Looking for success: 5 from the Think Tank Initiative

23 April 2013

The quest for success is never-ending. And the more money a donor throws into a grantee the bigger the obsession to find unquestionable proof that all is well.

The problem with success is that it isn’t always what one expects. More often than not it comes out of years (if not decades) of tirelessly trying and its supported by an endless record of errors and mistakes, reinvention, reinterpretations, etc. On this issue I have been reminded of a post I wrote a couple of years ago in relation to an Alain de Bottom Ted Talk:

Success, he also argues, implies trade-offs -failures. We need to recognise that we cannot be successful in everything achieve it all (work life balance; great communicators and great researchers).

Therefore, when evaluating think tanks (and when evaluating ourselves) we should not be afraid to focus on our whole -our roles- and consider a more nuanced understanding of success that recognises necessary choices and sacrifices. We should pay far more attention than we do to consider what success means to us because what we aim for is essentially life changing and transformational. In de Botton’s words:

And make sure that we own them [our own ideas of success],that we are truly the authors of our own ambitions.Because it’s bad enough, not getting what you want.But it’s even worse to have an idea of what it is you want, and find out at the end of a journey,that it isn’t, in fact, what you wanted all along.

Anyway, it is therefore very hard to trully understand success in an intervention like the Think Tank Initiative -with its many lines of action, 50 or so different grantees in 4 different regions (with more subregions), an impact horizon of at least a decade, and an infinite potential for success and failure. A simple typical evaluation may not be enough and it risks missing out the kind of stories that, as they develop, may (and I stress ‘may’) eventually constitute those stories of success that everyone is hoping for.

Over the last couple of years I have come across some stories of what could become interesting successes for the Think Tank Initiative. Last month I spent a few days with members of the Latin American cohort and the TTI team and some ideas of what may be framed as success began to take shape. Overall, thought, I’ve come across them partly by chance and partly because I have learned to be more patient and more prone to listen by  keeping my advice to my self; at least until I am asked for it.

Here are 5 potential successes to keep an eye on:

  1. Innovative research: GRADE and Nudge
  2. Collective action 1: ILAIPP and Post MDGs
  3. Intelligent consumers: Matching funds
  4. Positive externalities: Self-financed TTIs and laying the ground for its future arrival
  5. Collective action 2: Think Tank donors group

All have the potential to shift the initiative from the North to the South (from the funder to the grantee): on ideas, collective action, and organisational development (hence the cartoon set as featured image).

But before reading on, a word of warning: I am not attributing these to the TTI. The think tanks and the donors in the stories below share the praise -and it is impossible to say how much each can claim for itself. In fact, given that these are not widespread means that they are greatly down to the agency of others -in particular a small handful of think tanks and their leaders. And my own sense is that these are men and women who have simply taken advantage of an opportunity and not passive beneficiaries of some Northern saviour.

By the same token, then, much of the responsibility for turning these stories into eventual successes lies with them.

Innovative research

Inevitably, research centres are going to spend core grants on research. And most of that will go to do more of the same either via big projects (better) or lots of small little projects meant to keep the research staff happy -to share the wealth. The latter, of course, may be good politics but is not good policy.

The skeptic in me would say that research is not the point of these grants but I would be wrong as funding research can certainly pay-off for a think tank. GRADE, in Peru, has used some of its TTI funds to support ongoing research by a Peruvian PhD candidate from Princeton University that focuses on the implementation of Nudge at the local government level.

Lucia del Carpio’s research is a potential story of success for many important reasons -besides the potential impact on policy choices and the outcomes of those policy choices themselves (which given the type of research involved can be observed soon afterwards):

  1. It is new and original: The ideas behind this research and the tools necessary to undertake it are new to the country. The research itself is introducing cutting-edge ideas that are still considered so in the US or Britain. 
  2. It has the potential to give the think tank control over a niche ‘market’: Because nobody else is doing this kind of research and the chances are that it will catch-on GRADE has an advantage over other think tanks when it comes to capitalising on this in the future.
  3. It presents a perfect opportunity to establish advantageous North-South links: Unlike the usual North-South relations available for think tanks in developing countries in which they just have to take the northern organisation’s ideas, this is one in which the intellectual property is co-owned.
  4. It can strengthen several of a think tank’s functions: The research can be transformed into university coursework, it can introduce new terms and ideas for policy discussion, it can help to identify problems that nobody knew existed, and certainly, given the popularity (at least outside Peru) of the concept, contribute to educate the policy elites.

But before it can be called a success the effort faces some possible challenges. GRADE will have to invest in more than just the research if it wants to capitalise in this investment. Because the idea is quite popular around the world it will picked up by other think tanks and consultancies rather soon and they may well be able to draw attention to them even without the solid research that GRADE is undertaking.

While the links with academic institutions in other countries is more or less secured the real innovators in this field at the Nudge Units at the Behavioural Insights Team at the UK Cabinet Office, the Danish Nudge Network, and other similar think tanks across the world; including CIPPEC in Argentina for example.

But the challenge is greater for the think tank itself: How then this research project become a centre for the idea, the method, and the tools that this project is testing?  GRADE may have to try an entirely new business model for this particular area of research.

I wonder if the TTI (through DFID) could help to get David Halpern (of the UK Nudge Unit) to travel to Peru to give a public talk (maybe at the CIES annual conference of which GRADE is a founding member) or to the next ILAIPP regional meeting (see below).

Collective action 1

Obviously a desire of a programme like the TTI, funding lots of organisations, is that somehow they will work together and help each other. There are at least two initiatives that have been established and are at their early stages: the Iniciativa Latinoamericana de Investigación para las Políticas Públicas (ILAIPP) and the Southern Voice on Post-MDG.

The first is a network made up of the Latin Americana grantees of the TTI and the second one includes grantees from all the TTI’s regions.

They both have the potential to attract new funding from other sources and motivate and support their members to achieve their objectives beyond the lifetime of the TTI support.

But, as would be expected, both face important challenges. Like all networks they will have to define their roles and functions clearly to avoid misunderstandings among their members; they will need to secure a stream of income sufficient to maintain the network’s operations in the absence of external funding (income that can be in the form of in-kind contributions); find the right kind of membership (being grantees of the same funder is not a sufficiently strong reason for membership); etc.

A key challenge they face relates to their public (and private) profiles. So far neither seem to have made use of the tools that are now available to set up simple landing pages and online communities; if you follow the links above you’ll know what I mean. Having said that, the Post-MDG network, led by Debapriya Bhattacharya at CPD, has been quite active in ‘being there’ (just do a google search for: Southern Voice on Post-MDG); and example that ILAIPP should follow. Both, too, have been busy building internal links between the members.

Another challenge is the choice of membership. New networks are always tempted to grow too fast or to not grow at all. In this case both must make sure they have thought long and hard about the pros and cons of keeping membership within the limited confines of the TTI. In the case of ILAIPP, for example, I’d ask how more meaningful (for its members and for others) would the network be if it had members from Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Brazil, and Argentina? Not only would it have more ‘bite’ but it would also attract far more interest for alternative funding sources.

Intelligent consumers

An interesting innovation that the TTI has introduced is the matching funds model in which grantees co-fund organisational development investments. Two or more grantees come together to hire the services of experts or advisors to help them address a key organisational challenge, including: governance, management, communications, staffing, fundraising, etc.

Of course it is too early to report on the outcomes of these interventions but it should be possible to report on the changes observed in the manner in which the think tanks demand support. This is not easy to measure and I am basing my assessment on a gut feeling more than anything else. But after 8 years working with think tanks, and reflecting on different capacity development efforts, I do sense a change in the manner in which these interventions are discussed, designed, and assessed -at least by the think tanks I have had the chance to work with.

The feeling I get is that, partly because the think tanks are paying for the support themselves, they have become better customers: much more intelligent and thoughtful about what they want, need, and expect. This is how it should be; in a way the change is one to a behaviour that one should expect. After all, this is the kind of attitude that think tanks that do not depend on foreign aid tend to have and this is also the kind of attitude that the directors of the most active users of the matching funds I know have.

This is a crucial step in the road towards intellectual independence and breaking the cycle of never-ending capacity building, which some think tanks have become experts at (and many donors appear to be, after so many years of supporting the same organisations to develop the same skills for years and years, complicit).

But to get there the think tanks and the TTI will have to do more. First of all, I think that they should make all these efforts public both ensuring that learning is shared and, by default, making everyone involved accountable for their roles: think tanks for being intelligent consumers and effectively learning, consultants and advisors for providing high quality services, and the funders for being supporting, providing encouragement, maximising the positive externalities of the effort, and maintaining themselves accountable for their own actions.

And all should think of ways to ensure that the model can be self-sustainable. All too often I see capacity building initiatives that are incredibly wasteful, partly because they attempt cover every think tank/research centre in a country, or entire regions or the whole world with a single programme or mechanism. The matching fund model allows the think tanks to choose the most appropriate learning partners and mechanisms for themselves -but are they? This needs to be reviewed -and encouraged.

Positive externalities

An initiative like the TTI cannot reach every organisation in every country it works in or every country in the regions it is present. But its presence can have positive effects on others, even if not benefiting directly.

In Peru, rather than sulking and complaining for not being selected, CIUP decided to mobilise funds to invest on its own smaller-scale TTI. CIUP is a university based centre so it had the opportunity to draw funds from it, but the fact that it did so is quite interesting and opens the possibility that other university based think tanks, as well as government based ones, would have done the same. And more interesting still is that the initial effort to respond to the TTI has led to an openness to discuss organisational development and to try new ways of working that may (and I stress ‘may’ -and there is no way of proving this) not have been there without such a large programme like the TTI.

Similarly, think tanks in Zambia and Malawi, as well as their funders, have been preparing for the TTI. I do not know if the initiative will expand to new countries or not but it can be sure that it is already well known beyond their geographical boundaries. And this expectation has contributed to some interesting interventions such as those seen in Zambia. Although other funders like the World Bank have been actively exploring their own interventions and this could be said to have a similar effect.

Of course positive externalities can easily turn into negatives. Such a large programme like the TTI can have an effect on the research community of any country. It can affect relationships between researchers and research centres, dramatically influence the labour market of experts in a way that may hurt smaller and less well funded organisations, and even introduce practices that may not be appropriate for the context but are nonetheless seen as necessary to adopt in fear of losing funds in the future. (More than once I’ve come  across researchers saying that they did X, Y or Z because they thought the funders wanted them to -even when they did not see the point.)

In the case of the countries in waiting, the risk is that funders will become complacent and reduce their funding for think tanks hoping that the TTI will pick it up. Or the think tanks themselves may avoid being seen as too successful in case this reduces their chances of getting future funding for organisational development (if you are strong already why ask for money?).

Therefore, these positive reactions should be identified (I am only mentioning the ones I know about) and supported. Even if these organisations have no chance of benefiting from TTI funding they could join the learning community that is developing around the programme.

Collective action 2

Another interesting development is the formation of a small (and hopefully growing) network of think tank funders. Right now the network involves mostly the TTI funders plus a few others such as AusAid Indonesia and the Think Tank Fund, but it could grow to include more traditional research funders (with lots of history to learn from) like the Ford Foundation and maybe national funders focused on single or a few think tanks. For instance DFID Zambia has become one of the most interesting and innovative think tank funders out there -but I doubt they see themselves as think tank funders.

There is potential for a group like this: lessons being learned and shared with others, collective accountability, avoiding unnecessary overlap, constructive competition, etc.

But its biggest challenge, I think, is to ensure that this isn’t just a usual suspects club as new ideas are likely to be found at the margins of the industry’s core.

So not successes yet

An important conclusion for this post is that while these are stories of success in the making they are not over yet. In my view, all five provide an excellent opportunity for the TTI, the think tanks involved, and others within and outside the initiative, but could just as well go terribly wrong. For instance, having worked on networks for a long time I am very skeptical of them (unless they emerged from among the members without any external funding) but I can still see the potential.

The final stories may not be about GRADE, ILAIPP, the post-MDGs or even the think tanks involved in the matching funds or those beyond the initiative. These could fail to see them through to the end, but the models and the lessons they and others learn may be picked up by others who, with better luck, may succeed.

To know for sure if these will have a happy ending we’ll have to keep an eye on them, give them time to mature (and even stumble), let some fail and draw lessons from them, and continue to encourage this kind of innovation. An honest and critical donors group could play a key role in this.