Context matters: so what?

20 April 2015
SERIES Think tanks and their context 8 items

[Editor’s note: This is the fourth of a series edited by Elizabeth BrownAprille Knox, and Courtney Tolmie at Results for Development, focusing on think tanks’ context. The series addresses a subject of great importance to think tanks as well as to those supporting them. It provides a substantial contribution to On Think Tanks’ efforts to promote a more nuanced discussion on the subject. If you want to be a guest editor for On Think Tanks please get in touch. This post is based on the study “Linking Think Tank Performance, Decisions, and Context,” undertaken by Results for Development Institute in partnership with the University of Washington and with generous support by the Think Tank Initiative.]

“Context matters” is one of the most uncontroversial statements one could make to a think tank leader. It also is one of the least helpful ones. Just knowing that context matters does not help think tanks around the world answer the more important question of what to do about context.

Researchers have made great strides in answering questions like “what context factors are related to better outcomes” and “what factors do not influence effectiveness” and “does this vary regionally.” We analyzed many of these strides in our review of the literature in this field. But taking this line of thinking a step further – from “how are think tanks affected by context” to “how can think tanks respond to context” – requires input from one important group of stakeholders:

Think tanks themselves.

So we asked these questions of think tank directors and senior staff in a series of interviews and focus group discussions in two countries (Indonesia and Rwanda). What do they think are the most important context factors? What are their strategies to deal with these factors? What can they leverage – and what do they need to mitigate against? And their answers revealed many lessons (only a few of which we discuss in this post) that may help us move from “context matters” to “now what?”

We’re not going to take it

The first thing that came out of this discussion is perhaps obvious – but it is worth acknowledging explicitly:

Think tanks do not just sit back and take changes in context; they create strategies – and they respond.

When we led think tank representatives through an exercise of sharing a project or program that they had led, we asked explicitly whether they believed that factors like political will, government openness, and government priorities played a role in the success of their work. For one or more factors, the response was almost always “yes,” but respondents proceeded to share how their research, communications, and policy engagement decisions changed to address these factors. Think tanks do not just let context happen to them; they respond.

People who are researching think tanks are getting it right –to a point

In an earlier blog post, we talked about categorizing context factors that those researching think tanks have found to be important into four major categories – political and economic context, donor environment, intellectual climate, and civil society factors. All of these came up in some form and to some degree as factors that real think tanks consider and see as important in their work.

But some of the specific factors that came out of our discussions with think tanks reveal some possible gaps in the research on think tank effectiveness and context. For example, some think tanks that sought to engage with the general public shared further that a wide range of citizen characteristics influenced their decisions regarding communications and research methods. We even heard from several organizations in Rwanda that legal context – such as policies and procedures for obtaining official status as a think tank – can influence the objectives of think tanks – and in turn their decisions regarding activities (more on this below).

Context is in the eye of the beholder

Most of the points above refer to think tanks as respondents; but we know that there are differing roles and opinions within think tanks. We were not speaking with a monolithic organization; we were speaking with people within the organization.

And people had different opinions of context depending on their role.

This is not something we analyzed extensively; but a review of responses from think tank executive directorsand those within the think tank that lead research or communications reveals that different factors are more or less important depending on who you speak with.   Which reveals another take away from these discussions …

Is it really context that we are talking about?

Interviews with executive directors pointed us toward important exogenous context factors – things like government transparency, government openness to data and civil society involvement, donor priorities, and media reputation.

However, one focus group discussion in particular with senior researchers and communications officers revealed a critical factor that was not exogenous at all – organization relationship with government officials. This is striking because, while endogenous to the organization as a whole, it may be viewed as an exogenous factor to those who are leading research and policy engagement programs on a day-to-day basis – those undertaking research and communications strategies but not necessarily working toward the organization-wide goal of improving relations with those in power. (For more on exogenous and endogenous factors, check out this earlier blog post on the subject)

What is the endgame?

This raises a final question – what is it that think tanks are trying to achieve? In much of the literature, the outcome is seen as policy influence or affecting policy decisions. For some organizations, this is the immediate goal – and for most, this is the ultimate goal. But interviews with think tank executive directors suggest that they see this as a step-wise process. Reaching policy influence requires achieving earlier objectives, such as gaining credibility as an organization.

These earlier steps in the cascade of influence (differing objectives that organizations at different places in their development have) may require different actions and priorities on the part of think tanks – and these different actions may be more or less influenced by different context factors. What this means is that the important context factors for those organizations that are well known may be different from the important factors for those organizations that are just starting to build a reputation. And this is an issue that deserves much more attention by think tanks and those who research think tanks alike.

So what is the endgame for people who research think tanks?

The final question is not one for think tanks – but one for those researching and supporting think tanks. What are the next steps in this research to make sure that this work is not just intellectually interesting, but also useful to those working for think tanks globally. The questions remaining in this area are numerous, but one contribution we can make is by conferring with representatives from think tanks themselves regarding their views and priorities related to context. This will help us move from “context matters” to “now what?”