Almost half a year ago I wrote some unsolicited recommendations for the future head of the Think Tank Initiative. This week I’ve had the chance to share some of them with the incoming Program Manager: Hans Gutbrod. Over the last few days here in Cape Town he has also expressed his own views on twitter and in conversations with think tank directors and researchers at the event. Today, after a long day at the TTIexchange in South Africa I sat down with him for a quick chat about his motivations and expectations.
Enrique Mendizabal: Why did you apply for the job?
Hans Gutbrod: I am passionate about making research work, but making it work in a way and in places where it’s even more important that research gives citizens and their countries a voice. And this is what the Think Tank Initiative is about. Think tanks, at their best, anchor expertise in a country and allow research to make a difference in the long term. But nothing lasts without the right individuals and institutions (that the TTI is supporting).
EM: What is your think tank experience?
HG: I worked for almost 6 years with a research organisation focused on the delivery of empirical research: a Fact Tank. (Hans was Regional Director at Caucasus Research Resource Center.) In a context where even the basic numbers were contested (unemployment levels, levels of destitution, etc.) there was a need for this approach. A fact tank can be a think tank. This strategy worked well for a highly polarised context and our centre did this work rather well and gave citizens (who were finally being counted) a voice via our research.
EM: Can think tank make a difference in unfriendly contexts?
HG: Even in difficult contexts when the constraints faced by think tanks in different situations are sizeable, the opportunities are there too. Small policy fixes can make huge differences to the majority of citizens. But to be effective under these circumstances, think tanks need to be highly responsive and in a way contribute to create their own opportunities for success. Once this happens, success is cumulative, melting problems away once you get going.
EM: Do you have a definition of a think tank?
HG: Ask me in 3 months. It is important to make sure that we have one that in inclusive whilst meaningful. But if I was to outline some principles: it would have to be interested broadly in the public good, be non-for-profit, and it should apply judgement to generate the appropriate type and level of knowledge that can feed into policy and practice.
EM: What do you mean by appropriate?
HG: That it responds to the context. That it addresses the problem: is it ignorance or disfunctionality? These require different types of knowledge. In doing so they need to behave like entrepreneurs. When people try to generate knowledge that adds value they take certain risks; risks similar to those taken by entrepreneurs. They must also develop and sustain influencing processes; similar to the enterprises taken on by entrepreneurs.
But back to the definition. Think tanks, at least in the idealised version, start with a concern about an issue and research is at the core of their response to it. In other words, research is central to their credibility and identity.
EM: You are right. When deciding what is and what is not a think tank we can ask ourselves what we think of when we think of an organisation. Amnesty International, for instance, may do research but that is not the first thing that comes to mind when I think of it.
I know you’ve only had a few days to get to know the grantees and the initiative but is there anything that you have found particularly appealing?
HG: Difficult to pick… Maybe that in 10 to 15 years it is possible that the idea of think tanks in the ‘south’ will be seen as normal and central as they are in more developed economies. This is now possible because of the internet. From my own experience I know how central it was for us to succeed in a difficult context. Even in hard circumstances we had access to information about our role models half way across the world. They were only a few seconds away; closer than the bookshelf.
That the discussions we have had today are now available to people on the internet in a radical development.
EM: And what about concerns?
HG: Leadership is critical to success. But the kind of leadership that is necessary in research in one with an element of productive paranoia. Leadership is an authority claim and for this claim to be credible it needs to be rigorous. So leaders in the initiative need to ask themselves again and again what works and what doesn’t and why. They need to surround themselves by an environment of discipline pluralism.
And the conversation, I expect, will continue. It has been (so far; the exchange still has another day to go) a great opportunity to learn more about think tanks and their staff. I will continue to blog about some of the main issues that emerged over the course of the plenaries and workshops (and coffee breaks) over the next few weeks. And I hope, of course, to welcome Hans to onthinktanks.org again.