Insight into factors affecting perceptions of performance in policy communities (Part 1)

12 February 2014

[Editor’s note: This post was written by Philippe Martin, formerly Research Awardee, Think Tank Initiative (TTI), IDRC]

Think tanks are constantly looking to increase their impact and research uptake, and pay heed to their reputation among policy stakeholders. Similarly, donors seek to implement effective capacity building programming for think tanks. In this context, I conducted a study based on monitoring data from the Think Tank Initiativeto explore factors affecting senior policy actors’ perceptions of think tanks in Latin America, Africa and South Asia. The research provides insight into sources of variation in reputation outcomes.

Since its inception the Think Tank Initiative (TTI) has collected as part of its monitoring and evaluation efforts plenty of data from supported think tanks. TTI has also undertaken Policy Community Surveys to develop a nuanced understanding of the policy community in selected countries in Latin America, Africa and South Asia. These surveys provide valuable information on the needs of senior policy actors for research-based evidence, and their views of the work of selected think tanks, among others. The TTI cohort thus represents a rich source of cross-country, cross-institution data to investigate factors affecting policy actors’ assessment of think tanks.

Following an approach similar to Ray Struyk’s paper “What makes a successful policy research organisation in a developing country” (a review was published on this blog) my study leverages TTI monitoring data to explore possible sources of variation in reputation performance.

Few studies about think tanks’ success are based on quantitative methods. First, the notion of success is inherently hard to define and measure, for organizations’ goals, attributes, and contexts vary greatly. Second, data on think tanks’ operations, capabilities, and performance are scarce. Statistical methods allows for exploring the effects of multiple factors simultaneously, and estimating the relative weight of key factors on reputational outcomes across multiple countries and institutions. But, contrary to qualitative research designs, this type of analysis cannot capture in-depth, rich narratives. A great deal of conceptual simplification is needed.

Key Factors Affecting (Perceptions of) Performance

What factors influence the performance of think tanks in policy arenas? Below is a series of thoughts and hypotheses to consider.

Funding: The amount and the source of funding are likely to influence the policy community’s perception of think tanks performance

Funding is consistently mentioned by both scholars and practitioners as a key factor affecting the capacity of think tanks. As Abelson pointed out, “achieving financial independence is the most significant obstacle they must overcome to ensure a strong presence in the policy-making community.” Indeed, funding is crucial to all aspects of think tank capacity, from recruiting qualified staff, to quality and scope of outreach and policy engagement activities.

The funding problem is ever more salient in developing country contexts, as think tanks tend to rely heavily on foreign funding—especially in Africa. Facing fiscal uncertainty and competitive pressures for attention and funding, think tanks respond to incentives; they may have short-term outlooks, at times stunting long term planning and positioning. Likewise, research agendas, especially in the case of project-specific funding, tend to be affected by donor preferences and priorities, instead of being fully rooted in local demands and needs for evidence. To be sure, long term and flexible (core) funding facilitates strategic planning. In sum, attaining some degree of financial independence and sustainability, by being able to diversify income sources and having access to core funding, is of crucial importance to think tanks.

Moreover, the sources of funding might have an effect on how think tanks are perceived by local policy actors. In some contexts, foreign sources of funding might indicate credibility. In others, the opposite might be true. For instance, think tanks that receive funds from domestic governments might be more likely to work on national priority issues, as opposed to foreign priorities. Arguably, think tanks whose funding originates from domestic sources may have broader exposure to local policy stakeholders than those predominantly dependent upon foreign donors.

Age: Established, well-known organizations are likely to have stronger reputations

It takes time for any organization to establish itself, and build and maintain a strong reputation. Over time, think tanks develop their research, management, and communications skills. They also learn how to reach out to different types of policy stakeholders, and in the process, build useful networks. Well-known, established think tanks are more likely to have capacity building programmes (e.g. young professional programmes) that attract newly trained staff equipped with novel, state-of-the art research methods and/or communications tools.

Research process: The rigor of the research process and strict quality control practices positively affect perceptions of performance

The core aspect of think tanks’ work is the production of research. Quality research – defined as being evidence-based, robust, rigorous, relevant, and up to date – is expected from them. Reputable organizations are generally expected to have senior research staff (and Ph.Ds), to rely on internal quality control policies and practices for research outputs, and to publish in peer-reviewed publications.

Communications and outreach: The use of communications and outreach strategies improves a think tank’s reputation among policy stakeholders

Think tanks also engage with various actors in order to push for their ideas and policy recommendations. They use a number of communications and outreach vehicles to disseminate results to decision makers and to inform the public. This includes, for example, organizing press conferences, making guest appearances on television, and working with reporters. The way that research is communicated affects the credibility of the organization. Likewise, think tanks actively engage in networking with policy stakeholders in order to directly or indirectly informing or influencing the policy debate. Communications and outreach efforts also include synthesizing, packaging, and distributing research results, throughout the research cycle. Still, think tanks may achieve influence by working behind the scenes. In this case, it is difficult to uncover the extent and effect of such links.

Context: The nature of the policy environment context affects the attitudes of policy actors toward think tank performance.

The environment in which think tanks operate has a profound influence on their strategies and impact. For instance, different institutional and cultural environments affect think tank modes of operation and their ability or inability to influence policy. Likewise, the nature of the political system, legislation, labour, and tax laws governing the NGO and non-for-profit sector, characteristics of the civil service bureaucracy, as well as the degree of press freedom and the availability and easiness to access information inter alia, affect the ability of think tanks (and of other knowledge actors) to influence or inform policy through research. These are just a sample of factors that affect the demand for, and supply of, research-based evidence, its uptake, and its ultimate impact. It is expected that policy actors within a given country will provide an assessment of think tanks that is based on the particular nature of the market for policy research in that country.

Policy Actors Characteristics: Occupation, age, policy exposure, etc. influence perceptions of think tanks performance.

Policy actors’ characteristics might affect how they provide feedback about the work and performance of think tanks. An important consideration is that, different policy stakeholders require (and demand) varied types of research-based evidence. Accordingly, think tanks engage with members of the media community, government officials, private sector stakeholders, NGO workers, or academic researchers in different ways. Think tanks might, for instance, tailor their research and advice to respond to the specific needs of their target audience. In sum, expectations about the role of think tanks, and demands from policy actors vary along with the nature of their occupation or professional position. This likely affects perceptions of success.

Moreover, the degree of prior exposure to an organization will arguably affect assessment of think tank performance. And in many contexts, there is a revolving door between government and think tanks (and academia). It is thus reasonable to assume that, in making a judgment on the work of think tanks, policy actors may be biased in favor of organizations they know, have heard of or worked with.

The second part of this blog post will present and briefly discuss key findings that emerge from the study.