Celebrating and learning about think tanks

10 November 2014

The Premio PODER al Think Tank del Año in Peru, inspired by Prospect Magazine’s own award, offers an opportunity to celebrate the good work that think tanks do for their countries and learn a lot about them in the meantime.

Thinktankers from all over the country met last 29th October at the El Virrey bookstore in Lima for what could become an annual think tank party. For the record, the winners were:

  1. Think tank of the year: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos (IEP)
  2. Regional think tank of the year: Instituto de Economía y Empresa (IEE)
  3. Economic and financial policy think tank of the year: Centro de Investigación de la Universidad del Pacífico (CIUP)
  4. Social policy think tank of the year:  Grupo de Análisis para el Desarrollo (GRADE) and Centro de Investigación de la Universidad del Pacífico (CIUP)
  5. Environmental, climate change and natural resources policy think tank of the year: Sociedad Peruana de Derecho Ambiental (SPDA)
  6. Science, technology and applied innovation think tank of the year: Soluciones Prácticas 
  7. The one to watch: Macroconsult 

From left to right: Álvaro Monge, Socio de Macroconsult, Jorge Caillaux, Presidente SPDA, Roxana Barrantes, Directora General IEP, Cynthia Sanborn, Directora CIUP, Miguel Jaramillo, Director Ejecutivo GRADE, Alfonso Carrasco, Director Regional Soluciones Prácticas, Francisco Huerta Benites, Presidente IEE

The celebration

The award celebrates think tanks’ capacity to set the agenda (CIUP, IPE and Apoyo Consultoría); to introduce new research methods and techniques (CIUP and Macroconsult); to involve new policy actors (IPE, Soluciones Prácticas, and IEE); to help understand the social problems broadly (GRADE and IEP), deeply (CIUP), and historically (IEP); to affect practice directly (Soluciones Prácticas); and to protect important issues even when they are not urgent (SPDA).

The ceremony confirmed the interest in such an award. There were representatives from all the finalists present. Over 140 people signed up to the event close to 100 joined their peers to celebrate their success. We even had a surprise visit from the Minister of the Environment who found time in his busy pre-COP20 schedule to show-up to congratulate the winners.

The think tanks shared the good news themselves:

The lessons

But one of the main reasons for organising this award is that it provides an excellent opportunity to learn more about think tank -certainly Peruvian think tanks. Below I highlight some of the issues that emerged during the process and some of the lessons I think I have learned:

On the definition of a think tank

After the judges had met and chosen their favourite think tanks I wrote a blog post on the definition of think tanks. In that post I argued that rather than using a US/UK inspired definition it was more appropriate to find one that reflected the characteristics of Peru’s political context. I argued, too, that rather than a single definition we needed a establish a boundary within which organisations that fulfil the functions of think tanks could fall.

Tom Medvetz has made this point before. Think tanks define themselves as such as part of a political act. By doing so they differentiate themselves from others. Similarly, funders, the media, NGOs, Universities, policy bodies, political parties, consultancies, and others can define them as think tanks -in an equally political act.

In developed countries, the space that think tanks inhabit is more clearly defined in part because the organisations that lie just outside the boundary are also more clearly defined: Universities are well-funded, parties are well established, government research bodies are professional bureaucracies, the media has clear(er) purposes, consultancies are consultancies, advocacy NGOs are recognised, etc. But in developing countries these organisations are hard to define: Universities survive by undertaking consultancies, the media often acts as advocacy organisations, activists present themselves as experts, consultants are often lecturers, political parties are unstructured and temporary, etc.

In these more confusing contexts, several types of organisations can take on the roles and functions of think tanks.

But to decide which qualify and which don’t as think tanks it is not enough to open or close the doors to a set group of organisations across the world. This decision needs to be made at the local level and on a case by case basis.

The panel of judges chose to accept organisations that had been rejected as think tanks the previous year. They were influenced by a number of factors including: their own adoption of the label, their efforts to invest in research capacity, their communication approaches, and their commitment to participate in the local think tank community.

The main lesson I take with me is that the boundaries are fluid and porous. Accepting the applications of consultancies and NGOs did not constitute an invitation to all consultancies and NGOs. It simply opened the debate on the nature of think tanks in Peru. And in doing so, it opened a debate on think tanks in the public space that had, until then, been absent.

On their business models

The definition is closely related to the business models of think tanks. We find many different models in the relatively small sample of candidates -each deserving further analysis:

  • University based: University based think tanks have a funding advantage, one that is not always turned into a comparative advantage, though. Although their researchers often engage in consultancy work (commissioned work) a significant portion of their budget comes from tuition fees. This works as a sort of endowment for the think tank that can (but is not always) used to develop think tank driven initiatives.
  • Consultancy based not-for-profits: This could be also referred as contract based models. Most think tanks depend on this model. They are NGOs that rely on contracts from clients (e.g. the government, foreign governments, foundations, etc.). Some are able to steer their project portfolio in a direction that fuels their own agenda but by and large this is quite hard and often they have to respond to their clients’ own agendas. The most successful ones have learned to find the right balance between the two.
  • Consultancy based for-profits: Corporate think tanks operate in the same way as not-for-profit consultancy think tanks but destine some or all of their profits towards their own research agendas and communications activities. They are more likely to work for private sector clients than the not-for-profit ones but this is not necessarily the case as the government is increasingly turning to them in search of public policy expertise.
  • Corporate think tanks more widely: These rely on much more complex models that involve income generation through a number of other businesses (anything from corporate consultancy, trainings, financial services advice, etc.) that is then used, at least partly, to the development of a research agenda and communication activities.
  • Government think tanks: Government think tanks are publicly funded and therefore do not rely on contracts. They are able to plan their agendas largely based on the government’s own.

On the their contributions

Think tanks contribute to policy in a great number of ways. When we started the process in 2013, most people in Peru focused on think tanks capacity to produce high quality research. The 2003 award included an award for best research and one for best communication strategy. We wanted to make it clear that think tanks were about more than just research.

In this year’s competition we found a much greater variety of types of contributions that we could have expected. The panel was interested in the introduction of new research methods and techniques, for example. New bright young minds recruited fresh from post-graduate degrees seem to have made a difference in the one to watch category, Macroconsult.

They were also interested by the capacity of think tanks to create new think tanks. The winner of the economic policy category, CIUP, captured their attention on the basis, partly, of the foundation of two new think tanks: one focused on the study of mining and its effects in Peru and the other on the relationships between Peru and China. This is not something that we often think about when we consider the contribution of think tanks but it falls within the ‘creating spaces for debate’ function. In setting up these new bodies CIUP gives the issues a degree of sustainability that maybe a programme or project could not achieve.

SPDA won the award for the category of best think tank on environmental policy. But it really won for its commitment to the issue over the long term. Although one would expect climate change to be at the top of the agenda in Peru given its vulnerability to even the smallest of changes, it is only recently that the issue has enjoyed the coverage it deserves. The judges considered SPDA played a role in this: both in acting as custodians of the issue and, more recently, bringing it to the top of the agenda.

There was also something about long term commitments in the award to the think tank of the year. IEP’s contribution, according to the judges, includes its historical lens to the study of Peru’s challenges. In her introduction to the award, Carolina Trivelli, former Minister of Development, said that understanding a country like Peru was a hugely complex challenge. More so because one has to be able to understand the history of the challenges we face. IEP has managed to incorporate this into its work thus providing an invaluable source of nuanced knowledge for today’s decision makers.

Finally, the judges identified another important contribution that think tanks can make. And they made a point of referring to this several times.

In the cases of Apoyo Consultoría and Macroconsult, the judges considered that they had been particularly good at creating and articulating new connections between the public and private sectors -two communities that rarely talk to each other in a constructive manner. IEP, they considered, had been highly effective, especially during the last year, in convening two groups that have not, historically, been able to work together either: the political left and right.

IPE’s and Soluciones Prácticas’ efforts to take the debate to the level of regional governments and open spaces for discussion beyond the capital city, Lima, were commended, too. So was GRADE’s capacity to establish long and robust relationships with think tanks and initiatives in other regions of the developing world.

All of these are elements of a convening and connecting function that think tanks can perform rather well. When referring to Chinese think tanks, this functions has been described as a window or a highway.

On their approaches to influence

A third lessons that we learned from the process was that different think tanks have adopted different approaches to influence. Depending on their nature (university based, NGO, company, pubic sector, etc.) think tanks had different approaches. This isn’t new, of course. But it has given us the chance to learn more about how each of the think tanks that applied seek to influence policy. We will try to share this over thinnest few weeks and months as we gear up for next year’s award.

In the meantime, there are some approaches that are worth mentioning because they deserved the attention of the judges:

  • Think and do: I wanted to get this one out of the way. The term is often abused by think tanks all over the world. The term should only refer to think tanks that take their own ideas and seek to put them into practice. For instance, the New Economics Foundation in London took the idea of a local currency and trialled in BrixtonCGD’s initiatives are another example of thinking and doing. CIPPEC, in Argentina, has taken its research on education and turned it into a national (and regional?) initiative through its 400 lessons; and it sought to implement its ideas on electoral reform at the sub-national level. In Peru, Soluciones Prácticas offers an example of this approach. For years, first as ITDG and then as Practical Action, the organisation has developed and tested new intermediate technologies. When they work they take them to local level (and now regional and national) level policy making bodies.
  • Roadshows: It may not be accurate to describe IPE’s efforts as a roadshow but this is what it looks like. The judges made a point of congratulating them for their direct engagement with policy audiences at the sub-national level. Think tanks are generally quite good at hosting events in their own premises or cities. Not so good at taking their messages to new audiences. This presents not just a logistical but also a communication challenge.
  • Convening: Jeffrey Puryear’s excellent study on think tanks in Chile concluded that their most important contribution to the country was not intellectual but psychological. Think tanks helped, during the 1980s, to bring together the opposition parties and politicians. Their events were a vehicle to re-introduce democratic debate Chilean political society. In Peru, IEP’s events present a similar opportunity. Their Mesas Verdes offer a space where the political left and the political right can engage on issues of national interest in a way seldom seen in public.
  • Synthesis: the more politically savvy IPE and the ‘newer’ corporate think tanks like Apoyo Consultoría have emphasised a more dynamic approach to thinktanking in Peru. Rather than relaying only on original research undertaken by their own staff, Apoyo has been able to rush up the think tank learning curve by commissioning research from already established researchers and undertaking, primarily, synthesis work focused on very specific policy issues. Driven by policy rather than research questions and with an eye on their audiences, the think tank has been able to maximise their impact. It reminds me of the approach used by PMRC in Zambia or the ‘technology of influence’ developed by several think tanks in Latin America.
  • Commissioned work: Still, most think tanks undertake commissioned work. Whether this be commissioned by the users (like the government or the private sector) or by a third-party (mostly a foreign bilateral or multilateral agency or foundation) most think tanks in developing countries, and Peru is not the exception, rely on research contracts.
  • Mass social media: the SPDA stands out as an organisation that has embraced the potential of social media, sting up information portals, mass outreach campaigns, actively using Twitter and Facebook, etc. Soluciones Prácticas, too, has embraced new ways of communication. Both organisations have a history of reaching out to the general public rather than only high level political leaders or technocrats.

These are some of the approaches that think tanks use to influence.

 An opportunity for other countries

When we started the Premio PODER in Peru, we had the intention to encourage other think tank communities to follow this example. Our model in Peru has relied on the voluntary agency of a local publication and a very committed and hard-working group of ‘judges’.  We have made a point of keeping the aid industry, which funds many of the think tanks, out of the organisation of the award.

In other countries, a think tank donor may be the driver -the facilitator or producer. It may fall onto them to convince a local magazine or newspaper of the importance of such an effort (although this should not be hard).

I think that funders interested in learning more about think tanks, at a local level, should seriously consider this type of award. They will have to be patient, though. It may take a few years before it delivers its full potential -I think the Premio PODER needs another two years to become an established award although this second year has proven to be a key milestone in the right direction- but lessons will come in early on in the process.