Collective intelligence: Is the grassroots think tank model only possible in Switzerland?

26 March 2019

[This article is based on the keynote given by Lukas Hupfer, Director of foraus, at the On Think Tanks Conference in Geneva in February 2019. The OTT Conference is an opportunity to explore a range of issues of great interest to think tanks and the broader evidence informed policy field. The main theme for the 2019 Conference was public engagement.]

Yesterday evening, during the public event on think tanks and public engagement, we started collecting a wide range of questions about public engagement: Who is the public? How do I reach out to it? And who of your team should be doing this? We also encountered the questions: Why should we reach out? Isn’t public engagement just a fancy new trend that will hamper my credibility of solid research work?

So, faced with these concerns, why and how should you engage with the public?

To come up with answers and solutions to these questions, I would like to bring in the concrete example of foraus, a think tank that has 10 years of experience with intensive and broad public engagement. foraus is a model which is, if you will, designed by the public: a think tank that is at the centre of the foreign policy debate in Switzerland without having a single researcher on its payroll.

And, yes, we do have people in our think tank who get paid- I am one of them. What I would like to do by illustrating our model is to offer some examples of challenges and opportunities we have faced in the past, which many of you might be confronted with when engaging with the public.

In bringing up these observations, I would like to make three points. First of all, don’t be afraid of public engagement. You obviously have to decide on the purpose and form of your public engagement. You then have to develop a few new skills in your team, invest resources and maybe reconsider your workflow and certain methods. But, in doing so, you don’t have to start a revolution within your think tank. And you don’t have to give up, for example, on your mission to provide evidence-based research to decision makers in order to turn public engagement into a success for you.

Secondly, I would like to encourage you to think of public engagement not only as a tool, but as a goal. Incorporate it into your vision and mission; and make it a value of your think tank.

Lastly, a note on context. When I am talking to an international audience about our work, one of the first reactions is always: “Wow, you have come up with a unique and interesting model for a think tank, but this can only work in Switzerland. You are a small country with a long tradition of direct democracy, direct access to the political system, and so on.” I would like to challenge you by saying that, yes, foraus is a unique grassroots think tank, but you don’t need to copy that model in order to engage with the public. Arguably, Switzerland has a special political system, but this system also comes with challenges we had to overcome, and the rationale for public engagement is not linked to systems. So my third point is the consequence of my first two arguments: when you have defined for yourself the right combination of vision, instruments and spirit, a holistic approach to public engagement is possible in almost any context.

Why engage with the public?

Let us zoom out a bit and start with the question: Why should we engage with the public? This is obviously an important question- one that I assume many of you have already thought about. For that reason, and also because we have only limited time, I will run through a list of arguments for increased and full public engagement, adding two or three points that you might not have thought of yet.

Participatory methods may be used by think tanks at different stages of their business, from identifying priorities, to content creation and dissemination. These may bring a range of benefits from improving the quality of content and increasing reach, to building legitimacy and credibility with decision makers, the public and funders.

Regarding content, we are all aware of the major global challenges. Engaging with the public will help you identify collective solutions to collective problems. I think you all know the rationale behind this. You may agree or not, but instead of opening up a debate about this, I will give you an example of how this can be done in a minute.

When reflecting on public engagement, most people think first of increasing reach and improving the dissemination of your work. There are quite a few communications people among us, so I will not elaborate on this either, but I leave the topic for discussion on the floor later on.

Thirdly, in London last year we were talking about a possible credibility crisis for think tanks. One reason behind this is that think tanks are often perceived by the public as part of the political establishment: a remote elite that is inaccessible to normal citizens. In that role, think tanks may contribute to a sense of disenfranchisement from the political process and declining trust in the democratic system. So, if you want to break away from this, public engagement becomes a moral obligation. And perhaps this will lead to a form of public engagement where think tanks start playing an important role as mediators between the public and political decision makers, thereby reducing barriers to political participation, strengthening civil society and increasing trust.

Finally, better content, higher credibility and legitimacy will also make you more attractive to funders. Think of foundations that want to fight fake news and strengthen democracy, or think of states looking for innovative projects in peace building and development aid.

In view of all of the above I ask myself, is it really a viable choice to not engage with the public?

When foraus was founded 10 years ago, the consideration of whether or not to engage with the public was not only an intellectual process but also a rational choice. We were a young crowd of students, PhD candidates and young professionals interested in foreign policy, with the goal of shaping a Swiss foreign policy that is constructive and open to the rest of the world. We did not want to be given only a choice of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in the referendums and popular initiatives landing in our mailboxes four times a year. We wanted to be part of the decision-making process from the start: we wanted a part in policymaking without being locked in the traditional system of hierarchical parties and interest groups. This, combined with our empty pockets, has made public engagement part of our DNA, our vision, our structure and our methodology of work.

How to engage with the public?

In the definition of your mission and strategy, think of the added value that public engagement brings to you and develop your own narrative on public engagement. In the case of foraus, it allows for participation of the public in the foreign policy debate as well as in the policymaking process. For our sister think tank Polis180 in Berlin, the aim is to engage young people on political issues. And for our sister think tank Argo in Paris, their approach to public engagement is driven by their goals of integration and social cohesion.

Start talking to the public and try to interact and engage with it in discussions. However, don’t make these discussions only about your finalised research: talk about their needs and perhaps even their dreams and fears. Furthermore, try to talk and bring together different sectors of the public. Provide a space for exchange and collaborate with different actors and organisations that will bring in their respective audiences.

Empower the public, starting by engaging with them as equals. You might be an expert in a specific field but any member of the public brings in knowledge and experience which you may not have considered before. To enable this exchange, you first have to enable these individuals to express and share their knowledge, and to ensure a channel through which this collective intelligence finds its way into your work. You have to guide and support the public: structure processes and maybe offer training and moral support.

Engage the public in your policymaking, and go beyond dissemination in your public engagement. Get input from the public at every step of the way: when you are framing your research question, when looking for data, and when you are developing ideas.

Engaging the public at all stages of the research cycle? Surely I can’t be serious. But what would you say if I told you that foraus is currently a leading authority in the Swiss debate on how to deal with China? Or that we have been consulted by the State Secretary of the Foreign Ministry on what kind of foreign policy vision Switzerland should develop for the next four years? What if I told you that we had an all-female panel with members of six out of the seven parties in parliament at a press conference presenting a study on the consequences that a popular initiative launched by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party would have on our foreign policy? These successes are all based in our public engagement strategy.

Ten years ago, we set up regional chapters of our think tank in all university cities in Switzerland. These are groups run by volunteers that are organizing monthly foreign policy events. In addition, we engage PhD candidates, postdocs and young professionals in dedicated thematic programmes, from which the policy papers we publish originate. Both in the organisation of our events and in the writing of our research papers our members decide what to debate, write or think about.

This type of policy-planning process is probably very different to what you are familiar with. To make this model possible, we have developed a particular methodology on how to engage with the public. In short, three years ago we started internationalizing and digitizing the system of a grassroots think tank. We are now present with six sister think tanks throughout Europe and have developed a digital crowdsourcing tool called Policy Kitchen. You can read more on how this works in my contribution to the OTT annual review.

Challenges to public engagement

A participatory grassroots model might have institutional consequences.

Reaching out to the public might challenge the rules of your existing system. Take Brexit for example: you give the population a vote on a referendum and you thereby change the institutional setting – in this case diminishing the role of parliament. You might also face change within your organisation: employees and/or the public might demand inclusion in some of your internal decisions, your outward perception might change, new critics will arrive and the form and communication of your output might change or might have to change. To deal with these demands you will need clear rules, but also a certain degree of flexibility and courage to try something new.

Who is your public? How do you constitute the crowd? And how can you ensure the quality of participation?

To encourage a positive and cooperative environment for public engagement, mechanisms of moderation and reputation are key. Physical workshops encourage and facilitate constructive collaboration, which is why some aspect of organisation on a geographical basis makes sense- like we’ve done with our regional chapters. Meanwhile, dedicated skills workshops for members of your public can improve the standard of your work. In terms of the review process, it is advisable to rely on a professional external jury to ensure quality standard, consistency in review protocol and to safeguard your think tank’s credibility. Finally, it is important to bring across to your members that participation equals responsibility. Their seat at the table comes with a requirement of respect and the willingness to listen, exchange and think.

Lastly, public engagement requires a lot of (human) resources.

Although the right tools can facilitate the process, don’t underestimate the investment in time and energy you have to be willing to make in order to receive a return in kind. This is the reason why real and effective public engagement is only feasible when it is the result of a strategic decision and follows a well-conceived strategy.

Collective intelligence: is the grassroots think tank model only possible in Switzerland?

I think we have to answer this question together. What I hope to have demonstrated here is that the need for and the rationale behind public engagement is universal. Some of you may want to focus on the dissemination aspect of public engagement, whereas others will take a more value-driven approach. But the experience of our sister think tanks and also my personal experience of living in several different countries have shown me that people around the globe care about their political environment and they are ready to raise their voices and contribute with their ideas.

The second point I wanted to illustrate is that public engagement is not all that complicated. There are already a wide range of initiatives out there and there are tools that can support you in structuring and managing public engagement in your research work. What you need to do is take some of the time spent on content or the communication thereof, and invest this time and money in your methodology. Be ready to experiment a bit in order to find your public and your way of engaging with it – always with the goal to think of public engagement in the most comprehensive way possible.

Watch the keynote.