Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘UK’

The Prospect 2015 Think Tank Awards: the winners and some reflections

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.

Read more

Is there a systemic gender bias in knowledge production? A look at UK Universities and Think Tanks

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.

Read more

How Think Tanks Work: Analyzing Budgets

What do budgets tell us about the 20 most prominent US think tanks? Hans Gutbrod shows how numbers can increase our understanding of think tank behaviour.

Read more

Prospect Magazine Think Tank Awards 2011

Tonight was the Prospect Magazine Think Tank of the Year Awards 2011. Bronwen Maddox, Editor of Prospect presided and Vince Cable, MP, handed out the awards. The full list of winners and runner-ups has been published by Prospect but here are some of my impressions of the event.

First, I must confess that I think these are the kind of awards that every country ought to have. Even if there are 2 or 3 think tanks the awards are not just a great way to showcase their work but also to let others know about them and their potential for good.

Vince Cable had some interesting things to say. Think tanks, he said, should be “thinking the unthinkable” and “putting the unimaginable into practice”. These resonate with the call for “logical leaps of the mind” made at the CIGI Anniversary. Think tanks are great brokers and boundary workers, he added, and also provide an army of people who go on to become invaluable advisors in government and provide ideas for journalists to write about.

Jamie Walls, Vice President of Communications of Shell, who sponsor the event, contributed by saying that the work that think tanks do can shape business. Business is often forgotten as an audience by many think tanks.

The winners.

It is important to point out that the judges were driven by two main criteria:

  1. Originality of research
  2. Some evidence of impact in public policy
The judges also acknowledged that think tanks come in all shapes and forms (and sizes) and that therefore there are certain forces that play against the smaller and more focused ones. If they went by their visibility alone they would miss some who are often working in silence but not less important.
Something else that is worth mentioning is that throughout the presentations Bronwen described what were the topical issues that had focused the attention of the judges and guided the debate. So think tanks (and their studies) were not considered in a vacuum -it is not just good research that they were looking for; it also had to be relevant.
The first category, international (non-UK) think tank of the year, is a tricky one. I say this because it is difficult to see how the detailed analysis and discussion that is possible for the UK centres can happen in the event that many more applications are received. Nonetheless the fact that the Peterson Institute for International Economics got it (and now just Brookings) is encouraging. And Peterson got it because of its work on the global crisis. I do hope that more applications from developing countries are submitted in the future -they may not win but will certainly raise the bar and showcase some that may in fact be punching way above their weight.
Punching above its weight is the winner of the one to watch category. This category was disputed between well established think tanks going through a relaunch or renaissance and new ones. Mentioned were the Resolution Foundation, IPPR and 20/20 Health. The Institute for Economic Affairs was runner up but the Media Standards Trust came on top.  They were instrumental in much of the debate over the hacking scandal in the UK and calls to reform the Media Standards Commission. They run a number of important and highly innovative projects: Hacked Off (a campaign for a public inquiry into illegal information-gathering by the press and into related matters including the conduct of the police, politicians and mobile phone companies), Journalisted (a brilliant site that helps you find out more about journalist and their sources), The Orwell Prize (the most prestigious journalism award in the UK), and (that helps the public tell good journalism from articles that simply reprint what press releases say).
The Media Standards Trust has a staff of 4. Yes, 4.
The next award was for publication of the year. Chatham House and the Institute for Fiscal Studies received mentions but the winner was Reform for “Every teacher matters“.
The foreign affairs think tank of the year award was a contested category. The judges considered that the winning think tank ought to have addressed either the Arab Spring or the EU crisis, or both. It would have had to produce research as well as convened the right people. This proved harder to find in reality as many British think tanks lacked the people in the ground to address these issues. The joint-winners, in the end were RUSI (for its work on China and Strategic Defence Spending Review) and Chatham House (for its work on Yemen).
The Think Tank of the Year Award went to the National Institute for Economic and Social Research. Runners-up were The King’s Fund for their work on the NHS reform, and mentions were given to Policy Exchange, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and the Resolution Foundation. In the words of Bronwen Maddox: “for doing Ed Ball’s job a bit better” (Ed Balls, by the way is the Shadow Chancellor -or the opposition’s economics spokesperson).
Its director, Jonathan Portes gave a few words and accepted that although they had been named think tank of the year they had yet to claim victory in terms of influencing policy. But not only this,  but the ideas that they were being credited for were in fact not new. They were 50 years old: Keynes’ and Hick’s. And more than half a century later they are still being repeated to policymakers. Influence, then, takes time, and think tanks can help along to keep ideas alive.
The award is great way to address the question of influence. The Institute for Government or ResPublica (previous winners) were not even mentioned; but nobody doubts their worth and their influence. The awards are a recognition but also an opportunity to learn about peers and one’s own trade. They offer a space in which the positive roles of think tanks can be discussed and rewarded.
Think tank funders in developing countries, take note.

‘Think tanks are becoming bland’ from The Guardian’s Comment is Free

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.

The Standard: Africa home to only 2.3 per cent world’s researchers

A recent discussion on the EBPDN Africa on-line community prompted a debate on the capacity of researchers in Africa. Awuor Ponge from IPAR forwarded this article from The Standard: Africa home to only 2.3 per cent world’s researchers.

Excluding South Africa, intensity in research and development in Sub-Saharan Africa is merely 0.3 per cent. Unfortunately, whereas the percentage of Gross Domestic Product devoted to research and development has significantly increased in other regions, it has dropped or stagnated in almost all countries in Sub-Saharan Africa besides South Africa.

The article reports on a lecture by Prof Mahmood Mamdani, Director of Makerere University’s Institute of Social Research, who made very important points.

On financial aid:

Mamdani told his audience collaboration has been reduced to assistance, and now there is an emerging theory that African academics cannot do research without outside financial aid. He said consultancy culture is being institutionalised in African universities through basic courses in research methodology, courses that teach students a set of tools to gather and process quantitative information from which to cull answers.

“Proliferation of short courses on methodology that aim to teach students and academic staff quantitative methods necessary to gathering and processing empirical data are ushering a new generation of native informers,” said Mamdani.

On the prevailing business model:

The culture of consultancy has radically changed postgraduate education and research  as consultants presume that research is all about finding answers to problems defined by a client. Mamdani says consultancy driven postgraduate education requires immediate answers to research problems. “It has almost become a matter of policy in most African universities for PhD students to provide a set of recommendations from their thesis for use by the funding external non-governmental organisations,” says Mamdani.

The emerging scenario is that funding scarcities in African universities have led scholars to market driven research where quality control is almost absent. “Moonlighting for donor agencies has endangered the quality of teaching and research in Kenya’s universities,” says the current Unesco World Social Science Report.

This has obvious implications for think tanks. If Universities are not producing sufficient researchers then where are the funds for research that many ‘think tanks’ receive going to? Is this why salaries are often higher in some African countries than they are in developed economies like the UK or the US?

How many think tanks and research centres are being really independent? How many are developing research programmes and projects without the interference of donors?

This, of course, is not only relevant for Africa.

Think tanks: research findings and some common challenges

These are my notes from a presentation for a SMERU Seminar that I gave in Jakarta, 31st May 2011-05-31

(It includes some of the additional information provided by participants during the event; and I’ll add a video and audio as soon as I figure out how to do it.)

Evidence versus ArgumentWhat faux engagement initiatives lack is any content to inspire and engage the public’s minds and passions. Historically, what has moved millions to act upon the world and change things for the better has been big ideas, such as freedom, progress, civilisation and democracy. Today we are offered the thin gruel of ‘evidence-based policy’. When we are told that scientific research demands particular courses of action, ever increasing areas of politics are ruled out-of-bounds for democratic debate; ideas and morality are sidelined by facts and statistics. In contrast, the Battle of Ideas is a public square within which we can explore the crisis of values, and start to give human meaning to trends too often presented fatalistically and technically. Claire Fox, director, Institute of Ideas and on behalf of the Battle of Ideas Committee 2010

This presentation was aimed to first outline some findings emerging from my research on think tanks in developing countries and then pose some questions, common to many, as a way of encouraging a discussion.

The first obvious questions most people have is: what is a think tank? The literature is not absent of options: think tank definitions can be divided into broad and narrow ones:

  • The broad definition: any organisation that produces or uses research (broadly defined as well) to inspire, inform or influence policy. (To use this definition you will have to make some decisions over whether an organisation can in fact be labelled as a think tank or not. However, it is possible for there to be think tanks in universities, the government, the private sector and for other types of non governmental organisations to fulfil those roles.)
  • 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.

In both cases the organisation may or may not have an identifiable ideological affiliation (which is a contribution from Braml 2004). Think tanks then may or may not be entirely separate (and autonomous) from the State, the private sector, political parties, professional/business associations, universities or other types of civil society organisations, etc.

The notion that a think tank requires independence from the state (or corporations) in order to be ‘free-thinking’ is an Anglo- American norm that does not translate well into other political cultures. Increasingly, therefore, ‘think tank’ is conceived in terms of a policy research function and a set of analytic or policy advisory practices, rather than a specific legal organizational structure as a non-governmental, non-partisan or independent civil society entity. Diane Stone (2005)

This, however, does not mean that definitions or descriptions of think tanks in the Anglo-American tradition are not useful.

A possible characterisation based on type of organisation (from various authors) that may address initial questions of whether an NGO is a think tank or if a consultancy s a think tank is the following:

  • Independent civil society think tanks established as non-profit organisations (Stone 2005) –ideologically identifiable or not (Braml 2004)
  • Policy research institutes located in or affiliated with a university (Stone 2005)
  • Governmentally created or state sponsored think tank (Stone 2005)
  • Corporate created or business affiliated think tank (Stone 2005)
  • Political party think tanks (Stone, Braml, and others) and legacy or personal think tanks
  • Global (ore regional) think tanks (with some of the above)

Other ways to classify them include categories or types of think tanks, described by:

  • Size and focus: e.g. large and diversified, large and specialised, small and specialised (Weidenbaum 2009)
  • Evolution of stage of development: e.g. first (small), second (small to large but more complex projects), and third (larger and policy influence) stages (Struyk R. J. 2006)
  • Strategy, including:
    • Funding sources (individuals, corporations, foundations, donors/governments, endowments, sales/events) (Weidenbaum 2009) and business model (independent research, contract work, advocacy) (Abelson D. E., 2006 Abelson D. E. 2009, Belletini 2007, Ricci 1993, Rich 2006, Reinicke 1996, Smith 1991, Weaver 1989, Braml 2004)
    • The balance between research, consultancy/advisory work and advocacy
    • The source of their arguments: Ideology, values or interests; applied, empirical or synthesis research; or theoretical or academic research (from a conversation with Stephen Yeo)
    • The manner in which the research agenda is developed: e.g. by senior members of the think tank or by individual researchers; or by the think tank of their funders (Braml  2004)
    • Their influencing approaches and tactics (many researchers but an interesting one comes from Abelson D. E. 2009) and the time horizon for their strategies: long term and short term mobilisation (Ricci 1993) (Weidenbaum 2009)
    • Their various audiences of the think tanks (audiences as consumers and public -this merits another blog; soon) (again, many authors, but Zufeng, 2009 provides a good framework for China)
    • Affiliation, which refers to the issue of independence (or autonomy which may be a better concept to focus on) but also includes think tanks with formal and informal links to political parties, interest groups and other political players (Weaver 1989, Braml 2004, Snowdon 2010)
  • Relational definitions that refer to the self-identification as think tank in relation to other organisations that may play similar, overlapping or complementary roles.
  • And functional, focusing on the functions played by think tanks and including (taken from quite a few authors but particularly Belletini 2007, Mendizabal & Sample 2009, Gusternson 2009, and Tanner 2002):
    • Providing ideas, people, access
    • Creating, maintaining, opening spaces
    • As boundary workers or windows into the policymaking process -and into other spaces (this comes from the literature on think tanks in China where think tanks are described as windows that allowed Chinese policymakers to look into Western policy communities and societies -as well as allowing western policymakers and scholars to look into Chinese policymaking communities.
    • Channels of resources to political parties, interest groups, leaders
    • Legitimising ideas, policies and practices -and individuals or groups
    • Monitoring and auditing public policy and behaviour
    • Public and elite (including policymakers) education (something often forgotten by many think tanks as it is certainly difficult to assess its impact).

I have, for now, left this definition open and am attempting to find one as I continue my research.

These descriptions (and our understanding) of think tanks are affected by different (competing) stories or narratives within which think tanks have been promoted and studied (Ricci, 1993):

  • Salomon’s House – makes us think of elites, commissions, expert (private) advice, public intellectuals, and analysis of influence networks. Think tanks play an important role –as part of or as a tool of elites.
  • The Marketplace –makes us think of efficiency, value for money, supply, demand and intermediaries, and demand supply type of analyses. Think tanks play a more limited  (producer –and sometimes intermediary) role mediated by the degree of intervention of the State.
  • The Great Conversation –make us think of public debate, public education, transparency, and (advocacy, epistemic, professional, social, political, etc.) networks. Think tanks play many changing, emerging, relational roles.

Within these narratives, although the first two are more prominent, think tank formation and design has been driven by a number of metaphors inspired by other disciples and professions:

  • Health –first symptoms (small organisations or associations) then causes (larger organisations)
  • Physics –efficiency (more quantitative)
  • Engineering and architecture –design, project planning and control (Logframes and modelling)
  • Foundational –break from the past and build new institutions (qualitative studies of societal change and formulation of new visions)
  • Marketing –hearts and minds in political influencing, audiences instead of publics, linked to the story of the marketplace of ideas (communications and outreach)
  • Health again –randomised control trials is the only evidence that matters (new skills, more academic)
  • Ecosystems – merging problems and solutions (more flexible, diffuse, networked organisations)

Tension/cycles between technocracy and democracy: The drive to set up think tanks is commonly driven by a belief that science (and expertise) can solve the ills of society. The development of the social sciences and the introduction of evermore-complex quantitative methods fuels this quest for technical solutions. Every once in a while, however, ideological imperatives return to leave a mark and respond to people’s natural disposition and need for ideologically inspired deliberation (until the next technocratic phase sets in). Have a look at the box: Think tanks: simple models, complicated reality in the article Stephen Yeo and I wrote for The Broker for a brief description of how different waves of think tanks have been driven by technocratic and ideological imperatives.

With this in mind, some initial findings and thoughts emerging from the literature and visits to think tanks in the UK, Latin America, Africa and Asia that I want to present at this stage are the following (this are still rather loose ideas and so I expect (ask for) feedback):

  • Funding –more important is the type (endowment, core, project) than the amount. (By project I mean specific activities defined in a contract with a client: they may be for research or for implementation –capacity development, networking, etc.)
  • Independence –more important is autonomy to choose any course of action and affiliation than the quality of research (is the think tank proposing what to do or responding to requests?).
  • Quality of research can provide credibility but then this is far more dependent on the ideological biases and perceptions of the user than on data quality or methodological rigour.  So quality does not guarantee a perception of credibility or independence.
  • Independence seems incompatible with consultancy/project funding
  • Think tanks are not supposed to be financially sustainable -demanding that they should, places additional pressures on central/administrative activities and costs (management, accounting, communications, human resources, etc.) and distracts from core think tank functions. Funding from a non-user or non-primary target audience is inevitable.
  • International donor’s political constraints promote a sanitised version of think tanks that is not common in their own countries (i.e. ODI deals with marginal politics while SMERU deals with mainstream politics –SMERU should be treated as if it was the Centre for Fiscal Studies or the Institute of Government, which may not be partisan but are clearly in the think of it)
  • Most think tanks in developed countries are small -5 people- and shrink and expand depending on political and economic circumstances. They much larger in developing countries and their structures tend to be more rigid. Again, I think this is influenced by their links to international development think tanks which are (somewhat) sheltered by the political and economic swings that affect their more mainstream cousins: DFID’s funding to UK based international developing think tanks is rather constant (and increasing), while at the same time progressive and conservative think tanks have ballooned and shrunk many times in the last 10 years.
  • There are some apparent context contradictions that challenge our assumptions: strong and large states do not necessarily constraint think tank formation –what matters is the value that knowledge has within the ruling class (Germany, Mexico, China, for example). Political debate and contestation seems a far more influential factor for think tank formation –even if only within the State (or the single party).
  • Developed country models are perfectly relevant to developing country situations – but context gets in the way of like for like comparisons
  • Think tanks have multiple roles or functions –they don’t just do research (many don’t do any) or inform/influence policy, but also audit or legitimise policy, train future cadres of policymakers and policy analysts, support or mobilise resources in favour of specific political, social or economic interests, create and maintain public spaces for debate and reflection, educate the public and the ruling classes, challenge the status quo, etc.
  • The balance has a lot to do with its funding and objectives: domestically funded and focused think tanks will be likely to be far more active in on-going political and economic analysis and provide more opportunities for the movement of ideas and people with political forces. Internationally funded and focused think tanks will be more likely to focus on research (although when the funder is an international NGO the focus is likely to be on advocacy-related type of roles)
  • It is rare for all staff in a think that to know what are its core roles/objectives and/or to agree on them. This can have negative effects on the organisation’s cohesion.
  • There is an increasingly blurring boundary between think tanks, NGOs, consultancies, universities and publicly funded research institutes –and in some cases the media.
  • Additional competition comes from donor funded stand-alone programmes –focusing on a particular policy issue but set up as independent outfits or ‘partnerships’ between various local or international organisations.
  • The web is not there yet as a key space for engagement but it will be –or it will affect the think tanks in the near future
  • Competition is seen, in some places, by both think tanks and funders, as a bad thing: “Why do we need another economic policy think tanks? We’ve already got them” is very common.

More specifically, some barriers and opportunities to think tank formation and development are also common across many contexts:

  • Barriers to think tank formation (and think tank community development) (which are likely to change within a country depending on the particular characteristics of the state, the private sector and civil society –
    • Low quality and availability of human resources (related to low tertiary education levels and poor career progression potential)
    • Lack of funding from domestic sources (public sector, private sector, individuals)
    • Discouraging legislation (NGO law, procurement law, labour law, tax law, access to information, etc.)
    • Low interest in public policy debate (and absence of ideological debate in particular) that turns them into consultancies
    • Poorly developed (or unsupportive) democratic institutions (the State –government, legislative, judiciary; political parties, the media, CSOs) –although weak parties tend to create space for think tanks
  • Opportunities for think tank formation and development –

And there are, of course, many common nightmares/questions that think tank directors and managers across the world face (some include comments from the participants at the SMERU event):

  • Funding –nobody (except donors) wants to fund ‘independent’ think tanks, but how independent are we depending on projects?
  • Should we continue to let the evidence speak for itself or help it with a more convincing (but not necessarily evidence based) argument?
  • Academic or popular/current communications? Both? (But who will pay for it?)
  • Should we focus only on the policymakers that matter or fulfil a general public education role? Does this mean that we need to adopt a political agenda? (Those with a political agenda do not tend to worry about this)
  • What should we do about of website? (To which I would reply: focus on an online communications strategy and not just the website.)
  • How to be a friendly opposition?
  • PhDs or just good all-rounders (researchers who are also good storytellers, networkers, managers and fixers)?
  • How large should we be? Full time staff only or should we also work with consultants and associates?
  • How to attract and retain highly qualified staff –especially mid-career researchers with some research and some policy experience?
  • What kind of economic and non-economic incentives can be used to attract the right kind of staff to our think tank? Is it just money of are career prospects, access to key policy spaces and people, opportunities to learn new skills, etc. equally important?
  • How to evaluate and assess our impact? (Should we even bother?) And impact on what? Policy, debate, knowledge?

This is clearly not exhaustive. There are plenty more questions and emerging findings in my notes. But for now, maybe, they are a good start. They certainly encourage a great deal of questions and interest among those present.

Zoom zoom zoom, capoeira mata um: communications in the age of austerity

‘Capoeira mata um’, or perhaps more accurately, ‘capoeira foi morto por um’ – at least on one sunny day last summer.

By Jeff Knezovich, Policy Influence and Research Uptake Manager for the Future Health Systems Research Programme Consortium*

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.

Zum zum zum’ is a popular song in the capoeira circuits. Indeed it is so popular that you might recognise it from certain Mazda adverts. Zoom zoom.

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]

Is everything from the ‘North’ bad for the ‘South’?

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.

UK think tanks and policy landscape

Last weekend, the Independent published a review of the most influential think tanks in the UK policy scene. Politics? Nothing that a bit of thinking can’t cure provides some interesting detail and insights into the British think tank community.

First, the attention on think tanks emerges in part from the roles they will play in developing the three main party’s manifestos for the 2015 elections. It is also announcing a rather interesting initiative in which think tanks from the capital get together to attempt to convince an audience of peers and the general public to support their ideas.

Second, I was interested to confirm that many of these think tanks are in fact quite small. Annual budgets under a million pounds are nor uncommon.

Third, they are fairly new organisations and their political or ideological positions are somewhat identifiable.

Fourth, the revolving door that exists between think tanks and the government is wide open and working at different levels.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 7,065 other followers