And the winner is... the think tank community in Britain; and the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Prospect Magazine awarded its famous prize last week. Find out who won and why.
Posts tagged ‘UK’
In this eighth post in our series on Women in Think Tanks Josephine Tsui, of the Overseas Development Institute, analyses the gender distribution of staff in top think tanks and universities in the UK in an attempt to determine if there is systemic gender bias in knowledge production. The posts presents data on development and economics policy areas calling attention to gender imbalances between think tanks and universities and policy research areas and highlights gaps in available data on women's representation.
Andy Williamson, writing for The Guardian offers an interesting view in the world of British think tanks. Does it offer a warning for think tanks elsewhere? According to Williamson, think tanks must be:
critical, imaginative, creative places where a culture of new ideas is backed up by rigorous research. Creating this kind of buzz is what makes a thinktank space special: lose it, and you become tired and boring. But what is the point of this without action? To put into practice the intellectual capital they generate, thinktanks need to become “do tanks”, and ensure rigour and intellectual stamina are not diluted.
This buzz is difficult to create -let alone sustain- for many think tanks. Often their researchers come from the academic world (donors like to fund academic research -but do not often realise that this is better funded in Universities, not in think tanks) and their mind-set is still closely influenced by it. Letting go of one’s ideas, expressing an opinion, publishing anything before re research is completed are things that take time to get used to.
Williamson warns that the economic downturn has affected think tanks in the UK:
The economic downturn has seriously affected the ability of many thinktanks to fundraise and function effectively. Building the necessary depth in the research agenda has become nigh on impossible, with the focus being instead on short-term, opportunistic pieces, which is hardly strategic or motivating – one of the reasons I decided to leave my post as director of a political thinktank after almost four years.
Although he is not talking on ‘international development’ think tanks I can see the parallels. Money has not been as difficult to get hold of for the likes of ODI, IDS or IIED; or their southern counterparts in Africa and parts of Asia. But increasingly, although with the exception of those benefiting from TTI funds, this money is coming in the shape of consultancies (or long term contracts with very specific expectations on outputs and impact) rather than long term commitments to the organisations’intellectual buzz. Work there too has become short-term, opportunistic and often in-coherent (with no clear overall argument or big picture).
The problem, he warns, is not just in the think tanks themselves. The system shows some inherent flaws (or should we call them tensions?). He points out that to stand out -to remain relevant and attractive to funders:
Many stake out ideological positions. This gives you a platform, making you attractive to certain groups who might fund or promote your work – as long as your ideology is in fashion. As the tide inevitably turns, you must run for the middle ground: a rather overcrowded space. So we have seen IPPR and Demos proclaim neutrality – indeed Demos reinvented conservatism alongside a rise in right-of-centre thinktanks, setting the whole cycle up for the next shift, like some Japanese deer scarer.
He argues that the alternative to this ideological affiliation is to remain non-partisan -but is this possible? (and does he really mean, non-ideological?). Think tanks that choose this route may be:
Less hostage to fortune, you can focus behind the scenes, less swayed by popular (or populist) agendas. [But] Non-partisan generally means non-radical too; you can be perceived as a little bland. The upside of blandness is that you’re safer for institutional funders, such as government. So that’s good? Well, no, because it’s fickle. In fact, right now funding has evaporated.
This approach, which is the approach that many think tanks in the international development industry (northern and southern based) have chosen (actively or simply by default) has critical flaws:
The biggest flaw though is that it ties a hand behind your back, forcing you to plot a course between sufficiently vocal critique to be worth bothering with and not gnawing too hard on the paymaster’s hand. Pressure comes from management to soften findings and minimise any direct criticism of the funder. When you know you must go back to the same shrinking pool for your next round of funding, it makes maintaining independence challenging.
The he makes a point I’ve ben trying to articulate for some time. Even since I left ODI I’ve been traveling quite a bit. I’ve spent time in Africa, Asia, Latin America -many times working with and within think tanks. I’ve noticed that much of the research updates I get from the international development think tanks that I follow online or via twitter feels increasingly irrelevant to the day to day concerns of local policy communities. They feel more and more out of touch:
That’s usually because they are. After all, they deal with ideas – theory – not actually “doing”. But the problem is more nuanced. If the thinktank is well grounded with good connections, then applied theory-led but praxis-based research is the valuable long-term valuable model.
What is the solution for developing country think tanks, then?
Some come to mind:
- Donors could try to mobilise (leverage) more domestic funding from private sectors or new generations of philanthropists.
- ‘Northern international development think tanks’ (inevitably the gate keepers of the industry) could attempt to do less and focus more -maybe even making way for new competitors in the market of ideas. Their funders should challenge them on the relevance and usefulness of their recommendations more often than they do: saying that someone must be more strategic is not a valid recommendation -anyone could do it.
- Where possible donors should consider if it may not be better to fund young and experienced researchers to do their work sitting in a local think tank instead of an expensive central london office. Sure they would not be known in the international circuits as much but their skills (if they have them) may the be able to focus on what is relevant to the countries that Aid is supposed to be helping rather than on what may be just interesting for them. (No need to pay too much for this, by the way, as more researchers and analysts should help drive the cost of research down.)
- Donors should try to reward innovation and commitment. For example, look for initiatives developed by the think tank themselves and offer to fund them to do more of it or to do it better. In Zambia, where I am right now, the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection has developed a Basic Needs Basket that is published every month in 12 towns. This is a great conversation piece and demonstrates commitment. Support more of that. See what else they may be able to develop with the experience they now have. Don’t just call them up to do work that a bunch of researchers and policymakers though of in an office in London. They may do it because it pays (that is the nature of the business) but not because they really want to.
‘Capoeira mata um’, or perhaps more accurately, ‘capoeira foi morto por um’ – at least on one sunny day last summer.
Now if you’re like 99.9% of readers of this blog, you’re probably wondering a) why Enrique let me do a guest blog, and b) what in the world Brazilian Portuguese has to do with austerity communications. Let me explain.
The first line literally means ‘capoeira kills one’, but that’s not what this story is about. It’s about a time where ‘capoeira was killed by one’, how that has changed the development communications landscape, and what lessons development policy entrepreneurs can draw from the famed Brazilian martial art/dance.
When the Conservative-led coalition came into government in the UK last May, one of the first targets in their crosshairs was ‘profligate’ Labour spending, which they argued had left the country in dire economic straits. ‘Communications’, synonymous with spending, quickly became a dirty word across Whitehall. And, although they promised to protect – and even increase – aid spending, the Secretary of State for International Development, Andrew Mitchell, made value for money of British aid a clear priority. Among other things, that meant cuts to a cherished Labour objective: making the argument for aid to the British public.
Indeed, who could argue with cutting aid funds to a ‘Brazilian dance troupe’ in Hackney (a neighbourhood in East London)? In one of his first ministerial speeches, Mitchell made clear that these sorts of activities would no longer be tolerated and that the aid argument would be won not on explaining it to audiences at home but by improving lives abroad.
By mid-2010 the UK, not just the newly rebranded UKaid, entered an age of ‘austerity communications’. Government websites were among the first to be scrutinised. As it turned out, the UK Trade and Investment website, in what is frankly a crude measure, cost the government nearly £12/visitor, and that’s discounting staff and operating costs. Hardly value for money, by any definition.
Such costs called for a rationalisation of government websites, an edict that has trickled down through the ranks of DFID. In the most recent advice given to its large portfolio of research consortia, it was suggested that no programme should have a standalone website. Recommendations have also emerged that no money should be going to promoting large programmes as brands independent from their host organisations, and that hosting events that cost over £20,000 require cabinet-level approval.
While the value for money of these arbitrary rules is dubious at best, the push for austerity communications should be welcomed by development researchers, research communicators, knowledge intermediaries and policy entrepreneurs alike. Just as it is an incorrect assumption that less polished looking communication activities are cheaper (just ask the 2012 Olympic committee), it is equally untrue that communication has to be expensive. An unhealthy economy has emerged in the research communication field: from expensive and self-indulgent websites to exorbitant per diems for participation in events (which may soon be considered bribery in certain circumstance under new UK legislation) to paying for media placement.
My friend and former colleague, Nick Scott from ODI has spoken widely about free and low cost online tools that can help establish and bolster an online presence, so I will instead broaden the discussion in the rest of this post to how communications has the opportunity to be more effective in these tight times.
Ironically, capoiera’s existence today is a shining example of massive impact with limited resources. Capoeira emerged from slaves of African origin working the sugarcane plantations of Brazil in the 1600s. As a martial art, slaves used it for self-protection, to escape and to defend Quilombos (informal settlements of escaped slaves and others living outside the law). As capoeira was a clear threat to the Portuguese slave owners, it was outlawed, forcing capoeiristas to disguising the practice as a form of traditional dance. And perhaps at a most basic level, this clandestine approach of obfuscating traditional approaches to research communications will be necessary, but only when they are the most appropriate techniques to reach an objective.
Ultimately I hope that these new rules force us to change rather than conceal. And here, capoiera offers more lessons to inform an innovative approach to research communications.
There are several styles of capoiera, the two most popular being capoira regional (pronounced ‘hey-shu-nal) and capoiral angola. Capoeira regional is the newer, flashier side of capoeira, with rodas usually going at a quicker pace and with more jumps, spins and kicks. The more traditional angola style is comparatively slow place and low to the ground, with combatants usually keeping at least one hand touching the ground at all times. Both styles are popular, but capoeira angola is considered the more difficult. It is a reflective and strategic style and requires greater control – consider it the chess of the martial arts world. And perhaps these two styles represent the difference between research communications and marketing as it was promoted under the Labour government (capoiera regional) and the era of austerity communications (capoiera angola).
There are a few principles operating in capoeira angola: 1) conserve energy and maintain endurance; 2) use the slow pace to develop an understanding of the opponent and use that understanding to defeat her/him; 3) exploit opportunities and make every attack count. Development communications would do well to abide by these principles.
1) Conserve energy and maintain endurance: As Enrique has noted elsewhere, think tanks and research organisations that chase visibility at the cost of substantive research and influence do so at their own peril. The fact is that we are operating with finite resources and there is an opportunity cost associated with pursing any given engagement activity. To that end, we must recognise that substantive influence does not happen overnight. We need to be prepared to invest in long term strategies that focus on building relationships and trust – neither of which is founded on glossy brochures.
2) Understand the opponent: At its least, austerity communications should give us time to pause and reflect on how policy influence and research uptake actually occur in our individual contexts. Maybe getting an article into a journal with the highest impact factor isn’t going to change practice on the ground. Maybe the long research publication isn’t the best choice in Cambodia, where most business and politics is transacted verbally. Maybe the flashy website that woos donors isn’t the right option to reach researchers in the D.R. Congo where internet penetration is notoriously low.
Additionally, a good understanding of our audience allows us to extend a ‘being there’ strategy from the web to other forms of communication. Beyond thinking of where in the web world your audiences are spending their time, also think through: What publications are your target audiences already reading? What media do they already engage with? What events are they already attending? Spending effort getting into these spaces may be much more valuable than simply creating more of your own spaces and spending resources to market them. Enrique’s recent post on ‘confirmation bias’ should be a good reminder of this – people are predisposed to agree with evidence from a source they already trust.
3) Make every attack count: Value for money doesn’t necessarily mean spending less money, it means spending it wisely. Instead of a throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach to communication (which can be particularly valuable when working in complex environments as long as there are in-built learning mechanisms), under austerity communications we will likely need to be more selective in our communications activities. So when an opportunity does arise, and we do think that it is the right intervention for the right objective, go ‘all in’ and put significant resources behind it.
In a review of DFID’s recommendation to spend 10% of funds on communication activities for certain types of programmes that Enrique and I both participated in a few years ago, we found that some programmes were taking the advice literally and cascading the 10% funding throughout all of its interventions – but some research is more communicable than other research. Austerity communications will require a greater investment in horizon scanning (and tools that facilitate this), and then taking every advantage of opportunities as and when they do arise.
*[This is the first of I hope many more contributions from practitioners and experts in the field of think tank management, communications, funding, etc. If you would like to recommend someone please contact Enrique Mendizabal on firstname.lastname@example.org]
Ajoy Datta’s recent blog post asks if developing country think tanks may ever be able to escape their US heritage. He provides some very interesting insights into the research being undertaken by RAPID on think tanks (that I kick started while I was working there) now being led by him. As my comment to his post suggests, I think that the real story coming out of this research is that think tank studies and support interventions should not attempt to remove politics from the equation. The work done by RAPID clearly shows this, and Ajoy presents an excellent case for and many examples to support it.
However, this post (but mostly the post’s title) got me thinking about something that we have been discussing -and that has been at the core of some of the comments that my blog on think tank definitions received.
This line of argument is partly driven by an underlying narrative in the international development community (and that like everything has some aspects of truth): that the North wants to impose its ideas on the South -and force it to accept them even when they may not be relevant. In other words, that context matters so much that everything is relative and everywhere is unique.
But, is research on and the experience of think tanks from developed countries so irrelevant to the study and practice of think tanks elsewhere? This is the line we had been following at ODI -and that I have tentatively put forward in some posts in this blog. In fact a significant part of my critique of James McGann’s index is based on this irrelevance.
I am not so sure any more. For example, German and US policy environments are not the same -they are not even similar- and as a consequence think tanks in both countries are therefore quite different -and so is the think tank community. However, Josef Braml’s work provides an excellent example of how these differences can be used to unearth a great deal of detail on how different contexts have affected the development of different think tank communities and think tanks. He uses the same set of criteria to describe how think tanks in the US and Germany have developed different funding structures, are focused on different audiences, show a different balance between research, consulting and advocacy, have different affiliation arrangements, perceive risk in entirely different ways, their staff follow different career paths, etc. These differences do not make the comparison less interesting and useful; rather they provide a great deal of space for a richer discussion of the nature of think tanks in Germany.
Not only that, it also shows how lessons from the US where the think tank community is more developed have been identified and adapted to the German context.
Think tanks in the US and in Germany (and elsewhere in many developed nations) -and their funders- have in fact (and whether we like it or not) influenced the formation of think tanks in developing countries: in Chile the think tanks that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s were heavily influenced by the support of US and European Foundations and close ties to ‘Northern’ think tanks. In China, independent private think tanks led by international players such as Justin Lin have clear origins in the West. In African, the Ghana based African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET) is in fact registered in the US -and by all assessments it has nothing to envy its US counterparts in organisational structure and capacity.
Many think tanks have boards made up of academics and think tankers from developed countries. Have a look at Grupo FARO’s board, for example: it includes Merilee Grindle from Harvard and Andres Mejia from IDS. CEPA’s advisors are equally international –most educated abroad. As advisors to the think tanks they would naturally provide the management with ideas based on their own organisational experiences and it would be up to the think tanks’ directors and senior management to adapt this advice to the local context. (And having provided FARO with some advice I can say that I have seen that process take place –ask, think about the advice, interpret, adapt, prioritise, implement, etc.)
The foundation of think tanks in developing countries is also likely to have been driven by policy entrepreneurs attempting to emulate think tanks in the US and in Europe -inspired and encouraged by their work. In China, the role of ‘returnees’ is critical to the formation of new think tanks –and, according to Cheng Li’s assessment, the Chinese government is actively seeking the development of a US-style revolving door type of think tank. Some think tanks even have foreign leaders.
Even in RAPID we studied think tanks from developed countries like Japan alongside developing countries like Indonesia.
As soon as the Think Tank Initiative announced its winners I (and I am sure others working in developed country think tanks) received a great deal of emails and calls from think tanks in Latin America and Africa asking about visits to ODI and other UK based organisations. And a few have asked me for more specific advice and to share ODI’s experience in adopting a number of internal systems and strategies. In 2009, the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences (VASS) organised a visit to the UK to meet and talk to researchers, think tanks and policymakers. And other UK based think tanks like IPPR are now working with and mentoring African based think tanks.
So FARO, VASS and others must think that the lessons learned by ODI, IDS, IPPR, Brookings, etc. are relevant to them because otherwise they would not bother visiting them. The suggestion that they are irrelevant would be akin to suggesting that a doctor trained in Canada had nothing to teach doctors elsewhere; that an engineer from the UK or Japan could not build a bridge in Sierra Leone or Sri Lanka. Anatomy and the laws of physics are the same in the north and the south. Practicing medicine and engineering may be different -but never so different that peers would find it impossible to understand each other.
Now having said that, I also believe that lessons learned in Latin America for instance may be more immediately relevant to African think tanks, and that think tank directors from Eastern Europe and East and South East Asia may find that they have quite a lot more in common that they initially thought. So this is not a defense of the ‘North’. In fact, southern doctors probably have a lot to teach their technology dependent colleagues of the north.
The problem is not with where the advice comes from but rather with who gives and receives it.
Advice and lessons are there to be considered, not imposed or copied without a thought. Even good advice requires an intelligent and critical audience to make good use of it: those asking for it are expected to decide how to use it. My colleagues at RAPID and CIPPEC, with whom we have worked in delivering support to think tanks across the world, would agree with me in that their favourite advisory projects are the ones where their recommendations have been challenged and they have been forced redo their workshops or rush back to the hotel to consult via skype with the rest of the team and search of answers to really good questions.
Our research and this blog can only provide what I hope is accurate and useful information, measured advice and encourage a critical and insightful deliberation of options and ways forward.
So I think that, properly used, the literature on and experience of think tanks in the US are relevant -and they are more so because the literature on think tanks elsewhere is limited.
As think tank researchers we should be focusing on translating good lessons into good practice, but certainly not dismissing them ex-ante because they come from ‘the North’ -wherever that place may be.
What we are doing is (I hate this phrase, but cannot think of any other at this time of night) throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We disagree with the definition of think tanks coming from the US because it tends to exclude a great number of other organisations -university research centres, government research bodies, etc.- that fulfil the same functions in other contexts where the conditions (formal and informal) that have promoted the formation of US-style think tanks do not exist. But this should not prevent us from drawing inspiration and lessons from a rich think tank tradition and an equally rich think tank literature.