De-constructing credibility. Factors that affect a think tank’s credibility

10 April 2018

[This is a summary of the fourth working paper of the Working Paper Series, “De-constructing credibility: Factors that affect a think tank’s credibility“]

The raison d’être of a policy research centres + is to carry out research to inform policy and practice. To achieve that, they need to be perceived as credible sources of information and advice. Credibility is thus paramount to a think tank. It qualifies think tanks to be consulted on and invited to participate in policy processes. It makes them attractive to funders. Promotes engagement with the media as experts in their field; and facilitates access to reputable networks. Without it, none of this can occur.

But what exactly is credibility? How do people assess it? What signals credibility to a think tank´s stakeholders? Finding an answer to these questions gave rise to this paper, which integrates theories from several fields and explores how credibility is constructed, as well as factors that people consider when deciding if a think tank is credible or not.

Credibility studies have, since early on, defined credibility as the believability of a communicator, determined by how the receiver evaluates its expertise and trustworthiness (Hovland, Jannis, & Kelley, 1953; Hovland & Weiss, 1951). Credibility is ultimately equated with believability.  But, what makes someone or something believable varies, and depends on who is making the assessment. Context also plays an important role and can make some pieces of information more salient than others, affecting the assessment. Credibility is constructed by the interaction of the qualities and current circumstances of an organisation and someone who awards it.

From this definition it follows that each person has their own idea of credibility. This idea, or construct, has been developed based on their experiences (personal or vicarious), the information they hold and the context in which they are immersed. An individual uses this idea of what credibility is and compares it with the information and perceptions they have of a specific think tank, if they match, then they award them credibility. Depending on the information at hand and the context, these definitions of credibility might vary and different aspects can gain importance (Hilligoss & Rieh, 2007). Because of this, an organisation can lack credibility for some and have it for others. The assessments are also fluid, they change over time based on what the think tank does or fails to do, as well as by changes in the context.

But, despite the notion that the exact notion of what is a credible organisation varies for each individual, the paper argues that there are a common set of factors from which individuals draw from and focus on (in various degrees) to assess the credibility of a think tank. These contribute, in varying degrees, to the overall assessment of credibility of an organisation – depending on who is doing the evaluation – and will reflect the experience, knowledge and information of that person. Not all of them are considered by everyone, the argument is that these are the most commonly-assessed characteristics used to base credibility judgments on. Also, every so often one factor can become the most prominent characteristic by which a think tank is judged, and therefore might singlehandedly help define if a think tank is seen as credible or not.

The factors are:

  • Networks. Connections, alliances, and affiliations that an organisation and its staff and board have.
  • Impact. Any effect that a policy research centre has had on policy, practice, media, or academia.
  • Intellectual independence. Independence on deciding their research agenda, methods, and actions an organisation undertakes.
  • Transparency. Publicly disclosing funding sources, agenda, affiliations, partnerships, and conflicts of interests.
  • Credentials and expertise. Collected expertise and qualifications that a think tank and its staff have.
  • Communications and visibility. How and how often the think tank communicates with its stakeholders.
  • Research quality. Following research guidelines to produce policy relevant research in which the quality is assured.
  • Ideology and values. Ideology and values are the set of ideas and values that guide an individual or organisation.
  • Current context. The current setting in which a think tank and its stakeholders are immersed.

Research quality is at the core of what a think tank does, and the credibility assessment of an organisations rests in it being perceived as carrying out quality research. But this does not mean that it is always the most salient factor, just that it is where credibility is ultimately anchored. Without it, the credibility of an organisation crumbles. Above all, a think tank needs to produce good research and analysis. But it also needs to be more than that to be a credible organisation

The paper and proposed list aim to be a starting point in the discussion and research on the factors that impact on the credibility of think tanks, and how it can be enhanced and sustained. Next steps will include further research to test the pertinence of the factors with think tankers and their audiences.

Read the paper.