Lessons on the role of Latin American think tanks in electoral processes – the way forward

15 October 2014
SERIES Think tanks and elections 17 items

Presidential campaigns in many developing countries do not typically include serious discussions on strategic public policy issues. On the contrary, they usually revolve around vague references to desirable universal goals without specifying how these initiatives would be funded, what is the concrete action plan that will be implemented to achieve them, and what are the alternatives to be considered.

While there are numerous cases in which civil society, through think tanks and civil society organisations, has influenced the policy choices and decisions of governments, the role of think tanks in presidential campaigns has been under studied, particularly in Latin America.

The articles and interviews presented in the series “Think tanks and electoral processes: lessons from Latin America”, have approached the experiences of five important think tanks in the region that put their trust on their ability to raise the quality of public debate facing elections in their countries. Considering some nuances, the five cases put in practice a kind of “technology of influence” to meet their objectives.


If we observed carefully approach these experiences, the following strategies appear to be more common:

  • The production of policy documents or briefs with recommendations on a range of strategic issues for national development.
  • Alliances with other CSOs and think tanks with sectorial expertise, public legitimacy and/or advocacy capacity.
  • Meetings with political parties’ technical teams or presidential candidates to present and discuss the proposals developed in the policy documents.
  • Close work with the media to increase the impact of the initiative.
  • Building links with relevant public sector agencies to encourage (and even organise) a debate between the presidential candidates.

In turn, the different experiences, with different results, have left a series of lessons that are presented below.

About the context

  • For these experiences to be someway fruitful, it is important that the electoral process presents a minimum level of competitiveness between the candidates. In cases where the candidate with the most voting intention is clearly ahead of its competitors, there won’t be any incentives for dialogue and debate with civil society. On the contrary, with a solid advantage, candidates would prefer to stay out of spaces for public dialogue.
  • At the same time, scenarios in which the current government is the main alternative discourage the incumbent to engage in the kind of dialogue that think tanks seek to promote.
  • It is expected then that greater conditions of uncertainty about who will win the elections favour this type of exercise, as there would be more than one stakeholder interested in shaping the next government’s policy plans.

About the funding

  • Ideally, this type of initiative should be carried out with think tanks’ own funds. This will give them more freedom to set the agenda and will reduce transactional costs in terms of the aggreeing actions with several donors (FEDESARROLLO).
  • If think tanks need to get funding from among organisations from the international cooperation, it is important to create a common fund with contributions from different agencies (CIES 2011).
  • On the other hand, having resources from the international cooperation could enhance the ability of the initiative to gain a comparative perspective of other similar exercises (CIPPEC 2011 and CADEP). Donors can play a key role in enhancing South-South collaboration schemes to transfer the experience to other organisations.
  • In turn, funding from national entrepeneurs facilitates a broader discussion since this scheme committs the participation of a wide range of actors from within the policy community (CIPPEC 2011). The challenge is to prevent this funding from being seen as a source of conflict of interest for the initiative.
  • In any case, funding these processes inevitably generate dilemmas that must be solved according to the relevant context and political culture.
  • It is important to involve donors (where ever they are from) not only in the financial support but also in the design and implementation of the project (CIES 2011).

About policy documents

  • The technical quality of the policy documents is critical because it enhances the initiative’s capacity to dialogue with different actors. However, technical quality is not enough. The documents must contain practical implications and be friendly to their audiences.
  • The terms of reference for the studies and guidance throughout the written process are important to ensure the quality and standardisation of the studies.
  • It is important to consider a general coherence among the various documents and sectorial proposals presented by the initiative (CIPPEC 2011).

About the choice of topics

  • Think tanks can opt for a few policy issues that are strategic for national development and on which they are clear experts; or they may prefer to cover a broad range of policy issues thus adddressing a comprehensive and systemic view of all the responsibilities of government.
  • The choice of issues is important as it can define who will be likely to listen; it may affect the skills and resources necessary to communicate the initiative’s key messages; and should determine the make up of the networks that will be necessary.

About the authors

  • Think tanks can engage their researchers in the production of the documents (CIPPEC and the coalition Paraguay Debate), they can cast a wider net launching open or closed called for authors from among their networks to choose the authors (CIES and FARO), or may combine both accruing to the sectorial expertise of the organisations (FEDESARROLLO and CIPPEC 2011).
  • In addition to the recognition that the authors possess in their fields of expertise, it is necessary to consider their relational capital so that they can contribute to the impact of the initiative.
  • In those policy issues in which the think tanks have no or little expertise, most organisations have chosen to forge alliances with other civil society organisations and universities with sectorial knowledge (CIPPEC and FEDESARROLLO).
  • In any case, it is important to promote cross-fertilisation of ideas between the authors of the documents.
  • It is necessary to involve the perspective of non-academic readers and the public -and even from foreign sources.

About the influencing strategies

  • In most of the experiences, policy documents fulfilled the role of triggering the dialogue with the parties’ technical teams and candidates.
  • When you choose to work on a wide range of topics, it is necessary to have a diversified influencing strategy to reach all the different audiences in each policy sector, which may imply strenuous efforts of production, reflection, and dialogue.
  • To achieve the greatest impact in terms of media presence and policy influence, activities that would be required from the authors must be established from the beginning and included in their work plans. In addition, think tanks must create the right incentives for the authors to get involved as key players of the advocacy process all the way through the electoral campaign -and often afterwards.
  • Such holistic initiatives can not be done alone. It is important to forge alliances with organisations with sectorial relevance, public legitimacy and/or advocacy capacity. This will increase the capacity of the initiative to dialogue with different stakeholders.
  • The think tanks can opt for a more propositive approach (CIPPEC, FEDESARROLLO, CIES, FARO and CADEP) or instead focus on building proposals through dialogue with the actors of the political community (CIPPEC 2014). In the latter case, it is necessary to enrich the original documents with inputs that emerge from the dialogue with key politicians, academics and private entrepreneurs.
  • The think tanks can bet on a intensive communication strategy to ensure a broad exposure on the media and high visibility of the project’s activities, or instead it can choose a low profile strategy based on building bridges with candidates and their teams. In some cases, the closed nature of the meetings can inject confidence in the candidates or their campaign managers (CIES 2011).
  • To increase the chances of achieving the presidential debate, a broad pro-debate coalition must be established, involving the media, CSOs, private entrepreneurs, unions and different forces across the political spectrum. The coalition should be apolitical and independent (as a way to increase the participation of political forces), and must be accompanied by a public awareness campaign (CADEP). It may or may not be part of the initiative to inform the electoral debate.
  • In countries with strong regional powers, think tanks have chosen to bring the proposals and promote dialogue outside their capital cities (CIES, FEDESARROLLO and FARO). This is important to raise the profile of the initiative and gain momentum for national level debates.
  • It is also important to build synergies with similar initiatives in the county and in other countries (CIES 2011).

About the project management

  • This type of initiatives present a unique opportunity for think tanks to gather the knowledge accumulated by their different research teams (CIPPEC 2011 and 2014).
  • These exercises of influence on electoral processes mark a certain “seasonality” in the advocacy strategy of think tanks. That is, every 4 or 5 years, the think tank makes the decision to focus on certain issues of the public agenda. However, this effort involves the challenge of not failing to communicate the other issues that the institution works on and that even though they may not be part of the agenda, still remain relevant to the think tanks and the country.
  • A tension could emerge between short-term projects (such as the electoral ones) and medium-term projects. It is therefore essential that what is achieved in the electoral projects (such as a closer relationship with political parties and the media) is capitalised for the institutional activities. In other words, think tanks can turn these ‘seasonal’ projects into long term ones.
  • A frequent challenge is to ensure harmony between the project’s schedule and the electoral calendar.
  • Generally, the electoral year leaves little space for policy dialogue, as all players are strongly focused on the campaign. Ideally, think tanks need to ensure their funding well in advance and that the policy documents are ready before political parties begin to define their manifestos. Paying attention to this timing will make the dialogue and proposals more meaningful to the public agenda.
  • It is important to have a Board to oversee and guide the project activities. This space can involve the donors of the initiative, or be shaped by a broad range of actors with social representation to provide legitimacy to the project (CIPPEC 2014).
  • Diversity is crucial to the success of these initiatives: at the level of proposals, allies, donors and political actors.
  • The project coordinator is very important, and should have experience interacting with different types of actors, specially politicians.

About communications

  • These initiatives need to carefully balance the investment in research and in communication. The documents, rather than new research, are systematisation or updates developed by experts on each of the topics. An important portion of the efforts must go towards dissemination and promoting dialogue.
  • While the production of documents can be delegated to different authors or organisations, it is important that communications remain broadly centralised.
  • Press officers are key parts of these initiatives. The edition of the original documents is very important, but even more is their “translation” into various formats such as for radio and television. Organising press conferences, interviews, brochures and various events is also important, as well as media training for the authors.
  • If the demand for research by the media is to be encouraged, then it is important to have the resources and interest to meet those requirements (reciprocity).
  • If the dissemination of documents is meant to respond to the demand by political parties and other actors in the policy community, a very heterogeneous level of communication documents between the technical teams should be favored. But there could be some policy issues that require a more active promotion to be perceived as necessary. Demand led is not always better.

About organising the debate

  • Regarding the timing of the debate, it is important that it holds some distance from the end of the campaigns, since the candidates will have less interest to participate. However, think tanks must also take into account that the interest of candidates to participate in public events and the interest of the public opinion to listen to them will increase as the election date approaches.
  • Organising a debate is a very arduous process involving numerous instances of negotiation with the candidates’ teams (CIES 2011 and CADEP). The think tanks may not have the political and technical capacity to do it alone. They should consider working in partnership.

About the expected impacts

  • The greatest strength of these initiatives lies in democratising the spaces for debate and drawing attention on key policy issues for the public agenda. There is no guarantee about specific policy impacts.
  • It is an important way to strengthen future advocacy work with the elected government, for instance through monitoring promises made during the electoral campaign or providing the elected officials with advice.
  • Assessing the achieved impact vis a vis what was previously planned, and documenting the effort’s findings (such as what CIPPEC has done) can help to improve the think tanks’ internal processes and generate long-term and valuable reflections that contribute to the institutional strengthening of these organisations.

About the post-elections work

  • It is important that all the work undertaken for the electoral campaign is consolidated in larger compilations, ideally as part of the publications plans of the organisations (CIES 2011 and FEDESARROLLO).
  • Dialogue processes tend to be a little intangible in terms of impact. While dialogue has a value in itself, since it is supposed to improve the country’s political culture, it is necessary to make the results a bit more tangible to favour future support from donors.  (CIPPEC 2011).

Contributions to strengthen an influence technology on elections

This series of articles and interviews, along with the previous document Promoting a national policy forum: CIPPEC’s “Agenda for the President 2011-2015”, are intended to help other think tanks to understand their potential role in electoral campaigns and provide guidance for the involvement of think tanks in this area. We foresee that this effort may present a key opportunity to empower civil society and promote a more effective role of think tanks in the political arena.

However, from the articles and interviews as well as from discussions with various think tanks’ leaders, we have come to a set of actions that would be desirable to explore in order to strengthen these experiences and refine this influencing technology. These are ideas that can be addressed not only by think tanks that seek to promote these initiatives, but also by international and national donors interested in raising the quality of public debates in developing countries.

Some possible actions are listed below:

  • Build a body of comparative studies that involve more national cases thus helping to identify patterns and help understand the differences among think tanks’ influence strategies.
  • Make visible what other countries are doing in the context of electoral campaigns. For this it is necessary to deepen the dialogue among regions.
  • Develop specific workshops for think tanks’ staff in which such initiatives could be studied. These workshops could decompose the technology to address each of its components separately: editorial strategy, governance, communication, funding, etc.
  • Build alliances of regional networks to promote national initiatives adapted to the each country’s characteristics.
  • Set-up a website to gather information about all initiatives seeking to influence electoral processes: with links to cases and relevant documents, information from all participating organisations, and audiovisual materials related to projects in each of the countries.
  • Develop audiovisual resources on the various initiatives, such as short videos in which the directors of each think tank explain the importance of such initiatives (in 2011 CIPPEC and GDNet gathered some of these videos, in Spanish: CIPPECCIESFedesarrollo y Grupo FARO), or brief videos in which presidential candidates refer to the role of think tanks in these processes, or videos on presidential debates that have taken place in each country.