Fernando Straface: “The challenge is refining the think tanks’ technology for influence in electoral campaigns”

13 October 2014
SERIES Think tanks and elections 17 items

[Editor’s note: Interview with Fernando Straface, former Executive Director of Center for the Implementation of Public Policies Promoting Equity and Growth(CIPPEC). In 2011, CIPPEC developed an initiative called “Agenda for the President 2011-2015”, that has been reflected in the document Promoting a national policy forum: CIPPEC’s “Agenda for the President 2011-2015”. In 2014, together with a group of young entrepreneurs and referents of the public, political and cultural life in Argentina, CIPPEC started to work on an experience facing 2015 elections, called “Argentina Debate”. ]

Leandro Echt: What is the role that Latin American think tanks can play in electoral campaigns?

Fernando Straface: After looking at several presidential electoral processes in the region, one can confirm that some think tanks have taken on a leading role in promoting dialogue and public policy proposals. From Chilean think tanks, pioneers in these type of experiences, to organisations such as Fedesarrollo (Colombia), CIES (Perú) y Grupo FARO (Ecuador) and numerous Mexican civil society organisations, a considerable number of experiences and lessons around think tanks’ participation in electoral campaigns can be found.

At the same time, one cans observe at least three contextual factors that have favored this role.

First, Latin America has a solid think tanks’ tradition: in each country you will find at least one think tank that is relevant to the national public debate.

Second, in several countries of the region, political parties show weaknesses regarding the formulation of their political platforms: they no longer think about the government, but prepare themselves to win the elections. This creates an opportunity for think tanks, who are precisely trying to reflect on the best policies for the country.

Third, think tanks of the region have not only been bridges between politics and academy, but also good translators of complex ideas for the media and, through it, to citizens. Parties’ weakness to communicate with society makes the media conceive think tanks as a source of information; easier and more directly to access in the context of elections.

All together, these factors bring about a scenario in which think tanks emerge with a leading role regarding public policy discussion. Moreover, think tanks managed to develop a sort of “technology of influence” in the context of electoral campaigns: an approach designed to take advantage of a high-intensity political moment in order to foster discussion in the public agenda. It is about improving the quality of public communication about the national development strategy at the moment in which society chooses who will lead that strategy.

From these experiences, one is able to identify patterns that were replicated in the various influencing strategies, in many cases associated to the type of government and political culture of the region: such as personalised-center government options, and policy discussions focused on the past instead of the future, just to mention some of the features. These common characteristics are found in the management of the production of evidence, the communication products, the target audiences, and the projects’ governance, among other aspects. Thus, the region has created an innovative method in terms of policy discussions during elections. In many cases, these processes concluded with debates among the candidates in front of society as a referee.

It is important to underline the cross-fertilization process through which lessons were shared among different initiatives conducted by think tanks in the region. Latin America counts with a huge advantage concerning this: language consistency. At the same time, initiatives like the Think Tank Initiative, projects supported by GDNet and ODIOn Think TanksCIPPEC´s work with FARO and CIES, and CIPE’s support to several initiatives during electoral periods have promoted a more frequent exchange among institutions. Latin American think tanks have been capable of producing collective action in order to learn from each other. This has contributed to turn the elections into a common object of interest.

LE: What did you learn from CIPPEC’s first experience, “Agenda for the President”?

FS: Most of the lessons from Agenda for the President were reflected in the document Promoting a national policy forum: CIPPEC’s “Agenda for the President 2011-2015”. I will focus on the most relevant ones.

The first lesson is that the political context affects the willingness and capability of the political system to participate in the kind of processes of dialogue that we intended to promote. Lack of competitiveness among candidates as well as government continuity scenarios discourage governments from getting involved in a process of dialogue. This was the Argentine scenario in 2011: an asymmetric configuration among the candidates and a presidential reelection that was almost certain. Moreover, the legitimacy of the candidate with a better position was not based on these type of dialogues. Thus, the winner had little incentives to dialogue, since it could lead to greater restriction of its space for action in the future. CIPPEC was able to dialogue directly and deeply with the opposition candidates and their teams about different issues, but the dialogue with the incumbent candidate was mediated by academic and political institutions linked to the government.

On the contrary, it is expected that conditions of higher uncertainty about the outcome may foster this type of exercises because there would be more than one actor interested in investing in government formation since their strategies would be less structured. It is very important that think tanks understand this context at the time of investing in these efforts.

A second lesson is related to the number of issues that the think tank aims to address with an initiative like this one. In 2011, CIPPEC worked on 15 public policy issues, for which 15 memos were produced, each with their respective proposals. The initiative intended to address whole State, thus generating a comprehensive and systemic view of the government’s responsibilities. Although it meant an extraordinary exercise of systemic coherence within the organisation, this focus also meant developing a diversified influencing strategy in order to reach every stakeholder. This resulted in a huge effort in terms of production, reflection and dialogue. Thus, facing 2015, the new initiative Argentina Debate will focus only on a series of leading issues (Education, Infrastructure, Early Childhood and Institutional Quality). This will make it possible to better focus the influencing strategy.

I should say that neither of these two strategies is necessarily better than the other. The choice will depend on the context and the think tanks’ capacity (for instance, in 2011 we built alliances with other institutions on issues in which CIPPEC had no expertise). Moreover, the holistic exercise of 2011 gave CIPPEC a panoramic vision of different policy issues, and many actors saw the institution as a space capable of making contributions with policy proposals for electoral campaigns. This ‘capital’ will be used facing the next presidential election, but now we will focus on the most relevant issues on the public agenda.

Third, such an important initiative cannot be developed in isolation. It is important to build alliances with organisations with sectorial relevance, public legitimacy, and influencing capacity. This will raise the initiative’s capacity to generate dialogue. In 2011, we invited peer organisations with expertise in certain policy issues to produce some of the documents. Facing 2015, a Strategic Committee was set up (with former Foreign Ministers, ambassadors, journalists, unions, and other figures with social relevance) with the objective of building legitimacy for the project. We have also associated with a group of young private entrepreneurs who expressed their intention to contribute to improve the culture of public debate in the country.

A forth lesson is related to the fact that influencing exercises in elections suppose a kind of “seasonality” regarding the think tank’s influencing strategy. I mean, every 4 years (this is the case in Argentina), the institution takes the decision to focus on certain policy issues. Nonetheless, this effort represents a challenge concerning the communication of those other issues on which the institution works on and that, although they might not be part of this initiative, are still relevant for the organisation’s reputation and sustainability.

The fifth lesson is related to the dilemma between developing a proposal-based initiative or a dialogue-based one. In 2011, the experience was mainly a proposal-based: we bet for a deep reflection on different issues with a range of very specific proposals. Facing 2015, Argentina Debate tries to be more a platform to promote public debate about the country’s development rather than a about a set of specific proposals. To do this, the initial documents, produced by CIPPEC’s and other organisations’ experts will be used as triggers for dialogue that will lead to a new set of documents strengthened by the dialogue with leading politicians, academics and business leaders in each topic.

Sixth, it is necessary to think about how the influencing strategy will be operationalised. I refer to the dilemma between the visibility of actions vs. what we call “silent influence”. Related to this, another issue is the timing of the activities. In Agenda for the President, we prioritised the production in 2010 (a year before the elections), followed by a strategy of dialogue and debate in 2011. But we learnt that the electoral year leaves little time for dialogue, since every actor is fully dedicated to the campaign. Thus, facing 2015 we will develop a programmatic influencing strategy during 2014, thus strengthening the public campaign for the presidential debate in 2015.

Finally, dialogue processes tend not to be have very tangible final impacts. Although dialogue is worth to seek in of itself, since it entails the improvement of political culture conditions, it is necessary to materialise its dialogue into something more specific. Generating documents that promote discussion is not enough; it is also important to count with material that shows how the framework of ideas has been enriched by the dialogue. After the 2011 campaign, CIPPEC gathered both the work in the policy memos and the results of the dialogue in the book 100 policies to foster development.

LE: What would be the best funding model for this type of initiatives?

FS: Ideally, this type of exercises should be developed with the organisations’  own resources. This would give the initiative more freedom to shape the agenda and will mean less transactional cost in terms of agreeing actions with donors.

But counting with the support of international cooperation resources enhances the ability of the initiative to have compared perspective to other similar exercises (for instance, for CIPPEC it was very important to count with CIPE’s support in order to learn from Mexican experiences). International support may fulfill a fundamental role at enhancing South-South cooperation schemes that allow the transfer of the influence technology in elections between peer organizations. But to be implemented, these initiatives require knowledge from and relation with national actors; and that is the think tanks’ main contribution.

At the same time, domestic funding facilitates a broader discussion, since it commits more stakeholders to the policy dialogue. The challenge is that this funding will not be perceived as a conflict of interest behind the support to the initiative.

In short, the funding of these processes creates dilemmas that need to be solved according to the national context and the political culture.

LE: How could cooperation among think tanks be coordinated in order to improve this technology of influence?

FS: Firstly, it is necessary to document national processes and identify patterns in the political context that allow to understand the differences among influencing strategies.

Secondly, it would be important to make visible what other countries do in the context of electoral campaigns. To do this, it is necessary to deepen the inter-regional dialogue in the world.

Finally, specific workshops could be developed for think tanks’ staff, in which these type of initiatives may be analysed. These workshops could address the different components of this new technology of influence: editorial strategy, governance, funding, etc.

[Editor’s note: in order to read a more systematic reflection about the initiative “Presidential Agenda 2011-2015”, see the document Promoting a national policy forum: CIPPEC’s “Agenda for the President 2011-2015”. This post was translated to Spanish by Federico Frascheri.]