[This post is the introduction of the resource “Greater policy impact: Stronger post-project engagement” by Raymond Struyk. Download the resource.]
Think tanks exist to improve the quality of decisions made by governments at all levels. Most are rightly concerned about their image as an organization that demonstrably contributes to development of strong policies and programs for its country. Considerable resources are devoted to documenting performance.+ The policy community and sponsors both pay attention to think tanks’ own assessments as well as such external reviews as may be available.
Still, it may be that many think tanks have less success in the policy arena than they could. Limited tracking of post-project policy development opportunities and limited follow through where additional data or analysis could be effective restrict think tanks’ influence.
For a policy research project to realize success generally requires going beyond adequately fulfilling the TOR of a government contract, aid agency support, or foundation grant—or even going well beyond funders’ expectations in meeting this standard. Most significant policy effects take a long time to realize, certainly well beyond the delivery date for a policy research project’s deliverables, often years. Usually projects end before the real “policy marketing” begins. Research sponsors want your products to use in crafting and selling the new policy or in reforming/strengthening an existing policy based on evidence about its effectiveness. Rarely is there a task for work with the agency to advance the proposed policy change within government. Sponsors see this as their task, the payoff from designing, commissioning, and overseeing policy research projects.+ Of course, think tanks’ communications campaigns can be very helpful in alerting the policy community to the issue, educating them about it, and highlighting proposals for addressing it—a very important initial step. They are also likely to give sponsors detailed briefings about their work—an additional positive step.
Experience shows that the policy development process in the majority of countries moves at a deliberate pace. Yes, there are exceptions: think of how quickly major program changes were adopted and implemented in the first couple of years in former Soviet bloc countries just after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Also, certain authoritarian governments can move at lightning speed. But as Fred Bergsten, founding president of the Petersen Institute and a person very experienced in moving policy ideas in international finance forward, said it requires “ten years from inception of an idea to implementation of an idea.” +
Consider the actions involved to advance a proposed program change developed through a research government agency funded project that requires parliamentary approval. The path would be something like the following: at the responsible ministry the proposed policy change passes from the office that commissioned the research completed by the think tank to
the program office division director; then it goes to the
office director, to the
deputy minister, to the
minister; and then to the
ministry of finance for its assessment and approval; and on to the
office of the president (which may have several levels).
If it is included in the next year’s budget, it is submitted to parliament and works its way through committees of both houses for consideration and modification; and then finally to each full chamber for action. If enacted, the originating ministry has the task of preparing the program’s regulations to permit implementation. At almost any point in the initiative’s journey additional explanations and information may be essential from the ministry, often meaning the proposal is returned to the ministry for modification. (Such modifications are frequently requested in response to objections raised by stakeholders outside government.) The foregoing makes it easy to see how years can pass on the way from a proposed reform to an improved functioning program.
To be effective a think tank needs to stay involved in the policy process after the final report is released, the roll out conference held, and the social media blitz mounted. If this is not done, then the impact of the Institute’s work may be underestimated because it is unaware of changes it helped cause. Beyond this there can be two other, probably more important, missed opportunities. First, if there is little continued tracking, then Center Directors/Team Leaders (hereafter Team Leaders) and Principal Investigators (PIs) may be unaware of distinct chances to provide additional or clarifying information important to advancing a reform—after all, they know more about the specifics of the data, the analysis, and what is behind the recommendations than anyone else. Second, the think tank is not building a corpus of experience on effective post-project actions that could be shared with other team leaders.
The reality, of course, is that resources are needed to follow policy developments and identify opportunities in any area. All think tanks face budget constraints and PIs usually are substantially occupied with managing the next project and writing another proposal. It is essential, therefore, that a think tank assess which policy projects or programs warrant the resource investment for tracking and, where appropriate, additional participation in the policy process. With that decision in hand, the second decision is about who is to lead the post-project monitoring and craft any follow-up action plans that may be needed. An obvious question is what is senior management’s role in all of this.
As obviously important such persistent involvement in the policy process can be in achieving actual changes, there seems to little direct discussion of it in the think tank management literature. The topic is missing, for example, from some very useful communications guides developed specifically for think tanks.+
This article is about how a think tank identifies which of those policy areas that have been the subject of major projects deserve to be actively monitored in the future as targets for deeper policy involvement. Equally important is the question of organizing the monitoring and learning from the results for future monitoring and intervention activities.
In preparing this article I consulted with senior managers at three think tanks I view as well-managed: the Urban Institute, the Results for Development Institute, and the Institute for Urban Economics. The first two are large organizations (measured by staff size, headcounts of 150 and 500+) both located in the U.S. The last is in Russia with a staff of about 35, although its management practices were developed when its head count was around 100. + Below they are referred to as participating think tanks.
The discussion proceeds in five parts. The first looks at the selection of which completed projects should be actively monitored and when to make the decision on this for individual projects. The second part presents a description of how such involvement actually is carried out. The third part discusses the important roles senior management has to play in marshalling resources and advising the “policy entrepreneurs” who are actually working with various stakeholders to achieve acceptance of the new policy. The fourth section overviews what the participating think tanks now have in place for tracking and responding to opportunities identified. The last section briefly concludes.
On a first reading the activities involved in the tracking-contributing paradigm may be daunting. A couple of points can be held in mind to allay a sense of “it’s just too much.” Actually, one of the participating think tanks already has in-place an operating structure very similar to that being suggested and they do not find it burdensome. Another point is that in starting to implement a tracking system an element-by-element process can be used in which not all tasks are included from the outset and only one or two of a think tank’s research centers lead the way and share their experience with others. Finally, what are described below as separate tasks are closely related with each requiring fewer resources to launch than may seem likely at first.
Lastly, the presentation below in places is somewhat didactic and probably simplistic. The hope is that these faults purchase clarity about the basic tasks to be done. There are many ways to do them and various think tanks will adopt different methods.
This document is a part of the new OTT Best Practices Series. If you would like to submit a piece on best practices for research and policy institutes, please get in touch.