Part 1 of 2: On Research, Communications and Credibility
Damien King is the Executive Director at the Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CaPRI), as well as one of its founders. CaPRI, based in Jamaica, is an economics focused think tank, a first for the Caribbean region, as well as one of the most prominent think tanks in the region. In this two-part interview Damien shares CaPRI´s approach to research, communications and credibility, their approach to working with the private sector, as well as some reflections on the functions of a think tank and the characteristics that a think tank leader should have.
In this first article Damien shares the reasons that motivated the formation of CaPRI, describes their approach to ensuring their research agenda is relevant and how communications are an equally important aspect of their strategy. He also reflects on how these aspects have led to establish CaPRi´s credibility and ensure its impact. Finally, he shared with us the key functions that a think tank carries out, and main the obligations and responsibilities of a think tank director.
Andrea Baertl (AB): Can you share with us how CaPRI was formed?
Damien King (DK): Over 10 years ago, a group of academics wondered how to explain the paradox of Caribbean development. The paradox being that upon independence Caribbean countries seemed to be prepared, and advantaged, for rapid economic growth in terms of their geographic location, culture and educational systems. But, by 2008 most countries in the Caribbean, and more so Jamaica, had not fulfilled that expectation. At that point we undertook a research exercise that concluded that Jamaica did not have any deep structural problems, nor wholesale institutional inadequacies- the country had just made policy mistakes at various critical junctions. And we theorised that small developing countries, by virtue of their smallness, had less resource capacity to make good policy recommendations, and therefore less policymaking capacities. So we concluded that policy decisions had not been as well informed as they would be for larger countries, with larger governments and larger bureaucracies. To address this, we formed the Caribbean Policy Research Institute- CaPRI- to provide free policy research for governments in the Caribbean.
AB: How did you decide your research agenda? How do you choose what issues to focus on?
DK: From the beginning we worked to analyse the context and identify the key policy decisions that the government is likely to face over the next three years. To this we add the policy decisions that they are not necessarily going to face, but that we think ought to be made. The decisions we make on the specific projects that we undertake are informed by developments in the country,where we think the bottlenecks are, our various stakeholder consultations, discussions with our board members and sometimes our sponsors and the people that come to our public forums, and our own personal and professional relationships. All of that tells us what the issues that people are concerned about are and that should be our agenda.
AB: And how about your research to recommendations cycle?
DK: We carry out our research very often in consultation with all stakeholders including the government itself. When we have completed the research we present our results and recommendations as free support to the government’s policy decisions.
AB: How do you do your stakeholder consultations?
DK: They operate at various levels. When we first plan out our research and decide on the methodology, we make a list of who we need to consult, interview, or get information from. Then, once we have a draft of the research we identify external reviewers who have knowledge of this area and can give us constructive feedback. Thirdly, after integrating these comments, we sometimes have stakeholder meetings and discuss with them the preliminaries. Then, once the research is published, we have a public forum. Participants in these forums vary depending on the topic, it could be CEOs in the industry or residents of a community. All public forums involve a panel discussion as well as a Q&A with the audience, and this is part of the feedback loop as well (we have revisions of published materials before).
AB: Has this approach been successful? What has been the impact of CaPRI so far?
DK: I suspect that compared to other think tanks in the world we have been more than usually successful in getting our recommendations into policy. The administrators genuinely do lack the knowledge and the resource capacity and, to some extent, they are thirsty for the knowledge we provide. We are working in a receptive environment.
AB: But, how did you make the environment receptive? Not all countries, nor governments, are receptive to policy advice despite also needing support to make informed policy choices.
DK: I think our impact is due mainly to three aspects:
First, small scale and capacity leads to receptivity to support. We are smaller than other Latin American countries, and even though others also face capacity problems, it’s worse in the Caribbean. For example, Jamaica’s Ministry of Finance has no one with an economics PHD. Here’s a quick anecdote: A couple of years ago I was doing research that involved Guyana and I had difficulty getting national accounts data of Guyana (information that could have been easily sent by email). In utter frustration, after not receiving the data after repeated inquiries, I decided to fly to Guyana to meet with the staff of the national accounts office. And when I went to the statistical agency I met THE person who does national accounts. And that was the problem, he had no capacity to answer my emails. Because of this scale and capacity issues, they are even more receptive than in other countries.
Second, our small scale reduces the degrees of separation between people. Because we are small, it’s much easier for persons working in my capacity to have access to decision makers. If we don’t already know them, then we are one degree of separation away from knowing them. So when we request meetings with ministers, more often than not we can get them.
Third and most importantly: we pay a lot of attention to communication. We pay as much attention to communication as we do to research. We make sure that through the research process, especially when the research is done, the recommendations are drafted, crafted, presented and stylised in a way that makes the findings accessible to each of our audiences. We make sure that the communication products can be read and understood by our audiences, and that the findings are laid out in an inviting way. We also hold public forums where we invite key stakeholders, and present the key messages (findings and recommendations) in a way that is suitable and interesting for them. We invite the media to these events (television, newspapers etc) and make sure our research findings are accessible to them too. In sum: every aspect of communications (written, verbal, media, interviews, etc.) focuses on making sure that all the relevant stakeholders-not just policymakers- get our message. By the time we get to the policymakers and say ‘Here is our research and our recommendations’, the stakeholders have already been briefed and can back our suggestions (if in agreement). Sometimes it almost reaches the point where if a policymaker does not follow our recommendations, then the stakeholders of that policy start asking questions and pressuring them for change.
AB: Building on this, CaPRI is seen as a source of reputable information in the region, and one that needs to be heard. You have established good relationships with all these different stakeholders, which is not an easy task. How did you establish CaPRI´s credibility?
DK: We worked on it from the start. Like in many Caribbean and Latin American Countries, politics are highly polarised, to the point that there is a default assumption that you are either with the government or part of the opposition. Establishing independence and credibility is something that you need to do actively. We make sure in our choice of issues that we do not inadvertently give the impression of being on one side or the other. We make sure that our methodology and analysis is robust and transparent so people can see how we came to our conclusions. Also, having done this for 10 years has helped build our credibility.
AB: Changing the topic a bit: How would you define a think tank? What are the functions that they carry out?
DK: Broadly, a think tank is an institution in which the capacity can be free, can be liberated to contemplate broader, deeper impactful issues. I’m saying this as a way of distinguishing it from the work of academics, which of necessity is motivated by getting academic promotion. It is also different from politicians, whose objective is largely to be successful at the next national elections. Think tanks are where people can have a certain amount of freedom to think about issues in a less compromised way. Beyond this description, we would have to get into the specific objectives of each think tank.
AB: What do you think are the most important obligations of a think tank director?
DK: One of the most important obligations is to motivate those who work in the organisation. What is particular about working in a think tank, I think, is that the best motivation, as you may well appreciate already, is to be serving a larger purpose other than your pay check at the end of the month. It is easier in a think tank, because you are pursuing a larger purpose. Everybody who works at CaPRI knows that Jamaica can be a more prosperous, more satisfying, and more fulfilling place to live. And the work that we do can and has contributed to that, so it has a larger meaning.
Also, executive directors need to ensure that the organisation maintains a certain level of objectivity and professionalism so that the work can have credibility. I think this should be true, even in special purpose think tanks. It is more obviously true of the ideologically neutral think tanks like ourselves, but even of the special purpose think tanks (like the ones dedicated to free markets, or to environmental preservation). It’s important that your work is not dismissed as biassed or for not being rigorous enough.
AB: Finally, what sort of leadership style do you think is best for a think tank leader to have?
DK: First, I try to establish from the first day what the personal and professional objectives of somebody who comes to work at CaPRI are, and how can their work at CaPRI align with those. The extent that the employee can leverage CaPRI to achieve what they want is the extent to which they are going to be motivated and dedicated to the work. Trying to find a common alignment between what CaPRI wants and what they want is one of the most important things I do.
Second, I really try to empower every staff member to make decisions with confidence. I don’t want an organisation that becomes sclerotic because the head decision maker is not around to keep the process moving forward. For example, we have a weekly team meeting and whatever is decided there is binding, whether I attended it or not. Sometimes it happens that the team makes a collective decision that I don’t support or agree with, but that’s the collective decision and it stays. I encourage staff members to act rather than wait for approval. And in that I build up their own confidence in their own decision making, as well as have an organisation that moves at the fastest pace it can. I genuinely don’t believe that somebody else’s judgment is inferior to mine.