Linking research and policy: thinktankers as boundary workers

11 April 2016
SERIES Think tanks: definition and terminology 17 items

We discussed the concept of a boundary worker in a series of posts about the often used supply-and-demand of research model for supporting research uptake. At the time, the Knowledge Sector Initiative in Indonesia had structured itself along those lines: supply of research (focusing on think tanks and other research centres), intermediaries (focusing on NGOs and networks), and demand for research (focusing on the government and policymaking bodies).

KSI has now taken a step back to rethink its approach and is now paying more attention to the skills that the various players in the system need. This is a welcome development.

At the II Regional Conference of ILAIPP (a network of think tanks in Latin America) organised between the 5-6 April in Lima a key (and rather original) question emerged both among the speakers and among the participants: what kind of policymakers do we need to improve the role of evidence in policy?

The question emerged from the realisation that many policymakers who had first built a career in academia were not too friendly towards it once they joined government.

The answer has two parts.

Technocrats versus academic policymakers

First, we recognised that there is a difference between the technocrat and the academic policymaker. Ricardo Córdova, Executive Director at FUNDAUNGO pointed this out. A technocrat may use evidence (and in fact be driven by what the evidence suggests -a technocrat may even use the phrase “what the evidence says is” to justify a decision) and also feel confident that he or she knows what needs to be done. For a technocrat evidence is the superior source of legitimacy for policymaking; but more importantly, his or her evidence (the evidence they hold to be true) trumps all other sources and kinds of evidence.

As a consequence, technocrats will (sometimes) take offence when criticised, they will be quick to dismiss conflicting evidence, and will plough on regardless of mounting criticism.

An academic policymaker, on the other hand, is a little bit more relaxed about this. He or she will be led by the scientific process of debate, that allows one to criticise a peer without it turning personal, and is more open to accepting criticism. Academic policymakers will be more likely to engage in public discussions about their ideas and seek consensus before acting. They will be more likely, too, to change their minds and let others prove them wrong.

They are, also, more likely to be patient. Academic policymakers will remember that in academia ideas do not emerge over night. Innovations do not fall on one’s lap. The apple that fell on Newton would have meant nothing had he not spent a lifetime of research.

This distinction is important because it explains something we see all the time: Researchers joining government only to turn against their peers. “One would expect the minister to be sympathetic towards research. But he has no time for us and for our advice”, is a typical complaint.

A technocratic policymaker may draw from evidence but this does not mean he or she will want to engage in a discussion about the evidence being used. Technocratic policies will feature evidence but won’t be necessarily informed.

Orazio Bellettini, from Grupo FARO, summarised it:

Boundary workers

The second part to the answer has to do with the specific skills we need. The reason we do not find too many academic policymakers is that the very traits we cherish in them are incompatible with politics:

  • Policymakers cannot take all the time in the world to make a decision;
  • They cannot change their mind every time a new bit of information emerges -they need to stick to some broad ideas (values) and policies;
  • They cannot caveat everything they say -or risk confusing those in charge of implementing their decisions; and
  • They can never know it all -they will have to act with limited information, navigate through the emergence of evidence that suggests they may be wrong, and keep it simple.

Who can possibly do all of this? Take time and make quick judgements, stay the course and make changes, and keep it simple in the face of complexity?

Well, Jaime Saavedra, Peru’s Education Minister is one such rare actor. He is a boundary worker. Dr. Saavedra can present a paper at an academic conference -he has done so many times- and will be seen as a peer by academics. Jaime can chair a brown-bag lunch at the World Bank and Mr. Saavedra join a team of international development experts. And Minister Saavedra can do policy -and politics- at the head of one of Peru’s (and any country) more politically challenging ministries.

(The private sector and the media love him, too, by the way. It is maybe because he has enjoyed a successful international career or maybe because he is a clear speaking politician -who explains both the problem and the solution in terms that all can understand.)

Saavedra is a boundary worker. He follows the rules of the various communities he inhabits and is therefore part of them. He is not “in-between” academia and politics. He is both an academic and a politician.

But his is not alone.

Economic editors in the UK media are famous not only for their analyses on TV, Radio or Print but for their papers, books and conference speeches. Often directed at career economists -not only the general public. Larry Elliot at the Guardian, and Robert Peston, ex BBC and now ITV are very good examples of this. Stephanie Flanders left the BBC to join JP Morgan -which makes her as much at easy with journalists as with investment bankers.

To succeed they have had to become boundary workers -following the rules of the discipline (economics) and the professions (journalism and banking).

Lawrence MacDonald at the World Resources Institute offers another take on this concept. I’ve seen Lawrence chair high level panels of economists and read many of his views on issues and topics that concern the think tanks whose communications he has led. He is a respected member of both the communications and policy research communities -and within his organisation (certainly at CGD) his views about the message would be taken into account.

This is what the best communications teams at think tanks do: they master both the message and the messaging.

The implication from all of this is that we need more boundary workers to connect the various fields of policy that concern us. To use the work by Thomas Medvetz: politics, the media, academia and the private sector.

This means that we need to invest in developing the skills of individuals (and organisations) to operate in more than one community simultaneously. In other words, we need to develop skills across the ecosystem:

Granted, individual boundary workers may not be the best theoretical economists or ever become Presidents but they will be be able to talk to both theorists and presidents and get things done. What skills are these?

The skills to be boundary workers -how to develop them?

The first thing to think about is the boundary. Where does this lie. In trying to define think tanks one can use a shortcut and look at the boundary of the definition. So, at least, for think tanks, we could argue that they need to have people and teams with skills to:

  • Appreciate and undertake research (boundary with academia);
  • Communicate effectively to  to boarder audiences and the public (boundary with the media);
  • Undertake analysis and deliver solutions (boundary with consultancy);
  • Analyse policy and provide actionable recommendations (boundary with policy and politics); and
  • Work with citizens to develop new ideas and solutions (boundary with NGOs).

But this is not enough. We will need these other institutions ( academia, media NGOs, the private sector, politics) to develop similar skills.

To develop these skills, different institutions can train their staff, for sure. But they can also be more proactive in finding and promoting individuals whose careers and experience award them membership to multiple communities.

Think tanks as boundary workers

What can think tanks do? ( I won’t address what others can do directly although some of these recommendations apply to them.)

Hire more broadly

At one point my team at ODI included a veterinarian, an engineer, an astrophysicist, a linguist, an economist, a mathematician/philosopher, a couple of political scientists, a theologist, an economists, a geographer, a business manager, and a translator. I would have loved to have an historian, too. The team in question was the RAPID Programme, which focused on the links between policy and research, so it worked well that we had so many perspectives (different research and policy communities) to address this.

Think tanks would do well to avoid the temptation of hiring people form the same discipline. Initial conversations may seem harder but in the long run the rewards will outstrip them.

Hiring broadly also means looking for different experiences. A change in government is always a great opportunity to headhunt policymakers (including communications and administrative staff) looking for a break from government or a chance to reflect on what they have been doing. Think tanks can maintain their research quality credentials and improve their policy relevance ones by hiring policymakers to their ranks.

They will offer insights and access that no academic excellence will.

Why not try using On Think Tanks #workforathinktank jobs board?


Embrace the new researcher

The new researcher is also a communicator and a manager. A great way to develop these skills is to allow your staff to rotate and to progressively eliminate the boundaries between these roles. Older researchers may not want to do their own social media comms but younger researchers won’t ask why -if they are told that is expected from them, they will. Older researchers may prefer to have an assistant sort out their admin but younger researchers will probably do it faster if given the responsibility.

Embrace the convening function

Think tanks often feel the pressure to influence policy with their own ideas. But they have other ways to make a contribution. By convening they can bring together actors that do not tend to talk to each other. They are more likely to do so if they include a broad range of people among their staff.

Engage past the boundaries

As an organisation, think tanks must be ready to cross the boundaries every once in a while -not too much, though. CIPPEC in Argentina wrote about an effort to implement, along side a regional government, a policy idea they had developed.

Many think tanks have developed and engage in training through partnerships with universities or on their own, such as Takshashila Institute in India.

Some think tanks have established formal and informal agreements with media outlets (for instance The Guardian’s Global Development Portal) and others produce their own media-friedbly content (e.g. via videos) in an attempt to reach out to a broad audience.

And most think tanks work with the private sector and the public sector through consultancy contracts. This is inevitable where institutional funding is limited.

All of these experiences make it easier for think tanks to understand what others want and help develop the kind of personal and organisational skills needed to be considered as “one of them”.