[Note: we will be updating this report with videos, presentations and links to other articles.]
On Think Tanks (OTT) is the leading global platform dedicated to the study and support of policy research institutes and the broader policymaking environment. OTT provides independent services, research, ideas and advice. We do this publicly through our website as well as other channels. We believe that when we are open about our views we are also more accountable and more transparent.
Our team works directly with think tanks, thinktankers and their supporters; as well as a broader range of policy and research institutions. The OTT Team and its associates, spread across the world, have experience in all aspects of concern for policy research institutes and the policy research interface.
The OTT Conference
The OTT Conference is an opportunity to bring together thinktankers, think tank scholars, policy entrepreneurs and think tanks funders from around the world to share experiences, present their research, co-develop solutions to common challenges and establish new or strengthen old partnerships.
The 2019 OTT Conference was organised by OTT in collaboration with the University of Bath, foraus, the Think Tank Hub, Soapbox and Universidad del Pacífico, with the support from the Hewlett Foundation, the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs and the Open Society Foundations.
The conference was initially conceived as an opportunity to invite OTT’s collaborators and partners to join the OTT team after its annual meeting. After the first conference in February 2017, we decided to gradually broaden the number and range of participants to include individuals from organisations who may or may not have collaborated with OTT but who would contribute to a rich and fruitful discussion.
The OTT Conference is designed to provide participants with as much freedom as possible to determine the issues they wish to address, lead the organisation of panels or workshops, and shape the meeting’s outcomes.
Hence, in 2019 we scheduled just a few keynote speakers and sessions to kick-start the process. In the run up to the event, we worked with the participants to produce sessions that they would like to lead and/or be part of. These included presentations, panels, group discussions and workshops.
The Think Tank Hub’s venue in Geneva also offered participants the opportunity to meet each other in smaller groups or bilaterally to establish new or strengthen existing partnerships.
Finally, OTT recorded the Conference and provided a live commentary for a wider audience, hence maximising the benefits for those who were not able to attend.
Watch the video:
Learn more about the OTT Conferences.
The main theme of the conference was public engagement. In 2018, discussions about the threats to think tanks’ credibility and the increasing hostility towards civil society and experts (and think tanks) led to a concern for the capacity of think tanks to reach out to the broader public. Over the course of 2018 we commissioned a series of articles on public engagement for the 2018 Annual Review. The process suggested that there were still significant challenges for think tanks to address.
The conference offered a chance to explore these from different perspectives. Some of the findings or lessons which emerged include:
- Think tanks must embrace values, not just in their communication efforts but also in their research: how they define and develop their agendas, how they undertake research and how they choose to and how they engage with their different audiences.
- Think tanks and the wider evidence-informed policy community should pay attention to informing and educating the broader public about the importance of informed policymaking and the role that think tanks play in it.
- Think tanks will need to explore new approaches/campaigns to communicate both evidence and values (arguments) – such as Integrity Idol in Pakistan.
- Think tanks should explore relationships with new actors such as grassroots organisations, unions, NGOs, and social movements. These may offer less direct channels for influence but can help build think tanks’ support base, especially in contexts affected with state capture and a shrinking space for ‘expertise’.
- It is possible for think tanks to explore new forms of work to improve their engagement
- Our definition of research quality (or what we understand to be excellent research rather than ‘research excellence’) must take into account values: relevance, integrity, accessibility, originality, inclusiveness, timeliness, mindfulness of the negative impacts, gender and local knowledge. Most importantly, it should not be defined by criteria foreign to our needs -primarily by a few US/European based publishers.
- Gender in particular must be incorporated into think tanks’ DNA: it should be central to the design or reform of think tanks’ business models, to their research agendas and methods, and to their communication and search for impact.
You can also read reflections from the participants themselves:
Who was there?
The OTT Team and its close partners joined. This includes OTT School trainers.
In total, we had over 100 participants from all continents. Participants included thinktankers, funders, scholars, practitioners and policy entrepreneurs, service providers and policymakers. They originated from organisations representing both developed and developing nations – with a concentration of think tanks from Europe given the proximity to the host city. This mix provides an opportunity to exchange lessons and find common ground across contexts.
The list of participants includes:
- Elizabeth Sidiropoulos (SAIIA – South Africa)
- Jeff Knezovich (WHO – Switzerland)
- Gurucharan Gollerkeri (PAC India – India)
- Keith Burnet (Chatham House – UK)
- Wedad Bseiso (OSF – US)
- Andrea Ordoñez (Southern Voice – Ecuador)
- Lukas Hupfer (foraus –Switzerland)
- Pamela Nakamba-Kabaso (ZIPAR – Zambia)
- Chuka Onyekwena (CSEA – Nigeria)
- Michael Kleiman (Media Tank – US)
- Scarlett Varga (BRUEGEL – Belgium)
- Fayyaz Yaseen (Accountability Lab – Pakistan)
- John Schwartz (Soapbox – UK)
- Tom Hashemi (We are Flint – UK)
- Gjergji Vurmo (Institute for Democracy and Mediation – Albania)
- Sonja Stojanovic Gajic (BCSP – Serbia)
- Jordi Guillamet (IEA – Andorra)
- Jill Rutter (Institute for Government – UK)
- Tarik Nesh-Nash (GovRight – Morroco)
- Cameron Neylon (Curtin University – Australia)
- Slim Bahrini (Maghreb Economic Forum – Tunisia)
- Shannon Sutton (IDRC – Canada)
- Marjorie Alain (Partnership for Economic Policy – Canada)
- Jordan Tchilingirian (University of Bath – UK)
- James Bramble (GrantSmart -UK)
- Dmytro Khutkyy (OTT Fellow, Fulbright alumni,RPR)
- Norma Correa (PUCP – Peru)
- Memory Kachambwa (African Women’s Development and Communication Network – Kenya)
- Denis Foretia (Denis & Lenora Foretia Foundation andNkafu Policy Institute – Cameroon)
- David Gomez Alvares (Transversal – Mexico)
- Kerry Albright (UNICEF Office of Research-Innocenti – Italy)
- Diana Thorburn (Caribbean Policy Research Institute – Jamaica)
- Adanna Shallowe (RSA – UK)
- Faisal Baawad (Saudi Center for International Strategic Partnerships – Saudi Arabia)
- Gang Li (Center for Chinese Think Tank Studies and Evacuation – China)
- And other members of the global think tank community
To ensure this diversity we received the support from the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs and the Open Society Foundations to invite (and cover the cost of travel) for think tank leaders from developing countries. We also offered participants from developing countries the opportunity to lead and convene the various parallel sessions – avoiding, when possible, a ‘northern’ or ‘southern’ led session.
The diagram below records only 16 responses but is representative of the mix of backgrounds at the OTT Conference.
What participants said about the OTT Conference
Participants expressed their views and impressions of the conference using an online survey sent out a few weeks later.
Here is what they said in response to the survey:
(1 = not good at all, I won’t be back and 5 = Excellent, I cannot wait until the 2020 OTT Conference)
What did you think of the plenaries?
I really appreciate the plenaries session. It was an opportunity to share knowledge, experiences, moreover all the contributions were very relevant. It’s an opportunity of learning more about think tanks and others actors coming from over all the word. It was an occasion to learn more about think tanks stories, achievement and challenges. Furthermore it was nice platform of networking.
Excellent. Relevant topics and engaging speakers
Great keynotes- particularly liked the emphasis on informality and genuine discussion rather than Q&A.
All of them were impressive.
What did you think of the parallel sessions?
A great added value, I think, is the fact that most parallel sessions are actually prepared in collaboration with the speakers/ conveners, not in silos, therefore they can be much more effective and focused. Also, everyone’s voice and experience is heard.
Really like them. Openness of discussions and mixed of experiences from all the world.
The parallel sessions were great, and sometimes there were hard choices to make in regard to what to attend and what to miss. The informality and frankness of these sessions – allowing everyone to feel included, ask questions, and exchange thoughts as long you want really stood out.
I particularly enjoyed the sense of honesty among discussants. I think this is something OTT needs to explore more in the next conference. For example – some session on “My failures as think tank manager / communication / funder etc.” It might be tricky to make it work but the last OTT conference makes me optimistic that think tankers in a smaller group (hence parallel session) would be very open to talk about their failures and how they’ve learnt from mistakes.
What did you think of the overall organisation?
The family atmosphere stood out. Question is, how would this be organised, if one wanted to increase the scope of the event? I think it would make sense to try and involve more non-thinktankers, so to create more awareness of our work and implicitly form relations for the future
The overall organisation of the conference was amazing. The OTT mobile app made it a lot easier to keep track of all the sessions and plan one’s participation in respective sessions easily.
Organisation was brilliant, the app was super handy and I referred to it constantly. It all ran smoothly and I understood what was happening and where I was supposed to be at all times.
Perfect length for a conference. Also appreciated the open session near the end, where participants could select a pressing issue which they didn’t have a chance to discuss.
Have you made any new or strengthened old connections?
Reconnected with several people and made several new contacts. Too soon to tell if this will lead to concrete collaborations but I personally made further introductions between 4 colleagues not attending the conference and conference participants. Also came away with 2 or 3 key ideas about concrete activities I might like to develop with some conference participants.
Yes we are in the process of dialoguing with 2 think tanks [..]. Will let you know when something concrete comes up.
Made connections with some members of foraus that are based in Berlin and have met once to share some insights/learnings on common work. Also possibly looking into getting a shared office space in Berlin.
What impact have the OTT Conferences (consider all previous ones if you have attended) had on you and your work?
Really important to identify perspectives beyond the ‘usual suspects’ and to make connections with leading scholars and practitioners from the global South.
Helped to rethink the design of our own organised think tank summit.
I think I had a strong reminder on the power and importance of right and frequent communications for all the organisations/think tanks, whether they are small or big. This reminder provided the necessary food for thought to critically re-evaluate our communications with the stakeholders, and to see how can that be improved further.
My association with OTT and attending conferences have helped me in understanding my role as a policy engagement and communicator more intensely. At every conference I made new friends (both personally and professionally), learnt new things and most important used some of the learnings in my job. Specifically at this conference it was good to have my Director who saw the importance of associating with OTT and also was able to connect with people/organisations for future collaborations.
I sit on a steering committee for [an European wide partnership], which is trying to position themselves like a ‘think tank’ with a pool of youth researchers. These conferences really help to stimulate my thinking on what this could look like for the youth sector in Europe, to help the Partnership achieve this goal.
And here is a selection from Twitter:
Was great meeting my favourite community of #thinktankers from around the world at #OTTconference Thank you all for the ideas, motivation, insights & not least, the “group therapy” at this retreat! Well done @onthinktanks #thinktanksmatter See you next year ;) #BadgeForEnrique
A big thank you to @onthinktanks for a stimulating and relevant conference exploring #thinktanks and #publicengagement as well as issues of funding, communication, policy impact and networks among others. #ThinkTanksMatter #OTTconference @SAIIA_info
Bye Geneva, it’s been a blast. Thoroughly enjoyed #OTTConference, met some great folk & fully engaged both my brain and my appetite for cheese. Even got to present an unexpected session on what we’re doing at @UoN_Institute. Thanks @lina_cassidy and @carolinakern for the invite!
|Denis Foretia, MD
Wonderful conversations at the #OTTconference and #Cameroon on the map! Great time in beautiful #Geneva talking on how to use evidence to inform public policies. At the end of the day #Thinktanksmatter ! @NkafuPolicyInst @onthinktanks @foraus @Hewlett_Found @ACBF_Official
Sorry to miss the end of #OTTconference Thanks for having me. I learnt a lot and have a lot more to think about
|Denis Foretia, MD
What are the lessons learned in participating in large think tank networks? Thanks @Siderop @bassdiawara @AShallowe for a very frank conversation #OTTconference #thinktanksmatter @SAIIA_info @ACBF_Official @NkafuPolicyInst
Replying to @StojanovicSonja @bezbednost_org and 4 others
What a fine company! So many fascinating threads at #ottconference, looking forward to seeing some of it in print later :)
This was such a fascinating session by @Josephinetsui and @AlbrightKerry at the #OTTconference. Time for those of us who work in #evidencebased policy making to come together and stand up for what we do and why it’s so important.
very interesting conversation about framing from @TheNickyHawkins #OTTConference – @instituteforgov @B_I_Tweets explored more of this in our behavioural govt report instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/… #ThinkTanksMatter
|Denis Foretia, MD
How do you communicate beyond evidence-based policy? Great conversation w/ @keithburnet @soapboxcoms on how to use stories for impact @NkafuPolicyInst @onthinktanks #OTTconference #ThinkTanksMatter @Hewlett_Found @EvidencePolicy #cameroon
Interesting discussion with @WeAreFlint on #thinktank #communication : Consider the full policy maker journey – from awareness to adoption – and build the content and form needed at each stage. #OTTconference #customerjourney
(note: we will be updating the programme below to include presentations, articles and videos)
Monday 4th February, 13:00- 18:00:
Academic meeting (at the Think Tank Hub)
As part of the conference week, and with the support of the University of Bath and Universidad del Pacífico, we organised an academic session for think tank scholars. In this event, scholars were invited to present their work on think tanks and evidence informed policy, to engage in discussion with fellow participants, and to discuss potential joint work. You can read the abstracts here: OTT Academic session abstracts.
The agenda sessions were:
- “Strategies pursued by Mexican think tanks to reach the general public” Alejandra Salas Porras-UNAM, México
- “Think tanks and social movements” Ajoy Datta- On Think Tanks
Book discussion: British think tanks and the 2008 financial crisis
- Marcos González Hernando –Affiliated Researcher, University of Cambridge
- Discussant: Erin Zimmerman
Think tanks and ideology
- “Partisan think tanks: informed policy programmes or political recruitment” Leandro Echt- On Think Tanks
- “Neoliberal think tank networks in Latin America: strategic replication and cross-national organizing” Dr. Karin Fischer, Kepler University Linz, Austria
Private funding and think tanks
- “Think tanks and private sector funding: opportunities and challenges” Andrea Baertl- On Think Tanks
Agenda setting and avenues for impact
- “The EVITA framework: framework for mental health research evidence into policymaking and agenda setting in low- and middle-income countries” Nicole Votruba- PHD student King’s College, UK.
- “The role of China’s think tanks and universities in China’s foreign policy towards Africa: a rising epistemic community?” Martina Bassan Ph.D. -CERI, Sciences Po Paris
- “(In)formal diplomacy after all? Regional Security Dialogues as Discursive Space: A Comparative Analysis in Europe and Asia” Erin Zimmerman- Associate the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA)
- “From Idea to institution, the emergence of regulatory network in Iran” Dr. Seyed M.S. Emamian, Founder and Head of the Board of Governance and Policy Think Tank (GPTT)
Monday 4th February, 7:00pm:
Public event on think tanks and public engagement: how can think tanks successfully engage with the general public?
To open the OTT Conference, we organised a public event in Geneva in partnership with foraus. The panelists were:
- Keith Burnet (Chatham House) – on foreign policy
- Savior Mwambwa (OSF) – on global fiscal policy who connected via Skype from New York
- Andrea Ordoñez (Southern Voice) – on the SDGs and Agenda 2030
- Chair: Enrique Mendizabal (On Think Tanks)
This session was organised at the Impact Hub in Geneva. It provided an opportunity for a wider audience to join the discussion. The public event was a success with close to 100 people in attendance.
Listen to a recording of the session here.
Tuesday 5th– Wednesday 6th February:
OTT 2019 Conference (at the Think Tank Hub)
Tuesday 5th February
900-930: Enrique Mendizabal welcomed everyone to the 3rd OTT Conference. A brief round of introductions and an explanation of the ‘rules of the game: have fun, make friends, challenge each other intellectually.
930-1000: Keynote 1
- Elizabeth Sidiropoulos (SAIIA): “Engaging a global audience – think tanks and the G20”
1000-1030: Keynote 2
- Lukas Hupfer (foraus): “Collective intelligence – is the grassroots think tank model only possible in Switzerland?” +
1030-1100: Coffee break
1100-1230: Parallel A
- “Evolving the model of think tank communications” convened by We are Flint on the basis of a survey of what the public knows and thinks of think tanks
- We are Flint’s ‘new model for think tank communications’ focuses on reaching out to the public with research findings, as a way of influencing policy. It is built on their 2018 quantitative research assessing the US and UK public’s perceptions of think tanks and how well policy is communicated by the policy community more broadly. In this session, Tom and Aidan discussed how think tanks are viewed, the way in which social media is re-shaping the policy environment, and the new challenge for think tank communications. In particular, they explored how this new environment is being exploited by groups like the alt-right, and what think tanks can do as champions of evidence-based policy.+
- “Looking on the bright side of life: are think tanks really facing a perfect storm?” convened by Pamela Nakamba-Kabaso (ZIPAR), Gala Diaz Langou (CIPPEC), Gurucharan Gollerkeri (PAC India), Scarlett Varga (Bruegel).
- In this session, representatives from Latin America, Africa, Asia and Europe reflected on the biggest challenges and opportunities facing think tanks in their regions over the next 5 years. Together, they co-developed a full picture of what the sector can expect going forward and, some practical responses to a rapidly changing context.
- “#thinktankstoo: how can think tanks better engage with and support social movements?” convened by Ajoy Datta (On Think Tanks)
- OSF and OTT have embarked in a new project to study the relationship between think tanks and social movements. The study has the intention of identifying possible opportunities for support, through think tanks, of social movements in a manner that enhances rather than constrain their dynamic, porous and fluid nature. This study also responds to our collective interest to learn how think tanks may be better able to reach out, meaningfully, to the general public. The session offered a chance to present the draft report and incorporate feedback and new cases. +
1400-1430: Keynote 3:
- Caroline Fiennes (Giving Evidence): “What funders think about when they think about funding think tanks“
1430-1600: Parallel B
- “Hearts and minds: communicating beyond evidence-based policy” convened by John Schwartz (Soapbox), Keith Burnet (Chatham House) and Stephanie Mathisen (Sense about Science).
- Think tanks have always sought to present themselves as sources of objective debate and analysis. But is there really a public demand for evidence-based policy? Are we communicating in the wrong ways, to the wrong people and putting ourselves at risk of losing relevance and credibility? In this session we examine the role think tanks have in promoting basic values like peace, sustainability and justice. This session looked at practical ways we can go about expressing and framing these principles. It also explored how the choices we make around values and evidence impact the ways in which we engage with the wider public.
- “Evidence informed policy: what is the end game?” convened by Kerry Albright (UNICEF), Josephine Tsui (ODI), Andrea Ordoñez (Southern Voice) and Jeff Knezovich (WHO)
- In this session we challenged the usual questions we ask about this field so that we can come up with meaningful recommendations for action. The question, what is the end game? suggests we have to accept some kind of balance between evidence and politics (and values) – there are certain things for which the arguments need to be driven by or supported by values; or that we must recognise that there may be a “good enough use of evidence” in certain contexts; or that there is so much we can ask from governments or think tanks or the media, etc. individually, before we ask more from others (all boats need to rise together); or that we may just have enough evidence for the decisions that need to be made and that calls for more data may be distracting resources from where they are desperately needed.
- “How to be a think tank in a captured state?” convened by Gjergji Vurmo (Institute for Democracy and Mediation), Sonja Stojanovic Gajic (BCSP) and Daniel Gómez Álvarez (Transversal)
- Several regions of the world are facing a new context in which a few people in power are using legal means to concentrate greater power and resources for their private gain. Such situation put think tanks in a difficult position: their institution and policy elite-oriented approach to research and advocacy can be counterproductive, as it strengthens these very same power hungry individuals or engages think tanks in discussing the facade rather than the the “real government” behind the Government. It is also highly challenging due to increased limits to access to information, the shrinking space for deliberation and polarised and populist debates. This has led some to reconsider how to work with and support activist organisations and independent journalists. Are think tanks equipped to assist protection of democracies under attack?
1600-1630: Tea break
1630-1730: Show and tell: hands-on learning opportunities
- “How to handle Brexit?” by the Institute for Government (Jill Rutter)
- “Everything you always wanted to know about supporting think tanks (but were afraid to ask)” by the Think Tank Initiative on the basis of the Think Tank Initiative’s evaluation
1730-1800: Report back
Wednesday 6th February
900-930: Welcome back: Enrique Mendizabal facilitated a session with interventions from the participants themselves.
930-1000: Keynote 4:
- Tarik Nesh-Nash (GovRight): “Opening the civic space in the Maghreb using technology”
1000-1030: Keynote 5:
- Cameron Neylon (Curtin University): “Research excellence is a neo-colonial agenda”
1030-1100: Coffee break
1100-1230: Parallel C
- “Building global networks” convened by Andrea Ordoñez (Southern Voice), Barassou Diawara (ACBF), Elizabeth Sidiropoulos (SAIIA), Adanna Shallowe (The RSA)
- Think tanks are increasingly engaging in regional and global spaces. The T20 recently organised by Argentina and South Africa offered think tanks in these countries the opportunity to take a leading role at the world stage. Regional networks and global think tank networks present opportunities for think tanks and researchers to collaborate to address shared challenges. However, shining at the world stage and effectively convening cross-country networks is easier said that done. What have these think tanks and initiatives learned from their own experiences?
- “Gender in think tanks” convened by Shannon Sutton (IDRC), Josephine Tsui (ODI), Scarlett Varga (Bruegel and Brussels Binder) and Norma Correa (PUCP and Grupo Sofía)
- Grupo Sofia, in Peru, is a research and action initiative that seeks to understand and promote the role of women in social sciences. The Brussels Binder, in Brussels, aims to raise the profile of women in the EU policy-research-media community. These experiences offer a starting point for a discussion on a range of conceptual and practical issues: Why are gender equitable think tanks desirable/important? What are the benefits and drawbacks of quotas? How can funders support organisations to address gender equality?
- Opportunity to get to know each other and our work better. These sessions involved discussions on a range of issues, for instance, organisational learning:
1445-1615: Parallel D
- “Unrestricted core funding is over: how to move on?” convened by James Bramble (GrantSmart) and Chuka Onyekwena (CSEA)
- For many think tanks, unrestricted core funding is fast becoming a thing of the past. Their funders are less likely to provide this kind of support in the future. But moving on seems hard. Many have become accustomed to this kind of funding: their governance and management arrangements, their financial management, their research agendas and communication strategies all reflect the nature of core funding. Think tanks will have to go through deep organisational reforms before they can actively embrace other types of funding.+
- “Future thinktankers” convened by Norma Correa (PUCP), Ajoy Datta (On Think Tanks) and Dmytro Khutkyy (OTT Fellow, Fulbright alumni, RPR)
- The roles that think tanks play today are changing – sometimes driven by new types of thinktankers and others in response to changes in their contexts. Regardless, the future demands a new mix of skills and a new mix of profiles.+
- “On research excellence” convened by Shannon Sutton (IDRC) and Marjorie Alain (Partnership for Economic Policy)
- Research encourages open inquiry and debate, empowers people with new knowledge, and broadens the array of options and solutions available to policy and practice challenges. We know we want the best research to underpin social and natural progress, but how do we know when research is of high quality? And if we can determine what quality research is made of, how can quality research be cultivated? There are no brightly painted lines for think tanks to follow. What we do know is that the predominant mechanisms for judging “research excellence” can be more problematic than productive, and there is significant room for improvement. This session introduced the Research Quality Plus (RQ+) approach to managing and evaluating research. It showcased how this approach has been embedded in the monitoring and evaluation systems of the Partnership for Economic Policy (PEP) and is being used to assess the quality of research projects from a holistic perspective.+
1615-1645: Tea break
1645-1730: Final open session and what is next for the On Think Tanks Conference and the new connections made.
7pm Goodbye drinks and reception
- To kindle the conversation discuss the role of women in think tanks with presentation from Sonja Stojanovic Gajic (BCSP – Serbia) and Diana Thorburn (Caribbean Policy Research Institute – Jamaica)
Please share your impressions about the OTT Conference and any lessons your learned if you attended.