Influencing efforts should affect their influencing objectives -and viceversa

7 January 2015

I came across two very interesting reads over the holidays that deal with the challenges of bringing about change in the face of adversity. This applies not only for changes that think tanks want to achieve on others but also changes they want to see within themselves. So much more energy is placed to developing influencing strategies to bring about changes in policy but not enough on how to bring about the urgent organisational changes that many think tanks need.

The first one is a report by NESTA’s Behavioural Insights team called EAST: Four simple ways to apply behavioural insights. EAST stands for Easy, Attractive, Social, and Timely.

Their findings may seem rather obvious to the On Think Tanks’ audience but are worth reflecting upon:

  • Easy: Making it easy for people to accept reforms is more than just message simplification. Influencers (or wannabe influencers) need to think carefully about the nature of their proposals. Are we asking people to do something that goes entirely against everything they’ve done in the past? Is is a radical or an incremental change? does it demand a change in values or simply a small practical adjustment?NESTA’s study offers two important additional pieces of advice:
    • Harness the power of defaults: this works well for certain (government and organisation) policies where rather than asking people to switch to a new way of doing things you make it so that this new way is the default option. The typical example used is organ donation. Make people have to opt-out rather than opt-in. Pension reform, too, could use this approach: make everyone contribute automatically and opt-out if they have better alternatives. We could apply this to organisations, too. I think that transparency should be a default option that think tanks should have to opt-out off (arguing why); and certain communication activities should be included as part of researchers’ standardised job descriptions.
    • Reduce the hassle factor in taking up a new service or doing something new: when it comes to organisational change one of the biggest barriers is the sense that the effort is not worth it. Many argue that since things are working just fine it is not necessary to go through what, invariably appears to be, a huge effort and struggle. Here there is a need to, on the one hand, make a better case for why reform is necessary, and, on the other hand, find reform paths that are more manageable.
  • Attractive: Making an idea or a change attractive is, again, more than just about tinkering with the messaging. It has more to do with the design of the proposal than the manner in which it is communicated-although this matters, too:
    • Design rewards and sanctions for maximum effect: I’ve sat through more than the necessary share of meetings where a reform was being announced. Inevitably they fail to deliver quick changes when they are left to individuals to decide if and when they want to adopt them. Reforms need to be accompanied by rewards and sanctions. Once the organisation has decided on a course of action it has to see it through (at least if it shows the kind of progress it expects of it) and cannot simply rely on people to choose to follow it or not. When promoting news forms of communications or project management, it works well to offer those willing to take them on (early adopters) all the support they need. Similarly, it works well to withdraw support from those who refuse. If this sounds too harsh then an alternative is to praise early adopters publicly (feature them on the front page more often, for instance) and pay less attention to those opposing reform (at least those not willing to even ‘give it a go’).
  • Social: Making it social is about showing that reformers are not alone. When attempting to influence policy it works well to show that our ideas are shared by others (we are not the only ones saying it) and that those who would be accepting them would not be alone in doing so (there are other policymakers, for instance, doing the same thing).
    • Show that most people perform the desired behaviour: Stephen Yeo wrote that one of the challenges that think tank directors face in developing countries is that they do not have that many peers to learn from and compete with. The same applies to thinktankers. I’ve written before of a discussion I had with a researcher in Zambia who showed me what he thought was a not-good-enough policy brief. We had been talking about publishing intermediate and shorter outputs and he pulled out this brief he had written a few weeks before but was not sure if it was ready or not. After a quick read I told him that it was as good as anything that a think tank in the UK would publish. His response, along with a smile and a great deal of relief, was something like: “Really? Are you sure?” He then told me that what he really needed was help in making the mental switch from being an academic to a thinktanker. He needed peers to compare himself with. This is what inspired the Zambia Economic Advocacy Programme.
    • Use the power of networks: funders can develop networks of think tanks and thinktankers to encourage the collective acceptance of change. The Think Tank Initiative, the Knowledge Sector Initiate and the Think Tank Fund all use networks as a tool to encourage change among their grantees. But networks can also emerge without the encouragement of funders. Take WonkComms, for instance. It bring together the communication staff of think tanks (mainly in the UK) who share ideas, tips and even challenges with each other. It is a perfect place to learn together.
    • Encourage people to make a commitment to others: Think tanks attempting to affect policy change often try to get their influencing targets to make public commitments. For instance, to include a policy in their election manifesto or allocate fundings in the national budget. In more reliable political contexts, a public mention, even during a heated interview, by a policymaker can become government policy. These statements of purpose become commitments. Within a think tank different parts of the organisation can make commitments to each other, too. Service agreements, for instance, could be signed with the leadership and all central services teams as a way of symbolically committing to delivering certain things. Researchers or their programmes could do the same. These are little more than MoUs but could have an important effect in ensuring that promises are kept.
  • Timely: Making a proposal timely presents a great challenge-and this is where the second read becomes relevant. TheNESTA study suggests that we should (I have changed the order):
    • Consider the immediate costs and benefits: people are more likely to be affected by short term costs and benefits than by longer terms ones. If the immediate costs seems to large they may not feel ready to take on your reforms. So policy recommendations and organisational reforms should pay attention to making (even small) reductions to short term costs for those expected to take them on.
    • Help people plan their response to events: we all know that accepting an idea and doing something about it are completely different things. Think tanks spend a great deal of time either trying to do something about this or explaining why it is not their role to bother with implementation. In any case, incorporating a plan of action to get from idea to action is always a great tactic. And this is much more than just about communications. In fact, I would argue that the number one barrier preventing ideas to turn into action is the lack of understanding of how things really work. Researchers, policy entrepreneurs, thinktankers, or managers rarely truly understand the intricacies of people’s behaviour, organisational culture and processes, and policy bureaucracy. The term “Research to Action” is wrong in so many levels.
    • Prompt people when they are likely to be more receptive: in After a Series of Failures, This Is How Vancouver Finally Built a Controversial Bike Lane, Erik Jaffe, illustrates this last point by the Behavioural Insights Team. The main point of the NESTA study is that one has to time the influencing attempt to the most receptive moments in people’s or organisations’ lives. For instance, in a review of organisational reform cases from Latin American think tanks we found that reform was more rapidly adopted when it was prompted by a crisis. Think tanks were much more receptive to try a new idea when their ‘world had been shaken’. They had already left some old habits behind and so where in the ‘let’s try new ones’ mind-set. Hans Rothgiesser, who worked as head of comms for a think tank in Peru, told me some time ago that there were correct times in the day to send the centre’s daily newsletter: It has to come just as people are opening their emails in the morning or after lunch, procrastinating, just before they get on with work.

The Vancouver case study, produced by University of Toronto planning scholars Matti Siemiatycki, Matt Smith, and Alan Walks, emphasises the following four factors:

  • seizing a political window (timely)
  • designing a great trial (easy)
  • shaping media coverage (social)
  • exerting strong leadership (a kind of attractive)

It shows two things: First, EAST has to come together. It may not be enough for an idea to be timely if it is not user friendly or if it is not seen as attractive to adopt.

Second, that the process of influence (and reform) is in itself a learning opportunity. Think tanks do not know, beforehand, how to influence change (outside or within). They do not know how their plans will work out in the end. If they did they’d be much more powerful and influential than they actually are.

The Vancouver case demonstrates how policy proposals and organisational reform plans need to be developed along the way. The process of influence has to offer think tanks (working to influence others or themselves) the opportunity to learn and adapt their approach and their proposals.

This concept, of a co-evolution of the influencing process and the development of the argument, should affect the way that think tanks think about their own work.

“Research to Action”, “Research to Policy”, and concepts like “Evidence based Policy” or “Evidence Informed Policy” are misleading and incorrect. There isn’t one direction of travel. There isn’t a natural logical order: we do not first do research to develop a perfect and final idea and then (only then) communicate it.

We know this, surely. Why is it so hard to give it up?