Lessons from 2014

22 December 2014

I am going to take some time off for a couple of weeks until early in the new year. There may be some other posts in the next few days but mostly the kind that focus on reporting on stats and future plans. There will be a post early in January outlining On Think Tanks plans for the next year.

For this last official post of 2014 I wanted to share some reflections on progress and on the last year.

Last year  I published a new year resolutions post in which I promised to:

  • Be more inclusive and global
  • Take the initiative
  • Rock the boat and
  • Be honest

I hope On Think Tanks has delivered on all four. We’ve certainly been more inclusive and global in terms of our authors and readers. This year we’ve got contributors based in Africa, East Europe, South Asia, East Asia, and Latin America as well as from Europe and the US. But we’ve also seen a lot more visitors from across the world.

We’ve taken the initiative, too. On Think Tanks Lab is growing and next year promises new and exiting initiatives. A couple on the front of think tank training.

We’ve certainly rocked the boat and we have been honest about our views. These two, I have come to learn, go hand in hand.

There have been some interesting developings that I think have affected (positively) On Think Tanks. For one, I have moved my operations to Lima, Peru. I continue to lead an international working life as I have to work with and engage with think tanks across the world but I am spending a lot more time in Peru. This has given me a new perspective on many of the ideas I had in the past. I expect that over the next couple of years On Think Tanks will start to turn on itself -intellectually speaking, at least- and offer more and better critical thinking.

Being back in Peru has given me a better sense of the huge gap that exists between donors and think tanks (in some cases), between political and research agendas (in some cases), and between what we (in the industry of evidence based/informed policymaking) know and what actually happens in the world of politics and ideas.

While in Lima I have been involved in three projects here. The first one is the PODER Awards for the best Peruvian think tanks. 2014 saw the second year of the awards and, like the first time, the exercise offered great opportunities for learning. It has also opened a few doors into the world of think tanking, local philanthropy and more.

The second project is an After Action Review of the organisation of the COP20 in Lima. This is Peru’s biggest and most complex international event and therefore a great opportunity to learn from it. I suggested this study to the Ministry of Environment back in June 2013 and so I am now involved in gathering information from well-informed people. The objective is to identify some lessons and put forward recommendations for the organisation of future events. This project in particular has been quite useful to see, first had, how far apart international agendas can be from domestic ones. This has led to the possibility of connecting Peruvian and British experts in the organisation of future international events that I hope to explore -of course, with think tanks as the main connectors. But it has also given me important insights into the gap between global policy research agendas and domestic policy research agendas. It is quite telling that the post-MDG debate and the Climate Change agenda have not featured in Peru in the last year -precisely when they have surged (in their own ways) internationally.

The third project is the developed of an “Alliance” for the use of evidence in Peru. Modelled after the Alliance for Useful Evidence in Britain, a growing community of researchers and practitioners has been meeting to share their experiences thoughts on the use of evidence in public policy at different levels of government and in different sectors. Next year should see a few launch events (although we’ve already been meeting for close to 9 months). This, I hope, will address the gap in the knowledge of how politics and policymaking really works.

This year, too, we launched the second edition of the On Think Tanks Data Visualisation Competition. We saw some really great candidates and we’ve recently announced the second round of winners. The competition has been accompanied by webinars, how to notes and other useful resources. We’d like to claim, too, to have played a small role in encouraging other organisations to host their own competitions -although it may be more accurate to say that we just got there a few moments before of what has now become a trend.

The On Think Tanks Exchange turned a year in September and this second year promises to be en exiting one. We’ve seen how a group of ten think tanks have grown closer to each other and how new personal and professional relationships have developed. We hope that our bet that this kind approach is conducive to long term professional and productive partnerships between think tanks will be correct. There is still another year to see this.

On Think Tanks has presented some new ideas this year, not all ours:

  • Communications as an orchestra. A series of posts based on a workshop in Dhaka signalled the start of an idea that I had been working on (and still am) for some time. The main point of this being that rather than developing policy influencing strategies for each project, think tanks ought to focus on developing a portfolio of communication channels and tools to use 1) on an ongoing basis and 2) tactically for maximum impact. The publication of a book on Communicating Complex Ideas offered a strong basis for this approach. Communicating complex ideas will never be easy, all think tanks can do is be ready.
  • The future of think tanks capacity development is in the think tanks themselves. I argued, in one of those blogs that ‘rocked the boat a little bit’, that think tank funders ought to make think tanks responsible for their own capacity development. This was better said by Gjergji Vurmo, Programme Director at the Institute for Democracy and Mediation (IDM) in Albania who wrote a series of three posts on getting, managing, and graduating from core funding. His insights into what is really important were true inspiring. He argued that what mattered the most was to have the capacity to deal with opportunities and threats; not to have a perfect plan.
  • Peer to peer support of think tanks. The Zambian Economic Advocacy Programme also presented a strong idea. Rather than rely on consultants think tank supporters should help think tanks find the right peers to work with and learn from. ZEAP’s mentors are not international development consultants (as is the case in most other initiatives); they are current and ex British thinktankers with first had experience of the challenges that Zambian thinktankers face.
  • Think tanks and elections. Leandro Echt edited a series on the role of Latin American think tanks during electoral periods. The broad approach developed and pursued by the Latin American think tanks has been labeled as a technology of influence and it includes undertaking research, engaging with parties, the media and the public, and sometimes hosting political (and presidential) debates.
  • Transparency. This idea took off in 2014. After Transparify’s excellent launch and The New York Time’s article on foreign funding of American think tanks, the world of think tanks clearly took this to heart. Orazio Bellettini argued in a blog for On Think Tanks that this is not just a seasonal hype. Think tanks now face a challenge that won’t go away.
  • Dealing with plurality and politics. as the year drew to a close I published a blog drawing from a year long observation of plural think tanks. These think tanks face a central challenge. Since opposition to their ideas is likely to come from within, how can they avoid losing credibility? Well, I argue that the secret lies in the design of initiatives, not too dissimilar to those developed by CGD, to create and manage spaces for debate that encourage disagreement and deliberation.

There are many other ideas, of course.

As always I should thank the many contributors we have had. They have made it possible to capture views from across the world and disciplines. Take Neeta Krishna’s (Associate Professor, Father C Rodrigues Institute of Management Studies, Navi Mumbai) take on think tanks’ effectiveness, for instance. She approached this subject as an outsider yet offered great insights.

Finally, this end of year I will be reading up on posts from at least three other digital sources:

  • The LSE’s Impact of Social Sciences blog that offers probably the best discussion on the theoretical and practical roles of academia in politics, economics and society. Any researchers out there sceptical of the importance of communications should read this.
  • Wonkcomms has become an excellent source of practical advice on think tanks communications. Probably the most important resource of a think tank communicator there is. Its LinkedIn group is particularly useful.
  • NESTA has just published a post on predictions for 2015 but its catalogue of content is simply superb. It is not aimed at think tank management and leadership but it is truly inspiring -and the first few posts of 2015 are likely to draw heavily from them.

Happy reading.

I hope you have an excellent end of year and see you early in 2015.