July 16, 2018

Case study

Monitoring costs on research projects: often a challenge for senior managers

[This post is the introduction of the resource “Monitoring costs on research projects: often a challenge for senior managers” by Raymond Struyk. Download the resource.]

Financial disasters in the form of major project cost overruns appear to happen to a significant share of think tanks, with some think tanks experiencing them with frequency. Common consequences include the inability to set aside funds for new initiatives (including adding key staff); senior managers and analysts scrambling to win new work to generate short-term financial stability; and poor morale often accompanied by sagging productivity as staff live under substantial uncertainty about their job security.

This article is focused on how well-managed think tanks avoid a steady drum-beat of project cost overruns. The reality is that it is not easy, and five key ingredients should be in place to do so. The following description is based on interviews about cost control practices at three think tanks I regard as well-managed: The Institute for Urban Economics (IUE) in Moscow, the Results for Development Institute (R4D) in Washington, DC, and the Urban Institute, also in Washington.1 In the following pages these are sometimes referred to as “participating think tanks.” The text also draws on my experiences, positive and other, with other think tanks.

The five ingredients important to avoiding project cost overruns are:

  1. Full cost budgets are prepared for all projects, both those funded externally and those supported with an institute’s private funds.
  2. Tools are in place to track all costs.
  3. Project managers receive timely reports on each project’s expenses to date so that they can make adjustments in the work program, if needed, in a timely manner.
  4. Mechanisms are in place for senior management to review spending and intervene when necessary.
  5. Strong incentives are in place for project managers to deliver their projects within the agreed budget.

All three of the participating think tanks have all these ingredients in place.

Download and read the full article.


This document is a part of the new OTT Best Practices Series. If you would like to submit a piece on best practices for research and policy institutes, please get in touch.

About the author:

Raymond Struyk:  Senior manager and policy analyst in the fields of social assistance, housing policy and mortgage finance and has extensive policy formulation and program evaluation experience.

Read more from: Raymond Struyk

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