DFID’s new approach to long-term funding for think tanks

28 February 2012

I have been asking about the details of these projects for some time and was half expecting they would be published more publicly but in the end I found them in DFID’s project database. (I wonder if there should be a rule that all publicly funded projects must be announced when signed -by funder and sub-contractor or grantee.) Anyway, these project are important for our understanding of the funding mechanisms available to think tanks as well as of the relationship between donors and these organisations. I do hope that as they progress, lessons will be shared about the approach as much as of the projects’ outcomes.

The Overseas Development Institute has been awarded an accountable grant (£9,750,000 over 4 years) to: generate improved evidence and analysis for managing risk and resilience. The grant follows from a 7 year Partnership Programme Agreement that is now focused entirely on NGOs but that provided ODI with just over £1 million a year until 2010. This is a new important project because it recognises that think tanks cannot be expected to behave as if they were non-for-profit consultancies.

DFID is negotiating these accountable grants with other UK-based think tanks (IDS and IIED are mentioned in the ODI business case document and their grants are supposed to be in process -but since I could not find them I must assume they have not been agreed yet). A similar accountable grant has been awarded to the U.S.based Center for Global Development (£4,038,000 over 3.5 years).The project documents say quite a bit about the aid industry’s and one of its top donor’s attitudes towards think tanks.

The business case for ODI’s accountable grant provides some detail about this. I really liked that in it, DFID seems to acknowledge that think tanks are valuable institutions in their own merit. Take, for example, the following quotes regarding DFID’s view of think tanks (they are the same for the CGD business case):

Think tanks continue to make important contributions to development thinking and are an important source of ideas and analysis for development agencies such as DFID.

In the past, similar work by think tanks has impacted positively on DFID’s policy development and operational guidance to our country offices. There is an ongoing need to ensure that DFID continues to benefit from the latest ideas and policy-focused research and analysis of leading thinkers in development globally, including those within the UK.

Think tanks benefit and complement DFID’s and wider development community’s work:

  • Their research, analysis, and advice helps us to make informed choices, generates challenge, and helps to generate and change ideas into policy practice;
  • Their global knowledge work covers key niche areas, such as low carbon technology;
  • They are an independent voice in policy debates and a well-regarded producer of a global public good, in the form of knowledge and ideas;
  • They cover areas of policy for which DFID does not hold adequate capacity in-house (such as urbanisation); and
  • They offer access to new networks for example through links and partnerships with individuals, researchers and other policy think tanks in emerging economies

These quotes are important because they not only recognise the value of think tanks but also outline several functions for which they are valuable. It is clearly not just about policy influence (or policy change): they access networks and policy spaces, they provide a reserve workforce on issues that policymaking bodies may not have their own in-house capacity, audit policymakers, etc.

Unfortunately, this all appears to be forgotten in the rest of the documents as the business cases then go on to describe projects that look more like a contracts than a grants:

DFID’s support will be structured around support for predefined outputs and expected results directly taking forward critical policy issues in development. This Accountable Grant is intended to consolidate under a single framework all policy work with DFID’s Policy Division during the four year period.  Unrestricted core funding is not provided.

Even the logframe (e.g. for ODI) feels the same and the results chains (or what DFID now calls theories of change) for each of the flagship projects demand quite a stretch of imagination and an over-simplification of reality (but this is what business case templates do to good ideas). The range of ways by which think tanks can contribute to society (and policy) is narrowed to the more limited liner ideal of evidence based policymaking.

Luckily, there is a provision, in the case of the ODI grant, to recommend new issues to study that may emerge over time. But it will be interesting to see how this is put into action.

In both business cases, in the risks section, one of the risks with a medium probability and medium likely impact is the duplication of work between ODI/CGD and the other think tanks supported by DFID. The suggested mitigation strategy is to have regular coordinating meetings between the think tanks. Think tanks in developing countries (as well as think tanks working on mainstream domestic policy issues in developed countries) might find this strange. What is wrong with a bit of overlap? After all, we cannot expect all think tanks in a country to agree with each others. So duplication (or triplication, even) can lead to more ideas being put forward and a far more interesting and pluralistic debate to develop.

If there were overlap and all the think tanks supported had the chance to study similar issues then DFID would have more options to choose from. And this can only be good. Unfortunately, the debate (sometimes quite heated) that think tanks in developing countries might encounter on a daily basis is not so common in the aid industry in the UK. Not all of DFID thinks this way, though: last year I had the chance to work with DFID Zambia to develop a programme to promote public economic policy debate.

On a slightly more positive note, page 16 of the CGD business case deals with how to assess value for money. The document says:

Neil MacDonald evaluated many of DFIDs Programme Partnership Agreements (“PPA”) in January 2011, including PPAs with think tanks such as ODI and IIED. He set out that “Policy change is essentially a high-risk activity because the outcome is beyond the control of the influencing organizations. Policy change may be slow and, given changes of political climate, is not linear and may go into reverse”. Hence, he recommended that, “Organizations undertaking policy influencing would be well-advised to develop elaborated theories of change with results chains that will allow achievement of meaningful milestones short of the intended outcome.” It is important that DFID builds on these lessons: it is likely that monitoring research activities, the dissemination of ideas, and the influence those ideas have had on policy actors, will be the primary mechanism through which DFID evaluates the effectiveness of the Accountable Grant.

It might be worth noting that Neil MacDonald did not evaluate ODI’s nor IIED’s PPAs -this was done by the organisations themselves under the supervision of David Lewis and Tom Forsyth from LSE- but this is beside the point. The problem is that theories of change are rarely as elaborate as he suggests they should be; although CGD’s focus on specific policy audiences and policies provides a way to avoid the usual shallowness of most theories of change. If you compare CGD’s and ODI’s results chains you find that the former’s are slightly more (although not in all cases) specific about the policy audiences or policies that need to change and how they must change along the chain. This is good practice.

To finish I’d like to recommend that in the future the theories of change are presented up-front. It should be clear, I think, that the strategy (the proposed activities) should respond to the theory of change -and not the other way around.

In summary, this is an interesting development in the way that DFID funds its think tanks (although CGD is probably safely beyond its sphere of influence). The PPA provided ODI with funds to transform its management and communications capacity -that took well over a decade. Several Research Programme Consortia in which ODI and the other think tanks have participated have also helped them to develop longer term research programmes. The accountable grand model could offer another layer to the fabric of funding for think tanks in the U.K. But does it create more or less independence? And will it lead to a more informed (and debated) policy? Time will tell.