Better Sooner than Later: Addressing think tanks’ governance and management (Line management, staffing, and monitoring for management)

14 March 2014
SERIES Think tanks governance and management 19 items

This last post on Governance and Management for think tanks deals with three important issues: line management, staffing, and monitoring for management.

The first one addressed the importance of dealing with governance and management. The second post focused on think tanks’ boards, the executive direction, senior management, central services, and research teams.

Line management and performance appraisals

There is a set of very specific challenges related to managing staff and monitoring their performance. They may overlap somewhat with the challenges faced by the ED, SMT and the manner in which research is organised and how it relates to other teams within the think tank, but they deserve special attention.

Line management goes beyond what maybe the responsibility of Human Resources departments and is, in practice, the responsibility of line managers –who are, often in a think tank, very busy researchers. Line management faces several challenges:

  • Unclear roles: at the heart of the difficulties that think tanks face in relation to managing staff is the absence of good quality job descriptions (e.g. for a social researcher). Few think tanks have a job description for every post in their organisation –and if they do, few of their members of staff would be able to find them. Many only prepare a job description when they decide to look for a replacement or hire a new person. Job descriptions are not only useful for hiring staff, they are crucial for managing existing staff.  The job descriptions should describe the objectives of the post, the holder’s line management, the posts roles and responsibilities (often to great detail), the competencies that are expected of the employee, and even the organisational values that they are expected to uphold.
  • Unremunerated management: management is rarely ever paid for. Managers are expected to manage their teams (often more people than is advised) on top of their already busy days. It should not surprise then that few take this role seriously or are able to award it the attention it deserves.
  • Performance appraisal systems: these can be rather useful to focus managers’ attention on their charges and to ensure that their own struggles do not go unnoticed for long. But a performance appraisal system will not solve an inadequate governance (for instance, one in which researchers do not get to interact with their managers -except for the 2 times a year they meet to fill in the appraisal forms). It is also important to build up the system slowly: 360 degree appraisals may not be possible right away and  linking the appraisals to salaries may generate more problems than what they are intended to solve.
  • Potentially effective managers in a poorly governed environment: management will be easier if managers do not have more that 5 people under them; it will be improved if they are able to share the burden with others or if they and their charges can receive additional support from mentors within or outside of the organisation. An effective HR team will be able to spot weaknesses and support new managers to be better at this new important task. Empowered communications teams will make internal communications work in favour of staff management making it easier for staff to access information relevant to this function; etc.

Staffing -finding, retaining, and ‘letting go’

This is a recurring issue throughout the challenges described above. Hiring staff is not always done professionally (relying more on word of mouth or personal contacts) and efforts to retain staff are limited to trying to find new funds for them. These are not sustainable nor appropriate options for a think tank.

Far form needing an HR department to deal with this, think tanks need to remember that everything they do is about people and their ideas. The organisation’s governance and management needs to reflect this. Even more than policy influence as a guiding objective; the nurturing and unleashing of its staff full potential should be at the heart of everything it does.

Firing (or letting go) is a particularly contentious issue. Since their origins are usually in the NGO world or in academia, think tanks award firing a very negative connotation. Many organisations prefer, instead, to move staff around, promote it, create new positions for them, and change their status to associates (rather than full time staff members); anything except letting them go. And when they have to get rid of staff they inevitably do it in the least productive possible ways.

This has the opposite effect of what was intended. It creates more work for those who are performing effectively, it undermines managers and their power to define and decide the future of their programmes or initiative, it undermines formal procedures instituting, instead, an informal way of doing things, etc.

And in the long run, too, it increases the cost of staff.

Monitoring for management

A final Governance and Management issue to consider, and that has the power to tie everything together, is monitoring. Monitoring is often meant to focus on the monitoring and evaluation of a think tank’s influence. Funders like to focus on this and think tanks tend to oblige –maybe because it keeps monitoring out of their organisation’s private space.

Monitoring for management is less interested in the impact that a think tank has or on measuring any degree of their contribution to change but rather places greater value to the organisation’s internal functioning: to knowing about what it does and learning how to do it better.

There are a number of priorities in this respect:

  • Monitoring the performance of the governance arrangement: the board, the ED, the SMT and the various teams and levels of the organisations need to be monitored closely to determine how well the work, individually and as a whole. Good governance arrangements make this easy: the board monitors the ED, the ED can monitor the SMT, SMT members can monitor their teams and programmes, etc.  In essence this kind of monitoring is about knowing if the organisational form is fit for purpose.
  • Monitoring staff’s competencies: if people are the most important asset then people deserve special attention in any monitoring effort. Appraisals are as much about judging their performance as giving the organisation the information they need to support them. Appraisals are a great source of information when thinking about capacity development needs, for example. Therefore, far more important than focusing on targets (e.g. number of papers published or new contracts) it is to pay attention to competencies (e.g. leadership, critical thinking, strategic capacity, decision making, communication, working relationships, etc.).
  • Monitoring projects/initiatives: monitoring the projects and initiatives that the think tanks implement is crucial to know whether the organisation is delivering on its commitments but it is also a great source of information about: what seems to work (e.g. what works well in relation to research activities, events, publications, networking, etc.; projects are, after all, an opportunity to compare how the same tactics fare across the organisation and over a long period of time) and whether the organisation is making or losing money. This last point merits special attention as few organisation know how many days its staff spent on any given project. What is the point of spending thousands of dollars finding out if a think tank had influence or not if it cannot even tell if, in doing so, it went broke?
  • Monitoring quality: across the organisation, everyone can be judged by the quality of the work they produce. Everyone will, of course have different outputs to be judged by but it should be possible to find them and use them to keep an eye out for a dip in standards.
  • Monitoring the context: organisations do not exist in a vacuum and it is worth reminding ourselves of what the context is up to outside. Is the organisation, as it is governed and managed, in its focus and strategy, relevant and sustainable in the long term?

Monitoring then is crucial to pre-empt the challenges that besiege any think tank. Better catch them early and do something about them while there is still time.


The point of this series of posts (remember you can view the entire event and presentation (and questions) in this video) is to encourage think tanks (certainly the Indonesian think tanks starting to work within the KSI) to enquire about their governance and management situations, explore what may be working well and what may be in need of a fix, and to seek, without any shame, for help.

At the same time, I hope it encourages their funders to bring up this elephant in the room. These are important issues. If left unresolved they will be the biggest stumbling blocks the will face.