An alternative to the supply, demand and intermediary model: competencies for all

9 January 2013

Last month I spent quite a bit of time working on a proposal for a potential project and, in the background to it, prepared a short section discussing the often-used separation of ‘suppliers’, demanders’, and ‘intermediaries’ of research. There seems to be a lot on this lately. Only recently, DFID launched a call for a programme aimed at the ‘demand’ side that promises to address an aspect of the story that has not received much attention in the past -and that will ideally be an opportunity to introduce brand new players to the scene. I thought about it and in this blog try to offer an alternative to this model. I hope it is a useful start.

Many programmes and initiatives working with think tanks (and policymaking more broadly) make the practical assumption that there is at least a functional or workable separation between the supply side and the demand side of research –and that, as a consequence, private and public intermediaries are necessary to bring them together. While many have also argued (including in comments to this blog and to me directly) that they do not see things in this black and white way and that the choice of categories is mainly driven by operational imperatives (in other words, they know it is not possible to neatly separate actors in these categories but have to anyway), I think that the effect of using these concepts has important, and dangerous, implications on the programmes and initiatives themselves as well as on the very organisations they aim to support.

At the very least, this categorisation limits how we are able to think about the problem at hand and creates unnecessary silos -even within the initiatives themselves.

But since the initiatives that use them are open to the possibility that these may not be the most appropriate ones, I think here is an invitation, an opportunity, to challenge the model and search for an alternative. For example, from the AusAid’s Indonesia Knowledge Sector Initiative:

It should be noted that this is a model, not a rigid empirical description. Categories can be porous. Often, the intermediary function is carried out by the supply and the demand sides. For example research organizations can produce policy briefs to communicate their research findings to the government, while the government Balitbang can commission research to other organisations and collate the findings for use by policy makers. The intermediary can also be considered as part of the enabling environment; for example, a national research institute that communicates the government’s research agenda. In other cases, the intermediary can stand alone as a separate entity. For example, civil society organizations that use evidence to advocate for policy change are intermediaries that neither produce research (not part of supply) nor make policies (not part of demand) (AusAID 2011, p 9)

I agree: over the last few years I have argued that although researchers and policymakers operate within somewhat different institutional settings (with different incentives, rules, languages, and methods, for instance) they:

  1. Share many personal and professional connections;
  2. Often take on each others roles (researchers acting as or becoming policymakers and vice-versa); and
  3. Are capable of working together without the need of intermediaries.

In other words to talk about a gap that needs to be bridged is an oversimplification of what is actually going on. The reality is far more complex and is full of connections and interactions between researchers, policymakers and many other players. What is needed is not a bridge but a map (and one that can look way back into the past, too). More than a map, really: and ethnographic map.

Furthermore, it should be noted that these categories come out of the metaphor of the ‘marketplace of ideas’. And this comes from a period in US politics that saw the incorporation of marketing practices and language into the public sphere. When we talk of a marketplace of ideas (of supply and demand) we are also accepting that ideas are there to be sold and bought; that think tanks are little more than research consultancies -brains for hire. Words matter.

So what may be an alternative to these categories? The keyword in the list above is ‘capable’. I think the alternative lies with competencies; put simply, the ability to do a job properly.

An alternative: competencies

Here I go back to my critique of the concept of knowledge intermediaries (and the many other names used to describe them) and draw from both Robert Hoppe’s work on boundary workers and Joseph Braml’ description of think tanks (and other organisations that fulfil functions that focus on research, analysis, and communications) as ‘an organisation homo mediaticus’ to support it further.

Unlike the intermediary that sits ‘in-between’ two or more separate players or communities, a boundary worker (or an organisation homo mediaticus) must abide by and is accountable to the rules of the communities it seeks to bring together. In other words, and in the particular cases that this blog deals with, a boundary worker would part of both the research and the policymaking communities. And its success as a boundary worker is greatly dependent on its ability to:

  • Be an active and respected member of the various communities that it seeks to bring together; and
  • Add value to that interaction by undertaking research, analysis, and/or reflection, and/or the application of ideas into practical actions.

It is not therefore just a matter of being a specialist in intermediation -whatever that means. An effective boundary worker is competent in the trades of the communities it brings together and adds value to the interaction by its own interventions. And it is by combining both memberships that it things comes together. Think tanks can be seen as boundary workers between academia and policymaking (and the media, political parties, corporations, NGOs, etc. depending on the focus and scope of their work). But research centres in universities and policy analysis units in ministries could just as well play that role between a number of other actors. The media, too, can present this quality.

In all cases, their success depends on their capacity to actively participate in the spaces they seek to connect with. A good economics editor should be just as capable of authoring an economics book or paper as an economics researcher. A science analyst in a government department must be capable of understanding and, if not replicating at least following, the nuances of the research process behind the latest academic studies. But both the editor and the analyst must be competent in their jobs as journalists and policymakers, respectively.

This capacity to connect relates to the presence of a number of common competencies across all the organisations in the system, for instance (there may be more):

  • For example, academic research centres, think tanks, policy research units, and even political or policymaking bodies, need to be capable of undertaking, at a minimum, policy analysis (but also sound and robust research -even if they do not all actually do it themselves). If a policymaker is unable to understand where the evidence came from then that evidence is, for all practical purposes, as unreliable as ‘evidence’ imagined by some lobbyist.
  • Similarly, all these organisations must be able to communicate their work to each other. If communication is, at the very least, a two way process, then think tanks (private or public) need their audiences to be as capable of communicating as there are.
  • At least a working understanding of the policymaking processes (formal and informal) that are in question is also necessary. The capacity to participate and engage with the bureaucracy and to understand the roles and responsibilities of different actors is important for all. But for those more actively working in policymaking, a more nuanced understanding of politics will be necessary.
  • Critical or evaluative thinking is another competence that all organisations need to posses for policymaking to be better informed. The capacity to learn from their own experiences as well as that of others is not unique to a particular type of organisation.
  • Managerial competencies are equally important across the board. Managing an organisation’s finances, staff, programmes and projects, having a strategic direction, delivering a mission, etc. are all aspects of the work that most think tanks tend to struggle with. They may get the research right but the absence of professional managers often lets them down.

Systemic solution: lessons from elsewhere

This analysis suggests that the success of each organisation (and of the interventions) is highly dependent on others: because no one single type of organisation can function without the others and because the competencies and skills that these organisations require cannot be developed in isolation:

  • Research centres, think tanks, policy research units, political and policymaking bodies, and even other important actors such as the media and the private sector, draw their staff from the same pool of people; and these are likely to be the product of the country’s education system. Weak universities will breed weak institutions.
  • Additionally, most of the competencies and skills that matter for the development of these organisations’ capacities can only be acquired and strengthened through practice; and practice invariably happens in the interactions that take place between them in any policy space. Learning about how to talk to a policymaker in a workshop will never beat actually interacting with policymakers on a regular basis and figuring out how to talk to them in the process. Friends and colleagues of mine who have, by the nature of their work, been in this position, have a far more nuanced understanding of how to communicate with them than any trainer I have ever met. In fact, as an example, I remember a very successful initiative funded by the now closed DFID Latin American programme in Bolivia. To improve the communication between the World Bank and the Government, DFID funded a series of study tours for Bank and government staff. Over the course of a few trips they were able to learn about each other and open strong communication channels. It was considered one of the cheapest and most successful interventions of the programme.

In this view, think tanks are just one more, and a small one by the way, player in a larger system. If anything, targeting them may be the least value for money option. (A similar thing could be said about trageting policymakers directly: how much, really, can be done for most of the bureaucrats already stuck in inefficient institutions?) Much better would be to look for entry points into the entire system and opportunities for economies of scale and multiplier effects.

Therefore, lessons on how to support non-governmental think tanks and policy research units within governments  (as well as other kinds of research producers and users) can be found beyond the narrow and more recent ‘bridging research and policy’ sector that dominates the international development literature. This ‘sector’, let’s not forget,  developed quite rapidly during the early 2000s with a particular focus on the international development industry and emerged, at least in the UK, from the evidence based policy and results based management approaches popularised by the New Labour government from the late 1990s (the story is a lot more complicated and interesting but maybe for another time).

In the last few years it has been propped up by programmes such as RAPID, donors such as DFID, and initiatives such as the Think Tank Initiative and now the Indonesia Knowledge Sector Initiative that primarily, but not only, focus their attention on a particular type of organisation: policy research institutes (from NGOs to think tanks to government units).

However, before these initiatives came along, and for many decades, the task of supporting these organisations, as well as others, had been taken up by efforts that were primarily interested in developing the broader research capacities of specific countries or regions. An example of this is the work of the Ford Foundation or IDRC in Latin America. In Chile since the 1960s, these organisations, as well as others, supported the formation of new departments in social sciences, the careers of individual scholars through scholarships and research grants, and forged partnerships between universities and research centres in there and elsewhere. It was only when the Pinochet regime repressed intellectual activity in Chilean universities that these funders turned their attention to supporting think tanks; not because they wanted to develop this particular type of organisation above any other, but because Chilean researchers had chosen to organise themselves through them in order to survive.

In Peru, the most stable and competent think tanks and research centres in public and private universities owe much of their success to the long term efforts of these and other similar actors. These efforts, far from focusing on directly strengthening a particular type of organisation, tackled the capacity of the country to produce research and develop new generations of competent and experienced researchers. Their funds (in various forms and through various mechanisms) provided opportunities for young and more experienced social scientists to develop their research skills and participate in different kinds of research and policy activities. Many, too, benefited from studies in Europe and the United States and, upon their return, helped set up new centres or strengthen old ones.

The combination of a growing cadre of competent social scientists, researchers, and the long term nature of the support has led to the formation of several think tanks, research centres, NGOs, and research consultancies. The researchers trained with the support of donors such as the Ford Foundation and IDRC staffed these organisations; and the long term nature of the support allowed them to move from one to another, reinvent them to match their ever changing political, economic and social environment, and shape the knowledge sector in the process.

Most graduates, of course, never set foot in a think tank (public or private) and instead went on to work for the private sector. But the sheer number of competent economists, sociologists, political scientists, chemists, biologists, etc. meant that think tanks and other research bodies were not terribly short of high quality candidates. And the same is true for policymaking capacity.

A somewhat similar situation is found in Africa in the cases of IDRC and of the African Capacity Development Foundation -although their work was not necessarily channeled through universities. Rather than think tanks for the sake of think tanks, they simply constitute an appropriate vehicle to support researchers and research in the continent. And this is particularly true in a context in which universities suffer from chronic underinvestment and a unsupportive policy environment and are therefore difficult to work with.

The work of German political foundations can tell a similar story. Their support to think tanks in countries like Bolivia or Ecuador is less driven by a desire to strengthen think tanks alone but by a view that their support to political parties can only succeed if this is accompanied by supporting organisations capable of, in turn, supporting the parties. After all, it is the parties, just as it was research for the Ford Foundation and ACBF, and not the think tanks, that German political foundations care about.

Of course the same alternative approach can be taken to search for lessons related to developing the capacity of policymakers (the ‘demand’ side). Rather than focus only on initiatives targeting public think tanks or the skills of individual policymakers, for example, an effort could be made to look for lessons emerging from public sector reform programmes that, if successful, would significantly improve the policymaking capacity of the entire State; including its capacity to make more and better use of various types of knowledge.

Putting it into practice

What does this mean in practice? It is all very well to talk of developing competencies, but how does that translate into a nicely defined programme -one that can be tendered and implemented?

One straight forward option could be to replace the supply, demand, intermediary categories with new ones: research, communications, and management,to pick just three (although critical thinking is probably be the most important one). But this risks more of the same kind of unhelpful compartmentalisation. And the division is by no means perfect: it is quite likely that one person will need all types of competencies, for example.

Nonetheless it would be possible to introduce these competencies into the system by:

  1. Working with a pre-selected set of organisations previously assumed to belong to the supply, demand and intermediary camps; and/or
  2. Aiming at the wider society by working with and through a country’s tertiary education system.

In the first case, because the organisations and the kind of competencies that need to be developed in them are the same, the three components of such an initiative would be more likely to work together. By separating the organisations into demand, supply and intermediaries and targeting each group separately the opportunity for a coordinated approach, specially in large initiatives, is operationally speaking less likely. This approach may be more appropriate with an intervention like the Think Tank Initiative that is targeting just one type of organisation but may be more interesting (and challenging) with one like the Indonesia Knowledge Sector Initiative that aims to work across the board. In the latter, coordinating the development of the right common competences would be more of a challenge given the range of organisations involved. Another opportunity for this can be found in a recently launched DFID call focusing on the capacity of decision-making organisations.

The second case demands a longer term view of change and a commitment that few funders are ready to make -after all, tertiary education is not a very popular Aid policy as it is considered to be targeted at the elites instead of the poor. (It should be noted, though, that this is something that AusAid in Indonesia is planning to do in conjunction with its Knowledge Sector Initiative; so lots more lessons to learn there.) Without a functioning education system, any efforts to prop up think tanks, NGOs, government policy units, and any other is doomed to be unsustainable. Eventually, these organisations will run out of people to hire (if they have not already) and if they have already taken to ‘poaching’ from the private sector, the few well paid government agencies such as the Central Bank, or to repatriating researchers, then they are likely to run out of money soon, because none of these will be cheap options.

This second approach, too, focuses on that absolutely necessary competence that lacks in any non-functioning system: critical thought.

Both approaches demand an additional component: developing local sources of funding. The willingness of individuals, corporations, and the public sector to participate in the long term funding of their country’s own research and analytical capacity is fundamental for the sustainability of any such intervention. This is the exit strategy that taxpayers in all donor countries should be demanding to see upfront. Even if the organisations supported were to develop into world class research centres their good work and contribution could come to a sudden end without the emergence of domestic funding.

East European and Latin American think tanks are waking up to the realisation that the days of secure funding are over. The withdrawal of funds from their traditional donors, however, has not been matched with an increase in equivalent domestic funding. In Latin America, many of the best think tanks have had to turn to consultancy work with large corporations in the extractive industries as well as contracts with their governments. Both are profitable options but greatly limiting of their mandates as organisations purporting to work in the public interest. In Eastern Europe, some think tanks are becoming contractors to the EU with similar consequences.

New and future philanthropists and public funders need specific competences, too: funding independent think tank is not the same as buying a service; sitting on the board of one is not exactly the same as sitting on the board of a for-profit firm; fundraising on behalf of them is not like fundraising for a start-up; etc. To begin with, they need an appreciation of the value of research and an understanding of the research process. And secondly, they need to practice and learn in the process: from a few tens of thousands of dollars to a few million.

Again, the two options discussed above offer alternative approaches:

  1. In the first case, a fourth component working specifically to mobilise domestic funds could be set up. This could involve working to improve legislation that may be hindering philanthropic donations or more constructive public support. It could involve identifying philanthropic networks, mentoring future philanthropists, establishing partnerships with research councils in donor countries to support the formation or strengthening of local versions, etc. 
  2. In the second approach, the appreciation of research and its value would be developed alongside other interests as part of a comprehensive education.

Once more I appear to be supporting efforts to pay less attention to think tanks themselves and far more to developing the basic competencies that any society would need to define its own future. Think tanks, if necessary, will evolve out of the natural interaction of knowledge, politics, and money.

The good news is that the long term approach targeting the critical thinking capacity of a growing professional elite works. And we have many more examples of how to do it right.