Influencing policy: it’s about learning and leading for change

9 July 2012

A couple of weeks ago, as part of the Think Tank Initiative Exchange, I participated in a panel on successful policy engagement alongside Nancy Birdsall of the Center for Global Development and Frannie Leautier of the African Capacity Building Foundation to discuss approaches to policy influence.

I shared a research project we are carrying out in Grupo FARO. Our goal is to look into what some think tanks participating in the initiative consider to be policy influence and how they go about achieving it. We also hope it will contribute to a growing literature on the political economy of research uptake that is slowly, but surely, being adopted by researchers from the developing world.

We based our analysis on twelve stories of policy influence written and kindly shared with us by think tanks from Africa, Asia and Latin America. The stories involve a wide variety of topics, from education reform and poverty reduction to affirmative action in the private sector and shaping electoral processes.

To analyse this great diversity of stories we used a framework that considers, on the one hand, strategies that think tanks carry out to influence policy and, on the other hand, the contexts in which they work.

For the strategies, we examined three central aspects involved in participating in policy processes:

  • The stage(s) of the policy cycle in which think tanks participated;
  • The different types of evidence they employed. We based our analysis on previous work by Reimers and McGinn to identify whether the evidence came from more academic or more action research; and
  • The roles think tanks played during those given episodes, whether advising decision-makers, facilitating dialogue among stakeholders, or advocating for a certain proposal or position.

However, strategies do not come out of thin air; they are (supposedly) calculated responses to complex contexts. To demonstrate this relationship we classified the types of problems think tanks face. We borrowed Hoppe’s framework, which looks into two dimensions of a policy problem:

  • The level of certainty regarding relevant knowledge for the policy process; and
  • The level of agreement on relevant norms and values.

The intersection of these two dimensions yields four general types of policy problems that think tanks may encounter. Let me share an example: Let’s say a think tank is working on health care systems. If the think tank faces a setting where there is agreement that a country must establish universal health care coverage as a right, and has decided on a model to provide coverage to all, let’s say a completely public model, then it is a structured problem. In such cases a think tank can help in putting forth specific proposals on how to implement that decision or monitoring the programs to see their actual impact.

If there is no agreement on whether health care is a right but all parties agree that there should be private provision of services, it would be a partially structured problem with disagreement on values. If stakeholders agree on universal coverage, but not on whether the best solutions should include public or private providers, then it would be a problem characterized by a lack of certainty on knowledge.

Timing is perfect to use this case. What type of problem is the health care reform in the United States? This discussion could sparkle an interesting debate, but I will leave that to be your homework.

There are also unstructured problems. For example, trying to initiate a peace process after a civil war is likely to be a very unstructured problem, as there is little to no knowledge on what happened during the war or the consequences it had and will have on the country, and little to no agreement on how to move forward.

You can read a more complete analysis in the first draft of our paper and my presentation at the Think Tank exchange at the bottom of this post, but let me first summarise some of our conclusions.

Redefining policy influence

Influence on what?  What is it that think tanks hope to achieve?

Although when discussing policy influence we usually focus on outputs, such as concrete change of laws or policies, there is a growing need to see beyond this limited vision of influence.  In contexts of uncertainty, disagreement or mistrust, it is unlikely that resulting policies will be well-designed and effectively and sustainably implemented. In such circumstances, think tanks, instead of trying to achieve policy change, should aim to establish a minimum of agreement among stakeholders to begin along the road for positive, viable policy change. In this sense, changes in the public agenda, values, power structures, and institutions should also be included in the definition of policy influence.

Second, how do think tanks carry out this mission of change?

Think tanks traditionally take a tactical approach, seeing influence as a set of chores carried out to ensure that policymakers hear and adopt ‘my’ solution. Unfortunately, this leads us to prioritise the marketing and communication of ideas over efforts to bring stakeholders together to create real and collective change. After reviewing the cases, we are more convinced than ever that true influence is best described as exercising leadership.

Leading is not pushing ‘my’ idea forward, or the idea of a political party, or donor, or other external stakeholder; leading means mobilising people to collaborate and work towards a solution. It is a collective effort in which think tanks play a very active rather than passive role. The think tanks’ cases studied exert important influence by, for example, posing tough questions or leading hard conversations.

Think tanks are political actors

Another significant conclusion we were able to draw from this analysis is that think tanks are political actors, far more than they consider themselves to be. The analysis shows that think tanks, even in the most structured scenarios, often go beyond the advisory role, bringing new voices into the discussion and choosing not to advise behind closed doors.

In less structured contexts, where evidence and knowledge play a secondary role, think tanks have become what Robert Heifetz calls “leaders without authority” by bringing to the surface concealed issues such as discrimination or generating dialogue among political parties at moments of high political polarisation.

Think tanks navigate in complex and changing contexts. These realities at times require them to advocate a technical solution and other times to promote a learning process to change perspectives and encourage new practices. Coming back to the title of this post and the document, it is about leading, it is about learning jointly with society; not an easy task, but that some are willing to pursue.

This report  is just an initial draft that we are continuing to develop. We look forward to hearing your comments on the framework and analysis as we finalise our study.

The paper:

The presentation: