to adaptation by implementers?
  • External engagement. Have those affected by the policy been engaged in the process? Have policy makers identified and responded reasonably to their views?
  • Appraisal. Have the options been robustly assessed? Are they cost-effective over the appropriate time horizon? Are they resilient to changes in the external environment? Have the risks been identified and weighed fairly against potential benefits?
  • Roles and accountabilities. Have policy makers judged the appropriate level of central government involvement? Is it clear who is responsible for what, who will hold them to account, and how?
  • Feedback and evaluation. Is there a realistic plan for obtaining timely feedback on how the policy is being realised in practice? Does the policy allow for effective evaluation, even if central government is not doing it?

But what about the implementation of policy? Is a good policy on paper enough? Or should be wait and see if the policy is successful before we judge it as good? Is the proof in the pudding, so to speak? The report addresses this issue. Hallsworth and Rutter stress that policy realisation cannot be conceives as separate from policy design:

  • Policy formulation and implementation are not separate, but intrinsically linked
  • The potential outcomes of the policy itself may change significantly during implementation
  • Complexity in public service systems often means central government cannot directly control how these changes happen
  • The real world effects policies produce are often complex and unpredictable.
Hence, policy makers cannot just design and sit back. They must follow the life of the policy -and must be ready to adapt it and re-think it as it interacts with reality. This is what stewardship is all about -not directing but accompanying the process, intervening when necessary, and correcting the course as lessons are learned. To explain the roles of the Stewards, the authors present an interesting analogy from football, in relation to four roles: goals, rules, feedback and response.
  • Goals: The football manager sets an overall goal for the team: win the game. The manager does not stand on the touchline trying to direct every player’s movement.
  • Rules: The game has a set of basic rules: do not use hands, do not take the ball outside a set area. Apart from these basic rules, the players have freedom. The manager does not tell them to do exactly the same thing each time they receive the ball.
  • Feedback: The manager watches the game and sees how it is playing out in practice. The manager watches different parts of the game and tries to see how the team is working together overall.
  • Response: In response to the game, the manager may change the team’s tactics or formation; substitute one player for another; issue instructions to particular players; or give a motivational talk at half time. The manager tries different responses and watches for the effects that ensue.
So making it a reality demands that we address these fundamentals and interventions fall under 6 categories of factors or components:
  • Broadly speaking, policy making bodies must set out clear and public statements of policy making practice -code of conducts- to uphold these fundamentals.
  • In relation to structure: policy bodies (ministries) require a policy director to own and promote the quality of policy making within the organisation. Across the government, a head of policy profession (with the role of ensuring policy effectiveness) must be established (in the UK the Head of the Profession exists, but in other countries this is not the case).
  • In terms of controls: internal and external controls to uphold the quality of policy making must be developed and strengthened: new roles of internal auditors or publicly available sources of evidence and impact evaluations on new policies could be used.
  • In terms of politics and the roles of politicians: Good policies successfully combine the political (mobilising support and managing opposition, presenting a vision, setting strategic objectives) and the technocratic (evidence of what works, robust policy design, realistic implementation plans). Therefore, governments must make clear and public statements of its high-level policy goals to guide departments and ministries in finding the right balance. Ministers and officials also need to be given more and better guidelines related to finding the right balance between political and technocratic interests. To support this, ministers (politicians) need to be part of the policy making process from as early as possible to ensure that co-design and implementation are possible. And a key recommendation, worth setting out on its own is that:

Policy making should be seen as a more open and transparent activity. Analysis and evidence should, where possible, be produced and discussed in advance of option decisions to enable better external engagement with the problem. Ministers should be asked to make decisions from a shared analytic base. Interdepartmental discussions should focus on producing best decisions, not seeking lowest common denominator agreement to reconcile conflicting positions.

  • In terms of skills: Those playing the roles of Head of Policy Effectiveness and Heads of Policy must collaborate to develop and implement ongoing training courses. Most importantly, the civil service must recognise those who are experts in particular fields. Experts must the cherished and used to maintain a body of high quality research evidence in their subject area and networks of key contacts.External expertise, the more effective use of evaluations, and the need to address knowledge management concerns are all important additional recommendations.
  • In terms of culture: The report argues that policy making culture needs to adapt:

policy makers need to reconceive their role increasingly as one of creating the conditions for others to deal with policy problems using innovative and adaptive approaches. Incentives should be used to reward those who energetically search out experience and ideas, network, facilitate and understand the systems in which they operate. Policy making needs to be seen as a practical activity as well as an abstract one, and provide greater scope for policy makers to reflect on how they do things. Finally, in a complex and decentralised environment, expectations and perceptions of policy success need to change

What does this mean for think tanks?

Think tanks need to be equally aware of the realities of policymaking -it is useless if they work with an idealised process in mind. And this reality demands, in my view, that think tanks appeal to more than just research based evidence to develop their arguments: values, interests, experience, narratives, etc. are important sources of power in the policymaking business.

And of course, think tanks’ targets should be those codes of conduct, structures, controls, skills, politics and culture of policymaking -and not just the policies themselves.

on the definition of think tanks: Towards a more useful discussion

This is the presentation I gave at a recent meeting of think tanks hosted by ODI in London. It draws from other posts in this blog but, I hope, provides a stronger argument. It also has a Prezi:


“I do a lot of work with policymakers, but how much effect am I having? It’s like they’re coming in and saying to you, ‘I’m going to drive my car off a cliff. Should I or should I not wear a seatbelt?’

And you say, ‘I don’t think you should drive your car off the cliff.’

And they say, ‘No, no, that bit’s already been decided—the question is whether to wear a seatbelt.’

And you say, ‘Well, you might as well wear a seatbelt.’ And then they say, ‘We’ve consulted with policy expert Rory Stewart and he says . . . .’ ”

From: Peter Singer’s article on think tanks for Brookings.

The common definition, employed  by experts in the field like Diane Stone, James McGann and others, describes them as a distinctive class of organisations –not-for-profit and different and separate from universities, markets and the state- that seek to use research to influence policy.  However, as I found in the study of think tanks in Latin America, Africa and Asia, these particular think tanks only exist in the imaginary of those who idealised the Brookings and Chatham Houses of this world; and more often than not, we find ourselves dealing with the exceptions rather than the rule -this was the point of my presentation on think tanks at an event in ODI in 2009: hybrids are the norm.

Tom Medvetz paper, Think Tanks as an emergent field, provides strong arguments against this view. He argues that this definition is limited because:

  1. It privileges U.S. and U.K. think tank traditions over all others;
  2. It leaves out many present day examples that do not fit with the definition: corporatist think tanks in Japan, public think tanks in Vietnam (RAND, by the way, is a federally funded organisation), university based think tanks across Latin America, partisan think tanks in Chile, Uruguay, the U.K. and the U.S., etc.;
  3. It robs the concept of think tanks of historical depth forgetting that the first think tanks were offshoots of the very same institutions they are now supposed to be independent of; and
  4. Most significantly, it fails to recognise the importance of the concept itself: He argues that the use of the label is a strategic choice made by organisations within a complex system of actors and relations.

This last point is worth exploring further. The sudden rise of funding for think tanks has seen a rise in the number of organisations positioning (or-rebranding) themselves as think tanks.

Medvetz explains how this positioning as a think tank involves a necessary ‘complex performance of distancing and affinity’:

  • On the one hand think tanks assert their independence by differentiating themselves from universities, advocacy groups, public bodies and lobbyists; but
  • On the other hand pursue strategies or behaviours that mimic their values and practices: appointing fellows, investing in communication departments and an array of advocacy tactics, pilot projects and policy proposals, and seek to actively influence and lobby policymakers.

The act of definition is then the art of forging the identity -independent or dependent- that best suits the organisation’s objectives; which, according to Medvetz’ analysis, is the accumulation of authority within the policy space. And in a multi-actor world, this is essentially a process that takes place in relation to others: we define Brookings in relation to the Heritage (U.S.), ODI in relation to IDS (U.K.), and CIUP to GRADE (Peru).

But also, And this is left out of his analysis, this definition takes place over time and is likely to change to fit the chaining context.

Another reason why the traditional definition of think tanks is flawed is that it does not offer us anything of practical value. What does one do with a definition that describes something as’something else’ or  ‘not something else’? And what do we do when the one thing it says think tanks do is also what lots of other organisations do, too?  How does a think tank use this definition to decide how to invest its resources, where to position itself, how to influence, etc?

To address this I attempt to describe think tanks according to their functions as well as to their position in the knowledge policy space. According to recent work by ODI in Latin America –and drawing form the literature on think tanks- we could argue that think tanks can fulfil at least six roles (or services) in their political context:

  1. They can provide legitimacy to policies (whether it is ex-ante or ex-post);
  2. They can act as spaces for debate and deliberation –even as a sounding board for policymakers and opinion leaders. In some context they provide a safe house for intellectuals and their ideas;
  3. They can provide a financing channel for political parties and other policy interest groups;
  4. They attempt to influence the policy process;
  5. They are providers of cadres of experts and policymakers for political parties and governments; and
  6. (I have added Hugh Gusterson suggestion of) An auditing function for think tanks.

This approach to understanding think tanks opens the door to further analysis. The following framework (based on Stephen Yeo’s description of think tanks’ mode of work) might help.

First, think tanks may work in or based their business on one or more business models, including:

  • Independent research: this would be work done with core or flexible funding that allows the researchers the liberty to choose their research questions and method. It may be long term and could focus on ‘big ideas’ with no direct policy relevance.  On the other hand, it could focus on a key policy problem that requires a thorough research and action investment.
  • Consultancy: this would be work done through commissions with specific clients and addressing one or two key questions. Consultancies often respond to an existing agenda.
  • Influencing/advocacy: this would be work done through communications, capacity development, networking, campaigns, lobbying, etc. It is likely to be based on research based evidence emerging from independent research or consultancies.

Second, think tanks may base their work or arguments on:

  • Ideology, values or interests
  • Applied, empirical or synthesis research
  • Theoretical or academic research

As described in this table showing the mode of work and basis of the messages, this kind of analysis is more likely to follow from a functional than the traditional definition.

Tom Medvetz provides an alternative (and complementary?) framework for analysis that focuses on the positioning of think tanks within the social space.

With this in mind it is possible to explore where and how the organisation might attempt to bring about change (internal and external).

To compete in one or another space, think tanks might have to trade-off some competencies or skills. For example, to succeed among academics, think tanks might have to trade-off their communication competencies (because of limited resources as well as pressures from more academic staff to focus on academic publications rather and policy engagement).  And communications competencies (broadly defined) are what think tanks may offer academic researchers as a contribution to a productive partnership.

But, of course, deciding this depends on where the think tank decides to position itself; and some think tanks may be closer to the media, politics or economic power.

These decisions, about the skills and competencies on which think tanks should invest, should be easier if the functional boundaries of the organisation are more clearly defined.

In the end (or as in the start of the presentation) everyone has an opinion about what is a think tank.

on the business model and how this affects what think tanks do

Before defining the approaches they will employ to to being about research based policy influnce, think tanks need to ask themselves is: ‘what kind of organisation are we?’

According to recent work by ODI in Latin America –and drawing form the literature on think tanks- we could argue that think tanks can fulfil at least five roles (or services) in their political context:

  1. They can provide legitimacy to policies (whether it is ex-ante or ex-post).
  2. They can act as spaces for debate and deliberation –even as a sounding board for policymakers and opinion leaders. In some context they provide a safe house for intellectuals and their ideas.
  3. They can provide a financing channel for political parties and other policy interest groups.
  4. They attempt to influence the policy process.
  5. They are providers of cadres of experts and policymakers for political parties and governments.

How a think tank addresses these largely depends on how they work, their ideology vs. evidence credentials, and the context they operate in (including funding opportunities, the degree and type of competition they face, their staff, etc.).

We ought to define where we stand in the policy-research inter-face. However, the common debate over whether an organisaiton is a think tank or a policy research centre or anything else is, really, unhelpful. We would struggle to define any of them. It is better (as in the Network Functions Approach) to describe what the organisation should do. Then the shape of the organisation should follow to allow this to happen. The following framework (based on Stephen Yeo’s description of think tanks’ mode of work) might help.

First, think tanks may work in or based their funding on one or more ways, including:

  • Independent research: this would be work done with core or flexible funding that allows the researchers the liberty to choose their research questions and method. It may be long term and could focus on ‘big ideas’ with no direct policy relevance.  On the other hand, it could focus on a key policy problem that requires a thorough research and action investment.
  • Consultancy: this would be work done through commissions with specific clients and addressing one or two key questions. Consultancies often respond to an existing agenda.
  • Influencing/advocacy: this would be work done through communications, capacity development, networking, campaigns, lobbying, etc. It is likely to be based on research based evidence emerging from independent research or consultancies.

Second, think tanks may base their work or arguments on:

  • Ideology, values or interests
  • Applied, empirical or synthesis research
  • Theoretical or academic research

This is summarised in this matrix:

In the diagram above, independent theoretical research is the role of ‘Oxbridge’ type of research institutions. These are the ‘ivory tower’ research outfits (I do not think they are ivory towers, by the way) that focus on big ideas and little direct application or immediate relevance to policy. Some of these ivory towers, however, have Richard Dawkins (former Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Cambridge University) type of actors who use their research to advocate for a particular issue or position.

Ideologically driven advocacy is the business of some campaigning NGOs, interest groups and lobbies. These do not always base their arguments or objectives on the nuances of research but rather they might use it to support ideologically or value-based defined positions.

Think tanks (or the organisations which play the role of think tanks) are more likely to exist somewhere in between the two –with links and clear separations between them.

Naturally, in the search for legitimacy, ideologically driven groups will seek links with think tanks and academic research centres; and think tanks will seek links with academic research centres; but not the other way around.

Think tanks may be successful at controlling the ‘value chain’ by presenting themselves as desirable and useful partners for both the academics and advocates. To academics, think tanks can only offer a clear link to policy and policy relevance (not high quality research); and through it to influence.

If a think tank moves too close to ideologically driven work it is likely to lose its independence. This could lead, however, to positive results as it might give it access to a political party or government administration and secure and stable partisan/private funding, etc.  On the other hand, it might reduce its credibility and its policy space and funding opportunities.

If a think tank moves too close to theoretically driven work it might find itself competing in a market for which it may lack some key competencies and skills. Academic institutions are highly subsidised by their educational role and researchers have access o the necessary systems and resources for long term theoretical research that think tanks do not have. Furthermore, if think tanks are seen as competitors, academic researchers might be less inclined to collaborate with them.

One organisation cannot do it all.

With this in mind it is possible to explore  where and how the organisation might attempt to bring about change. A third dimension that may be added to the framework above describes the different spaces in which think tanks and other relevant actors might engage:

  • The political space: among politicians and agenda setters driven by ideology and party concerns as much as evidence, moved by the demand of voters and public opinion.
  • The practical or technocratic space: among policymakers, civil servants, analysis, experts, practitioners and policy entrepreneurs in the public sector, the media, in NGOs and in think tanks.
  • The academic space: among researchers in university research centres, epistemic communities, academic journals and conference editorial boards, etc.

Fourth, there are three sets of skills that are relevant for those in the research-policy space:

  • Research: academic in one extreme and analytical in another.
  • Communications: including research communication, networking and media.
  • Politics: including a thorough understanding of the political space, lobbying, etc.

To compete in one or another space, think tanks might have to trade-off some competencies or skills. For example, to succeed among academics, think tanks might have to trade-off their communication competencies (because of limited resources as well as pressures from more academic staff to focus on academic publications rather and policy engagement).  And communications competencies (broadly defined) are what think tanks may offer academic researchers as a contribution to a productive partnership.

But, of course, deciding this depends on where the think tank decides to position itself:

These decisions, however, should be easier if the boundaries of the organisation are more clearly defined.

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