Is it all about credibility?

14 March 2018

[This article was originally published in the On Think Tanks 2017 Annual Review. ]

Over the years, the OTT team has become very familiar with the many dilemmas that think tanks face. I remember a lengthy conversation  about independence with research institutes in China, back in 2011. In Kenya, just a few years ago, there was a discussion about whether think tanks should only hire PhD graduates. I have lost count of the number of times that the mention of using modern communication practices to improve the uptake of research has met resistance, with organisational reputation being a particular concern.

In one instance, researchers were keen to get advice on how their directors’ links to political parties could affect the independence of their work. In another, funding was cut to a promising think tank in Southern Africa due its proximity to the ruling party, and senior management were keen to discuss their options going forward.

An executive director we worked with in Latin America was worried about how and when to announce plans to leave his organisation, convinced that if he triggered a search for his successor too soon donors might panic about the think tank’s sustainability. The leadership transition at this think tank has taken almost four years to complete.

Evaluations, too, are particularly thorny exercises that raise concerns among thinktankers. Few think tanks want them and even fewer are willing to share the lessons learned from them; worried about what their stakeholders might think.

Looking back at these conversations I realise that they were all broadly about one issue: credibility. At OTT, we have written at length about business models. We have also argued repeatedly that think tanks trade on ideas, and have insisted that their greatest asset is their people: boards, senior managers, researchers, communicators, managers and administrators.

While all of this is true, we somehow managed to leave credibility out of the discussion, even though it is absolutely fundamental for all think tanks. Ideas and people matter a great deal, but they do not get far without credibility. Governance and management skills, research quality and great communications are all necessary, but not sufficient.

If credibility is lacking, there is no pantheon of board members, no endowment, no academic pedigree and no communications strategy that will help a think tank deliver its mission.

And yet credibility is not entirely within a think tanks’ control – it must be built through the interactions they have with their environment. What is more, to nurture it, think tanks must be prepared to move out of their comfort zones and explore new forms of communication, develop more open and accessible research methods and implement more transparent business models.

This requires new skills and competencies, robust data and knowledge about think tanks and their environment and reliable guidance and advice. It means thinking about the various dilemmas think tanks face as parts of a broader whole, rather than in isolation from one another. To put it another way: we cannot address intellectual independence, research quality, talent, funding, communications and leadership in silos. Think tanks must face multiple challenges simultaneously, strategically and systematically. Similarly, we cannot solve these dilemmas with one-off interventions (and rarely on the first attempt).

OTT will continue to be a credible source of research, ideas and advice to support these efforts.