Improving the quality of a think tank’s publications: Lessons from CIPPEC

24 October 2012

The Impact of a Good Publication Policy

After reading Enrique’s post on quality control, I had a discussion with Dolores Arrieta, Coordinator of Communication at CIPPEC, which took us to reflect on the process CIPPEC follows to improve the quality of its production. You can also read the Spanish version.

One of the features of this process is that it takes part mainly in-house, but with a significant role by the members of the Board.

Firstly, and in order to have a unified editorial criteria, CIPPEC has a publication policy that clearly defines the types of publications the think tank produces, sets internal processes that must be followed during the planning, writing and edition phases, and determines template designs for each kind of publication available (books, handbooks, guides, working papers, and policy briefs, among others).

Through the years, and based on experience (successes and failures), CIPPEC has built a strong and dynamic publication policy which is updated with new lessons. The importance of a publication policy is based on the belief that it will help the organisation to improve its editorial production by setting high quality and design standards on the content the think tanks publishes. The production of content is one the most important goods a think tank brings to society, and therefore it reflects the image of the institution. A publication policy also helps an organisation to enhance the necessary internal processes so that products may be ready in the least time possible with the best quality.

CIPPEC’s publication policy rules on very different issues such as the definition and prioritisation of audiences, content and structure, format, templates and dissemination policy, colours and logos, authorial policies, the intervention of the Communication Direction and Board members, and intellectual property.

Policy briefs are one of CIPPEC’s most important and visible publication. Therefore, the publication policy focuses on several rules to guarantee a solid quality control process during the edition of policy briefs, a key instrument to address political actors and journalists.

Step by step: an insight into CIPPEC’s publication process

Each year, CIPPEC’s Communication Direction organises the think tank’s annual production during its annual planning meetings. During these encounters, each researcher lists the publications that will be produced during the year. Even though many publications can be planned, on many occasions policy briefs are written after an unplanned or an unpredictable situation occurs that offers CIPPEC the opportunity to reflect on a public policy issue. Hence, not all policy briefs can be planned in advance and therefore the publication policy is used to speed up production and correction times in these cases.

  1. The process starts when a researcher tells the Communication Direction that he or she would like to write a policy brief, which could focus on a public agenda issue as well as on research findings. The Communication Direction and the researcher then define the convenience and the opportunity of disseminating the policy brief. If necessary, the decision is shared with the Executive Committee, an internal body that defines internal policies, and monitors and evaluates CIPPEC’s production in all areas. The Communication’s Director is also a member of this Committee.
  2. With this approval, the researcher goes ahead and writes the policy brief, which should be sent to the Publications Coordinator in the Communication Direction, who edits it and gives feedback on the content.
  3. The researcher then incorporates these corrections and feedback and sends a second version to the Publications Coordinator. In the case of books, handbooks and guides, the Communication Direction strongly suggests that the researcher goes through a peer review process.
  4. The Publications Coordinator reviews this new version and begins the design process. CIPPEC’s policy briefs are completely designed in-house in Adobe Indesign, in a flexible template tailored to maximise space and present information in a dynamic and attractive way.
  5. Once it has been laid-out into the template, the Communications Director sends the policy brief to a specific Committee formed by three members of the Advisory Board (the ‘Policy Brief Committee’), who are usually given 48 hours to give their opinion on the policy brief and advice on potential risks and policy impact of the document.
  6. In case the dissemination of the policy brief is not urgent, this Policy Brief Committee has from three to five days to offer their comments. If none of the members provide feedback in that time, the Communications Direction can assume all is O.K. and begin the dissemination process. When feedback is received, the researcher continues to work on the piece in order to reflect such comments and advice, or writes back to clearly justify why he or she rejects such feedback. In certain occasions, when the policy brief is expected to have great impact on the media and on political actors, the Executive Director might read it and offer comments. The Executive Director always receives new policy briefs and is aware of the editorial production, although he is not expected to comment on each piece.
  7. Later, a second email is send to the whole Advisory Board, to let them know a new policy brief will be published and in case they want to give feedback.
  8. After 48 hours, the Communication Direction begins disseminating the policy brief, by sending it to interested political actors and journalists, and uploading it to CIPPEC’s web site and social networks.

Key issues to consider while designing a publication policy

  • Minimise mistakes and ensure institutional coherence. While the main aim is to minimise the possibility of mistakes, another important one is to ensure institutional coherence. CIPPEC has nine different Programmes and more than 60 researchers working on different and sometimes overlapping policy areas. Even if researchers have freedom of opinion, organisational consistency is essential.
  • Plan methodically and be flexible. While speed and minimising mistakes are important, timing is crucial. Both the process described and the dissemination of the policy brief need to be planned carefully to maximize the chances that it will have the desired effect. Unpredictable events and sudden political changes can affect the process (making all people involved hasten in order to get the document ready at the right time) and therefore the publication policy should foresee the possibility of working under pressure, and guarantee mechanisms to reduce quality problems.
  •  Seek experts’ feedback. The Policy Brief Committee within CIPPEC’s Advisory Board is formed by people with great experience on different areas (communications, the private sector, policymaking, etc) who provide a nuanced analysis on the production and foresee the impact a piece will have on different audiences. Board members in CIPPEC are not paid to do their work.
  • Set clear roles and responsibilities and commit with them. A process is solid when everybody knows what to do. Authors, the Communications team and the advisors all play a different roles in the publication of a piece. The publication policy is needed to establish processes, roles, responsibilities, schedules, etc. Personal commitment is also crucial: those who take on the quality control role must be really committed to doing so properly and fast.
  • Empower the body that will apply a publication policy. The role of CIPPEC’s Communication Direction –responsible for monitoring compliance to the publication policy- is very strong. The team is formed by four people with clear responsibilities, who lead the publication policy, the relationship with the media and political actors, manage the production of virtual content and help organising events, among other tasks. All of them are recognised by the staff and their suggestions and comments are taken into account.
  • Remember to define a learning process. Learning from mistakes and successes has allowed CIPPEC to design a solid but flexible policy. Although the process is well under way (it is institutionalised and respected by all authors and people involved), it is always necessary to keep on working to adjust mistakes and delays occurring on the road.

Some challenges ahead

  • Incorporate external reviewers into process. While external reviewers are recommended for some types of publications (books, guides or handbooks) it is not expected in the case of policy briefs. This is due to the speed in which, in most of the cases, this type of publication must be ready. In the future it would be important to strengthen this process incorporating the views of the audience CIPPEC is trying to reach with the publication in order to know their thoughts on its opportunity, quality, and usefulness.
  • Have an institutional committee of continuous improvement of production’s quality. Any process can be improved. Having an institutional body which is able to analyse, evaluate results, and make recommendations for improving the publication policy would result in increasing the quality of the process described and their products.