MEL of governance for think tanks

13 September 2017
SERIES MEL for think tanks 6 items

Research and communication tend to receive more attention than governance and management when it comes to the study and support of think tanks. Yet, without sound governance and management, think tanks cannot deliver their missions.  As pointed out by Andrea Moncada and Enrique Mendizabal in Think tank boards: composition and practices, an important aspect of this is the presence of a strong and independent Board of Directors that is successful in procuring financial resources for its institution as well as in guiding the organisation by its founding principles, and encouraging innovation when necessary. This post provides an overview of issues related to the Board of Directors (governance) that think tanks should be paying attention to in their Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL) systems, and some methods for doing this. +

The stage of development of a think tank will influence the extent to which it is necessary to conduct monitoring and assessments of board activities. Think tanks go through stages of development from a pioneering stage where board members and particularly the founder are very active and involved in the daily work of the think tank to a mature think tank with employed managers and where the board’s role is to provide guidance and oversight. As Stephen Yeo says:

In normal times, if the think tank has good leadership then governance should barely be visible. Fiduciary issues and financial control are important, and the board needs to keep an eye on whether the organization is pursuing a sensible strategy and achieving its targets, but they should not get in the way of the Executive Director.

The following focuses on the MEL of governance of mature think tanks where management is detached from the board of the think tank.

What to measure?

As a starting point one could ask ‘what does good governance of a think tank look like?’ Overall, there are six domains of good governance for think tanks that are applicable no matter the classification or basis of the think tank e.g. as a civil society, as part of a university, state sponsored, business or political party affiliated.

  1. The board has to establish its internal structures and functions and provide strategic guidance.
  2. The board needs to register as a legal entity and comply with relevant legislation.
  3. It needs to guide the policy and procedures of the operation of the think tank.
  4. The board should provide financial oversight.
  5. It should ensure resource mobilisation and sustainability and
  6. The board should have oversight of planning, monitoring, evaluation and learning of the operation of the think tank.

Measurements can be developed for each of the domains and the following indicator table includes suitable indicators suggested by the sector experts listed above and based on the challenges and recommendations listed in Andrea Moncada’s and Enrique Mendizabal’s article. Many of the indicators are furthermore extracted from the Organisational Capacity Assessment Tool (OCAT) originally produced for USAID.

The measurements of good governance of think tank could therefore be:

Domains of good governance of Think Tanks Measurement/indicator
Internal function and Strategic direction Good and diverse composition of the board (with gender balance, expertise and specialisation in the field)
The board must be independent from the policy and decision makers that it wants to support
Existence of an organogram
Existence of vision and mission statement
Existence of a strategic plan
Existence of a founding document/constitution/ Memorandum of Understanding
Existence of policy document which includes criteria for becoming a board member, term limits, criteria for rotation.
Clear Terms of reference/ job description of board members
Regular board meetings (minimum 1 meeting every term)
All board members attend the meetings
Existence of minutes of meeting
Decisions are taken in board meetings and followed up on
The board has a good relationship with the executive director
The board’s role is clearly differentiated from the executive
Clear communication between the board and the management
Existence of good relationship with other experts to build knowledge base
Legal status Extent of think tank being legally registered
Extent of think tank complying with relevant laws including tax laws, labour laws and annual statutory requirements like audits
Policy guidance Existence of updated and approved policies and procedures that support operational needs and human resources
Financial oversight Extend of board approving and reviewing audits/other statutory reports
Existence of accounting system
Existence of financial management procedures
Existence of a budget and financial reporting
Resource mobilisation and sustainability Value of resources mobilised
Ratio of resources mobilised to what is needed
Existence of a resource mobilisation strategy
Oversight of planning, monitoring, evaluation and learning Existence of annual operational plan (aligned to strategic plan)
Existence of a monitoring and evaluation plan for projects implemented by the think tank
Review of reports deriving from project MEL plan
Ensuring decisions are taken on issues deriving from MEL plan and learning is extracted and applied in the operation of the think tank

How to measure?

Having suggested a measurement framework, the next question one could raise is ‘How do you go about measuring governance of the think tank? What is the process one could follow?’ The following three options could be used:

  • Conduct a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) assessment of the governance of the think tank. The domains and indicators listed above could be used as a guide to probe;
  • Set up the think tank OCAT/organisational mapping tool for governance and use a scoring where 0 is not applicable, 1 is partly fulfilled and 2 is fully fulfilled. Apply the OCAT as a self-reflection tool at regular intervals to measure progress in obtaining good governance of the think tank;
  • Develop a MEL plan for the governance of the think tank including data collection, analysis, reporting and learning. Again, one can use the suggested indicators above.

No matter which method is applied for assessing the governance of the think tank it is crucial that the findings of the assessment is linked to learning and decision-making. These learnings and decisions need to be documented and included in a plan of action for follow up. This can be part of the next governance review which should take place periodically.

In conclusion, the governance of think tanks will benefit from having monitoring, evaluation and learning processes to inform corrective measures of the governance structure and functions. Without good governance, it will eventually affect the production of quality outputs by the think tank.