On some of Goran’s musings

11 January 2011

I’d like to return the favour and comment on some of Goran’s musings. Let me start by contributing to his post on the accountability of policy research organisations or think tanks. Goran refers to a project led by Brendan Whitty at the One World Trust that has developed an excellent database of accountability tools.

The framework includes ‘tools’ relating to three categories: Principles, processes and stakeholders. Let me be a bit candid and choose a different quote than the one Goran used from their website:

The database is designed to support researchers, campaigners and research managers to think through the way they use evidence to influence policy in an accountable way.

I tried to look for some other line that expressed the principles of the project itself but this is all I found. In this sentence, the project expresses quite a lot about itself and what drives it: there is an assumption that policy influence must be done in an accountable way -in other words, influencing policy in an unaccountable manner is not ok.

Although the tools consider accountability to different ‘stakeholders’ (or, should we say, masters?) this sentence (and knowing a bit about developmentspeak) goes hand in hand with the assumption that think tanks (policy research organisations) are good -or at least a force for selfless good in the world. The idealistic definition of think tanks as apolitical, independent, non-for profit, and ready to act on the basis of evidence underlines this demand for accountability. More importantly, it is the public money funded think tank model (prevalent in the international development sector -but not so in the case of domestically focused think tanks that draw their funds from private philanthropists, political parties and corporate sponsorship) demands accountability.

Can I hold a privately funded think tank accountable? Can I demand that the Institute for Government, for instance, should provide me, a tax payer, with an assessment of its value for money? Could I demand to be allowed to comment on its institutional governance and project management processes? I guess I could comment and I could ask but I doubt that they will bother responding. And they shouldn’t. I don’t fund them.

All I can expect is that the institute is not used as a front for some dodgy tax evasion operation (this is very common in developing countries -and has contributed to giving NGOs a bad name) and that they advice the offer the government is, in fact, based on sound evidence. But this is maybe a matter for the Charities Commission to handle.

But accountability does matter. I am not suggesting that we should dismiss this issue -and in fact the tools provided by project are quite useful and relevant. A couple of years ago, after a regional meeting of think tanks in Argentina organised by the evidence based policy in development network and the regional facilitator, CIPPEC, I drafted a series of principles that could be followed by all think tanks without making any assumptions about their intentions or the right to accountability that is expected of some groups in the international development community. I drafted a blog post but never posted it, maybe now is the time.

At the meeting in Buenos Aires there was one question on which all the participants agreed that more research and debate was needed: what is a think tank? On this our attention did not turn towards finding the perfect definition of a think tanks but towards understanding them (which goes well with what I am trying to do in this blog); breaking them apart into their building blocks, their origins, their funding sources, their people, their principles, their relationships to political parties, powerful individuals and other policy bodies, their management style, their cultural milieu, etc.

All of this matters when it comes to understanding why some think tanks are more successful than others –whether we measure success by their visibility or by their substantive influence. And all of this matters when it comes to learning from best strategies and practices –as it would be a mistake to assume that these can be easily copied from one think tank to another.

In particular, all of this explains the roles that think tanks play in different contexts: do they focus their attention on the production of research? Do they advocate policy change? Do they offer safe spaces for ideas and debate? Do they support and legitimate policies? Do they contribute to the development of future cadres of policymakers? Do they channel funds to political parties and other interest groups?

The event brought together all sorts of think tanks. Some focus their attention on research –from academic research centres to independent policy research institutes. Others depend almost exclusively on commissions from policymakers for their business –and use this as their most important influencing channel. Other think tanks are, in practice, networks of research organisations that provide a brokering service to their members by translating their research into policy options and policy-friendly communication products.

More and more think tanks, it transpired, have been calling themselves ‘think and do’ tanks. These do not just do research and communicate it to policymakers (and other policy actors) but also work with their audiences to implement their recommendations. In many cases, where evidence based policymaking capacity is low, this makes absolute sense. These think tanks combine research with capacity building services, mentoring and monitoring and evaluation activities.

However, the ‘do’ may involve other things, too. ‘Do’ may include the actual implementation of a policy – like consultancy firms that implement a change management process within a ministry, or deliver services to ministries, or manage a publicly funded education project, etc. ‘Do’ has also been interpreted as ‘legislating’ by taking on roles within parliaments -or instead of them; as ‘political and social control’ by setting up and running observatories and accountability bodies; ‘enforcing’ by naming and shaming and running public campaigns; and even ‘policymaking’ by, quite simply, writing and promoting policies on behalf of donors as well as national governments.

We would have needed a few months to even begin to agree on whether there are things that think tanks should just not do.  What is clear, though, is that there were enough concerns to merit a discussion about the compatibility and appropriateness of some of these roles –and the conditions under which they can be adopted.

And here is where the issue of accountability came up.

To suggest a single role and therefore a particular universal set of behaviours for think tanks to follow would be mad. What I suggest then is the development of a series of principles for think tanks that would allow them to develop their own strategies and play whatever roles they are called to play within their own contexts at the same time as they  minimise concerns about impartiality and the possible loss of credibility and legitimacy that could lead to hurt not to one, but all think tanks alike.

The following principles or premises were my first attempt at a more exhaustive list (and they are intended to encourage others to contribute) [and here is my attempt to respond to them]:

  1. A mature and stable political system is more important: we recognise that think tanks are important players in the political process and that think tanks should not increase their influence in expense of the roles of other legitimate and important political actors and the system as a whole. Think tanks can be excellent allies of political parties with limited programmatic capacity and should not use their influence to, for instance, weaken the capacity of the opposition or to reduce policy debate. Defending and strengthening the political system and its capacity to deliver better policies will eventually strengthen think tanks. [This was the basis of the study on the relationship between think tanks and political parties in Latin America. In 2007, Bolivian political scientist Carlos Toranzo told me that the support that donors had given NGOs in Bolivia to develop their advocacy capacities had undermined the capacity of political parties to develop their own policy platforms and advocate for them. The study of the relation between think tanks and political parties then was an attempt to highlight the potential for a constructive relationship: as was so clearly demonstrated by the Chile and Colombia case studies.]
  2. Show your cards: think tanks must avoid confusion and doubt by presenting their credentials right from the start: funding sources, board members’ affiliations, party-political allegiances, ideological preferences, commitment to ethical, international or religious principles, etc. We accept that no think tanks are absolutely independent and that they may have ideological foundations. [Please see about onthinktanks]
  3. Provide evidence of evidence: as more think tanks develop their capacities to communicate and actively engage in the public domain, it is becoming more important that they are careful not to allow research based evidence to be lost among the new websites, publications, events and online communities; and confused with opinion. Think tanks must make an effort to:
    1. Describe the nature and source of the evidence they use;
    2. Make all evidence on which statements and opinions are made readily available to the reader;
    3. Make clear distinctions between what constitutes an ‘opinion’ and that is a ‘statement of fact’; and
    4. Present all factors that have contributed in the making of all opinions (professional or personal experience, ideology, party-political commitments, ethical principles, etc.) [This is opinion but there is some clear evidence that think tanks are not the goody two-shoes that some think they are: they have motives that are also quite selfish -and that’s ok.]
  4. Champion knowledge: think tanks should champion the creation, communication and use of knowledge along with their own business or corporate agendas. This is not incompatible with the support or promotion of private, political or ideological interest but demands that think tanks be willing to advocate for the development of more developed knowledge institutions such as: public funding for research, programmes to support higher education and training future researchers, etc. [I am doing my bit –this Tedx talk is in spanish and it is about the importance of funding think tanks: research does not grow on trees.]

There. Four simple principles to think about and discuss.