Introduction to the series on think tanks and context

7 April 2015
SERIES Think tanks and their context 8 items

[Editor’s note: This is the first of a series edited by Elizabeth BrownAprille Knox, and Courtney Tolmie at Results for Development, focusing on think tanks’ context. The series addresses a subject of great importance to think tanks as well as to those supporting them. It provides a substantial contribution to On Think Tanks’ efforts to promote a more nuanced discussion on the subject. If you want to be a guest editor for On Think Tanks please get in touch. This post was written by Elizabeth Brown and is is based on the study “Linking Think Tank Performance, Decisions, and Context,” undertaken by Results for Development Institute in partnership with the University of Washington and with generous support by the Think Tank Initiative.]

How often does the research on think tank performance and context actually make its way into think tank practice? I wondered about this question at the Think Tank Exchange in Istanbul this year where context was an underlying theme in more than a few conversations. This led me to thinking that context elevates in importance when stakeholders—think tank donors, research scholars and think tankers—meet online or in real time. Yet for each group, context is likely an important point for different reasons. For think tanks, context anchors any comparative discussion of research agendas, communication strategies and ways of engaging with the government or carrying out their operations. For donors, context must be taken into account when engaging with think tanks to set appropriate performance targets, or when looking to evaluate portfolio performance. Finally, for think tank scholars context is a phenomena unto itself, in need of categorization, operationalization, and testing in multiple settings. Keeping these audiences in mind, this blog is the first in a series exploring think tanks and context. The following posts follow five themes that emerged from a recent study, Linking Think Tank Performance, Decisions, and Context carried out by Results for Development (R4D) in collaboration with the University of Washington. The work was generously supported with funding from the Think Tank Initiative. The study was composed of four linked empirical investigations, including the input of more than 200 think tank executive directors, researchers, and donors from over 50 countries through focus groups, interviews, comparative case analysis, and an online survey of think tanks as well as a review of the research. The study asked three main questions:

  1. What is context and how is it measured?;
  2. How does context affect think tanks’ decision making and policy effectiveness?; and
  3. How do think tanks evaluate and respond to context in practice?

In the process of answering the research questions, the team gained some new perspective on the state of research on think tank context and other themes. This blog series is intended to explore some new thinking that emerged from the study – and to begin to answer some of the most interesting questions about evidence and practice on think tank performance and context.

  • What is the current state of research on context? The second post in the series looks at the state of research on context? The blog post is intended to engage researchers as well as donors and practitioners in a discussion of answered and open research questions; methods applied in the field to date and the challenges of carrying out future research in the field.

How can we conceptually link think tank decisions, exogenous context, strategy, and endogenous qualities? Beyond research, a major contribution of the study is a new conceptual framework for thinking about context as it relates to think tanks and their decisions. This framework identifies and operationalizes four external factors thought to affect think tank decision making and outcomes; and four capacities think tanks develop and cultivate at the organizational level. The framework maps the exogenous factors and endogenous capacities of think tanks identified through our extensive review of the literature to think tank decisions (which include long-term capacities and shorter term strategic and project level decisions), and outcomes and provides a general theory of how context ultimately impacts think tank performance.

  • What are the factors that are within a think tank’s control that matter? In the third post, Aprille Knox explores a key framework theme, the endogenous capacities of think tanks. She highlights some of the ways in which think tanks reported knowing and building on their strengths to inform strategy, and derives some recommendations based on what think tanks reported in terms of strategically leveraging their internal choices to maximize their influence.
  • How does context matter from the perspective of actual think tanks? One of the challenges of research about think tanks is the difference between what the research says and what think tanks experience. Courtney Tolmie explores this gap is in the fourth blog post in the series, What do think tanks say? The notion that “context matters” while widely discussed is ill-defined and not particularly helpful for think thanks. Courtney takes this line of thinking a step further – from “how are think tanks affected by context” to “how can think tanks respond to context” –by reporting what think tanks themselves have to say about the most important context factors. What strategies they use to deal with them. Her post tries to move from “context matters” to “now what?”
  • When it comes to context, how can evidence inform think tank practice? In addition to contributing to the rich think tank literature, we undertook this study to provide practical evidence that could be adapted and adopted by think tank executive directors and senior staff to develop strategies to address context – and ultimately to improve the effectiveness of their work. The practical applications to this research are drawn out in a blog post in which Courtney Tolmie and Elizabeth Brown continue to explore the study’s framework for tuning and honing internal decision making strategies on an ongoing, or annual basis in response to changing context factors. This blog uses examples derived from the study’s case research, focus groups, and executive director interviews to show how think tanks have responded to changing context in clever ways and to provide some guidance on using the framework.