Barriers to collaboration between think tanks: The Budapest Institute

9 May 2014

[Editor’s note: this post was written by Petra Reszketo for the On Think Tanks Exchange -an action learning initiative to support interregional collaboration between think tanks. Each participant has prepared a post to share. See Leandro Echt’s post on barriers and driversBarriers to collaboration between think tanks: Grupo FARO and go to for more.]

This post was written in the framework of the On Think Tanks Exchange programme’s (The Exchange) barriers to collaboration project, it aims at structuring our ideas and insights related to the leading questions:

  • Why policy research institutes do or do not collaborate? and
  • What determines the success of their collaborations that do take place?

Our approach follows the logic of a quasi SWOT analysis so as to tell apart past experience, potential future benefits and (still existing) risks. To illustrate this we share two stories showcasing one success and one failure.

Drivers and barriers of global partnerships

International multi-actor projects in public policy analysis are not without precedents in the various regions of the globe, though cross-border cooperation is mostly limited to projects with regional scope. The only exceptions among projects dealing with global economic/ social challenges are the ones managed and coordinated by big international organisations (e.g. World Bank, OECD, or big consultancy firms).

We do not think that that is a puzzle -i.e. the lack of cross-regional public policy projects among think thanks. We suggest here a standard economic approach by analysing the demand and supply side of this hypothetical market. First, we suppose that the supply side is within think tanks’ control, while the demand side is beyond their control. Then, we take account of the possibilities of how the mismatch can be minimised and what could be the preconditions of more frequent collaborations in the various policy fields.

The following table provides a quick overview of our approach. First we outline the internal, demand-side drivers and barriers of collaboration based on our and our peers’ experiences. Second, we list some external factors, features of the supply side –that is, opportunities and threats- which hamper or block initiatives aiming at analysing global challenges by small/ medium size research institutions.

Table 1: Quasi SWOT on think thank collaborations

DRIVERS (Strengths) BARRIERS (Weaknesses)
  • Availability of funding resources (at least in regional scope)
  • Professional reputation-building, positive networking effects
  • Information on and access to databases, information sources (at least in case of regional projects)
  • Test and adaptation of relevant good practices, benchmarking (not ‘reinventing the wheel’)
  • Diversification of (regional) market risks
  • Economies of scale in research and dissemination
  • Expansion of research markets
  • Lack of resources (capacity, time, competence)
  • Information asymmetry (concerns about effectively reaching target groups)
  • Cognitive limits, lack of recognition that collaboration can be mutually beneficial
  • Lack of familiarity with out-of-the region social / political context
  • Lack of interest in active membership of global professional networks
  • Lack of management experiences (coordinative and disciplinary challenges)
  • Overlaps in relevant socio-economic challenges, structural problems
  • Possibility to policy learning and systematic exchange of research results and policy recommendations
  • Reputational benefit to institutions leading the co-operation.


  • Limited availability of funding sources (with global scope)
  • Limited access to cross-regional databases, information sources, high costs of access to relevant sources (e.g. OECD, WB, etc.)
  • Lack of interest in policy learning (in the target group)
  • Relatively high fixed entry costs; administrative burden (tendering, monitoring & reporting) – compared to big international organisations
  • Underestimating the costs of collaboration and overestimating the returns
  • Cultural differences (e.g. language, attitudes concerning time, space, human interaction and work)
  • Fragility of the social and political background

The first row sketches the factors influencing either positively or negatively the emergence of global collaborations; these are factors internal to think thanks.

The most important drivers of collaboration are benefits attributed to sharing knowledge and experiences, networking opportunities and thereby reputation-building, and, in the case of regional, cross-border projects, the availability of funds or sponsorships.

Collaborative projects may also help to diversify national or regional market. Economies of scale in research and dissemination can also enhance collaboration. One of the pre-conditions could be access to relevant databases and information sources.

Barriers on the supply side limiting the emergence and effectiveness of think tanks’ collaboration are mostly but not exclusively lack of financial and organisational capacity. Informational and cognitive problems may also immediately block any upcoming initiative that could give rise to a strengthened cooperation network between the regional/global actors of the relevant field of expertise.

Taking the threats or external risks into account, we should emphasise the problem of limited funding options for global collaborative projects. The high costs incurred to access relevant information and data sources also pose considerable barriers.

Furthermore, cooperating partners may often underestimate the costs of collaboration and overestimate the expected returns due to lack of experience with monitoring and reporting obligations. Additional administrative burden (which is often an externality of cross-border projects) associated with the implementation of collaborative projects would be a real threat for participating organisations, which are anyways overwhelmed by administrative obligations. Potential target groups (primarily local policy makers) being uninterested in policy learning  could, in addition, significantly hamper dissemination efforts as well. Think tanks’ management can face considerable difficulties when their research teams are composed of partners with culturally diverse backgrounds.

In addition, cultural differences together with the differences in and changes of the social and political context may make research results hard to interpret or even irrelevant in some collaborating institutions’ countries. Predictability of the economic and political environment is an essential precondition for building partnerships, thus lack of stability definitely challenges the collaboration capacities of all the partners involved.

At the same time, opportunities clearly emerge when there are similarities in the field of relevant socio-economic challenges (i.e.: structural policy problems). The expansion of geographical focus to the global level may promise more effective policy learning process and a more systematic exchange of both good practices and instructive failures in given policy areas. Such a move could provide diversity in research based evidence and bring reputational benefits to think tanks taking leading roles in the policy learning process. As described by Hansen (2014), it is of primary importance to appropriately identify situations in which collaboration is beneficial and in which it is not (assessing costs and benefits of collaboration, as well as alternatives to collaboration).

Cases for success and failure stories

The Cases below introduce two of our project experiences from the near past, demonstrating the most important lessons drawn that significantly contributed to our later collaboration projects.

Case 1: Collaborative project – European example: Social Platform on Innovative Social Services

Project name: Social Platform on Innovative Social Services (INNOSERV):
Project duration: 2012 – 2013
Project length: 3 years
Partner countries & organisations: eleven organisations (Germany, Denmark, Norway, Italy, UK, France, Belgium, Ireland, Hungary)
Project scope: The aim of the project was to systematize innovation in social services in the European Union, including the selection and filming of some exemplary practices. The Budapest Institute was responsible for the Hungarian cases and the preparation and quality control of the filming process.
Collaboration – main experiences and lessons: The BI participated as a consortium partner. The great asset of the consortium team was that in addition to the representatives of prestigious universities, three umbrella organizations (The European Association of Service Providers for Persons with Disabilities, The European Network on Independent Living,SOLIDAR) were also members of the project team. This guaranteed the infiltration of practical aspects. The BI as the only Central and Eastern European (CEE) partner explicitly aimed at collecting region-specific research evidence and sharing information on ordinary practices from theCEE countries, thereby indicating considerable differences to the Western European situation. Although our consortium partners were part of this division of roles, we often faced misunderstanding from their side and need for more clarification on contextual factors.The main coordinators of the project were well-informed and highly experienced in the co-ordination of such large-scale projects. Although a highly democratic intra-consortium decision-making process was quite time-consuming, decisions could be amended even in the very final stage of consultation process, the outputs were never in delay and the project delivered the planned outcomes.The co-ordination of the filming process required quite extensive communication with the filming team as well as with the consortium members and their local partners. It was challenging to coordinate the discussions, to finalise the conceptual framework for the short films, and to reconcile the often diverging preferences of all the participants.

Case 2: Collaborative project – Central-Eastern European example: The Price of Your Capital

Project name: The Price of Your Capital (PoYC)
Project start year: 2014-2015
Project length: 18 months
Partner organisations & countries: seven organisations (Slovakia, Georgia, Ukraine, Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary)
Project scope: The aim of the project is to provide information to citizens and local communities on local budget data and to enhance their abilities to influence public budgeting in capital cities of the participating countries. These goals shall be achieved by the development of six websites, which will provide simple, accurate and contextualized data on municipal budgets. Exchange of information on transparency, on policy priorities and on structure of local budgets may provide stimuli for more local participation and increased tax-awareness in these capitals.
Collaboration – preliminary experiences and lessons: The cooperation and the composition of the group of applicants seemed to give ground to hopes of a truly successful project implementation. The project team is homogeneous enough regarding the professional motivations and backgrounds so that cultural differences would not pose a barrier to project progress. Diversity in the local contexts in terms of economic development, political and institutional background, however, has led to difficulties already in the first phase of the project. Due to political upheaval in the Ukraine, we have potentially lost not just one of our project partners, but probably also one of our co-financing sponsor.Funding poses further challenges due to the fact that the main sponsor has approved only a certain portion of the proposed budget. The project partners are now brainstorming on an alternative funding source, while still keeping an eye on the Ukrainian donor, who did not removed his offer. However, recent political events in Ukraine significantly slowed down the decision making process on their side.


In our view, the cases above clearly demonstrate that:

  • Multi-actor projects may be highly time-consuming, and
  • if dissemination and advocacy are as important as the research elements of a project, democratic rules and procedures in decision-making and involvement of local stakeholders in the implementation phase are crucial success criteria to the project.
  • Finally, political and economic instability can impede the implementation of an international initiative which is otherwise marked by the full commitment of the participating partner organisations.