OTT Conference 2020, the 2nd online event: a report

12 August 2020

The OTT Conference 2020: the online events were a response to the need to postpone our 2020 conference in Berlin. In June we hosted the second online event and were joined by participants from over 30 countries across the world.

The event began with the first online academic session led by OTT’s research director, Andrea Baertl. The session included a panel on diversity inequality and representation in think tanks, a presentation on foreign funding and transparency in the USA, and a participatory session on our research agenda. +

After the academic session, participants were asked to head over to the main stage for a panel on funding for think tanks with Goran Buldioski (Open Society Foundations), Julie LaFrance (former member of the Think Tank Initiative team), Michael Schwarz (Stiftung Mercator), Henry Alt-Haaker (Robert Bosch Foundation), and Renata Skardziute-Kereselidze (GIP).

The second day kicked off with a keynote on data and politics by Varoon Bashyakarla from Tactical Tech , followed by three parallel sessions on how change happens, the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on think tank staff, and on how to do research. The third and final day opened with a keynote on the future of politics by Julia Pomares from CIPPEC, followed by three parallel sessions on state capture and think tanks, monitoring evaluation and learning, and diversity in think tanks.  

Over 300 people registered for the event. We recorded all of the sessions and have made these available for anyone to watch and learn from the exchange. Below you will find a brief summary of main takeaways from the sessions. 


The academic session is a space to present and discuss research on think tanks and evidence-informed policy. The aim of this space  is to further promote the study of this topic, to continue building bridges across the community, and develop ideas together. 

Diversity, inequality and representation in think tanks

Panelists: Andréanne Veillette, François Claveau, and Marcos Gonzales Hernando
Commentary: Ajoy Datta

Key takeaways:

Andréanne Veillette ( (Masters student in philosophy at the University of Sherbrooke) and François Claveau (Associate Professor at the Université de Sherbrooke and Canada Research Chair in Practical Epistemology) presented their paper titled ‘Toward an epistemic evaluation of think tank ecosystems: the case of epistemic justice’ which argues that think tanks need to evaluate on their epistemic excellence (i.e. how well they serve us in our collective quest for knowledge that can improve policy) and that this needs to be done at the ecosystem label (which encompassess not only think tanks but other organisations as well).  The paper outlines a framework for this evaluation.

Marcos Gonzales Hernando (Senior Researcher at FEPS-TASC  and Visiting Teaching Fellow at the University of Bath) presented progress on his paper on diversity and economic inequality in think tanks. He argued that given that think tanks are often key informants on public policies to tackle issues such as poverty, inequality, and welfare provision, the social provenance of their staff can matter greatly on their views on these topics. The paper aims to understand if there are important barriers of access to the think tank world that derive from economic inequality. If these barriers exist, what effects do they have on the type of work think tanks produce?

Ajoy Datta (Associate at OTT) offered commentary to the discussion and focused on epistemic justice and how think tanks are contributing to it (or not):

  • As the credibility of some sources is tarnished, how reliable are think tanks as knowledge producers? There is not one answer to this, but it rather depends on the organisation.
  • Are think tanks contributing to epistemic justice? In a way they are, but in others they perpetuate the injustice and value some voices over others. One way to positively contribute is to diversify funding sources as well as staff. 
  • There are both internal and external factors that affect epistemic justice (identified in the model presented by Veillete and Claveau). Organisations have more control over the internal ones and so they can also help counterbalance injustice. But, the barriers of entry to a think tank are high (e.g. higher education and networks) and thus a smaller group of people has access to them. 
  • A key aspect is not only diversification but mainly interaction between groups. Diversity should not refer only to backgrounds but also to differences of opinions. Without dissident voices they cannot push forward either.
  • Participants also asked if there are any examples of think tanks that broadly represent a diverse set of voices and staff that reflects the people they want to help well? How can we look at how power dynamics take place in organisations, beyond the background of their staff? Put differently: how do these inequalities take place in practice? Many organisations started to endorse a gender research agenda, anti-racism and inequality, but it is not clear how they are doing internally on these issues. 

From the chatbox!

 Resources shared by participants:

Foreign funding and transparency

Ben Freeman (Director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy)

Key takeaways:

Ben presented his paper ‘Foreign funding and transparency’ (in the USA) which analyses foreign funding at fifty well-known think tanks based on criteria like the quality and reputation of the think tanks’ research and the reach of its publications. The investigation showed that more than $174 million in foreign funding from over 80 countries went to these top think tanks (through more than 900 donations). The top recipients of foreign funding were the World Resources Institute (WRI), the Center for Global Development (CGD), and Brookings Institution. The top donor countries were Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United Arab Emirates. 

The most important issue was the widely varying levels of transparency about funding sources, ranging from full disclosure of all funders and exact amounts donated, to think tanks that disclose no information about foreign or domestic funding. The main conclusion and recommendation is that to increase transparency think tanks should be required by law to publicly disclose funding from foreign powers.

The discussion that followed focused on the following issues:

  • How does foreign funding to think tanks in the USA compare to funding from the USA to think tanks in other countries? 
  • How does foreign funding compare to corporate funding? What are the implications of both?
  • How much influence do funders really have? What are the various ways in which funders can have influence over think tanks’ agendas, arguments, etc. (other than money, obviously)? Is it possible to avoid influence and still take their money?
  • How should think tanks have funding conversations with potential funders in relation to the issue of influence?

Many of these questions were still left unanswered and the discussion sparked several interesting future lines of research.

Participatory session
An agenda for think tank research

In this session we presented the framework in which OTT will focus its research on:

  • The (evidence-informing policy) environment. Understood as the space in which different actors engage and interact to inform policy and practice decisions, and in which decisions are made and executed. It is the space of interaction with other actors; the engagement and positioning of the organisations, how they engage with governments, businesses, civil society actors and position their research for policy uptake. It also entails understanding the different actors and their roles within the environment and how they interact with each other and policy research organisations.
  • Policy research organisations. The functioning, history and make up of policy of research organisations within themselves and as a sector.
  • Cross-cutting issues which affect each actor (including policy research organisations), the wider environment and how to mediate the interaction between them.

In this framework we shared that our priorities for the year to come will be:

  • Diversity in think tanks (gender, race and economic background)
  • The effects of Covid-19 in policy research centres, both within them and  in their roles and their positioning in the evidence-informed policy environment

Participants also suggested specific lines of inquiry:

  • The role of think tanks in a changed policy environment (in a tech and politicised world)
  • Translation of policy to action- what works?
  • New ways to engage with stakeholders in the post COVID-19 world. What lessons can we take from this experience?


Funding for think tanks: lessons from initiatives to support think tanks and implications for the future

Panelists: Goran Buldioski (Open Society Foundations), Julie LaFrance (former member of the Think Tank Initiative team), Michael Schwarz (Stiftung Mercator), Henry Alt-Haaker (Robert Bosch Foundation), Renata Skardziute-Kereselidze (Georgian Institute of Politics)

Moderator: Enrique Mendizabal (On Think Tanks)

Due to unexpected technical difficulties, we do not have a recording for the opening panel, but we’ve done our best to compile key takeaways from the discussion.

A bit of background about the panelists and their work:

  • Henry Alt-Haaker worked in policymaking before joining RBSG. Recently, RBSG started a new department to bundle all think tank co-operations.
  • Julie LaFrance previously worked at the Think Tank Initiative (TTI), which provided organisational core funding for think tanks over 10 years. 
  • Michael Schwarz talked about Mecator’s dual role as a funder and a founder of think tanks, which gives them good insights to deliver their work. As founders, Mercator founded Agora Energiewende and MERICS. As funders, they provide institutional funding to think tanks. 
  • Goran Buldioski funded think tanks in Eastern Europe and Western Europe through the Think Tank Fund.
  • Renata Skardziute-Kereselidze described the Georgian Institute of Politics (GIP) as a fairly young think tank (it was funded 10 years ago) which has received funding both from OSF and RBSG.

Key takeaways + 

What have you learned from funding think tanks – and what do you want to do differently in the future?

We asked Goran and Henry to reflect on lessons from their experience and Julie and Michael to comment on or add any new ideas:

Goran Buldioski, OSF

  • We have been most effective when we decided to fund ‘ecosystems’ or the ‘ecosphere’ rather than individual think tanks alone – even if that meant that there wasn’t a specific policy decision reached .This often involves fostering proper policy conversations which may then promote good government decisions.
  • Institutional funding is important to ensure that the organisations can operate effectively in these ecosystems.
  • Take risks – go for the potential and recognise that in other developments, think tanks come in generations or waves. Many funders go for the safe bet and fund the same organisations. We gave people and organisations opportunities to prove themselves in the future.
  • It is important to recognise and support other necessary competencies – such as communication. If you are a good communicator, you will be effective and successful, regardless if you are an academic, a thinktanker or an activist.
  • Fund hybrids! Think tanks that are also doing advocacy, are membership organisations, news outlets, etc. may have an advantage in specific contexts.

Henry Alt-Haaker, RBSG

  • Take risks – look for new and different! At RBSG we seek access to expertise that we do not have and need for our work in other fields. Therefore, we need cutting-edge and provocative research and not just what is being published in all mainstream papers.
  • An eye-level conversation and partnership between funders and think tanks is necessary for effective support. In the past there has been a perceived hierarchy and think tanks often did not dare to tell funders if they were setting the wrong priorities. This has to change to be more beneficial for both sides.
  • Foundations do not just give out money but also access to networks, partnerships and collaborations (often between their grantees).
  • In the past we have mostly worked with Western think tanks but with a changing international order, we have to work more with Southern/non-Western think tanks. To some extent this means we have to be transparent about values, even if we are non-partisan, and use them as a guideline for a meaningful conversation with grantees.

Julie LaFrance, TTI

  • The objective of the TTI was to strengthen think tanks: so we had to counter our inclination to fund ‘the best’ and focus on those with the highest potential.

Michael Schwarz, Mercator

  • Sometimes it is about creating provocation and thinking out of the box, but sometimes it is about putting a lot of resources behind a specific issue, like climate change, to understand and convince the people ‘in the box’ of its importance.
  • Funders can help with building organisational resilience and organisational development. This might create tension, but there’s a fine line between support and overstepping the line.

Renata Skardziute-Kereselidze, Georgian Institute of Politics (GPI)

  • It’s not always easy for think tanks to admit to failures. We rarely receive feedback from donors on our reports or products, so an eye-level conversation would be useful.

What does COVID-19 and new technological developments mean for future think tank funding?

Michael Schwarz

  • We are likely to see less funding from the private sector – particularly if the economic crisis continues. But, at the same time, we expect more demand for funding from think tanks which will be faced with greater demand and challenges.
  • This is in a context of greater politicisation, polarisation and societal tension. This itself calls for greater policy innovation. We therefore need non-partisan organisations to help develop policy in our societies. But, we also need to be more vocal about our values and put more energy behind specific policy proposals and ideas.

Julie LaFrance

  • Think tank funders have so far stayed in their comfort zone in the crisis: they are directing emergency funding to their existing grantees or limiting their responses to increasing flexibility for existing funding in the short term. So more funding will be channelled to fewer think tanks. However, the OTT COVID-19 survey showed that 20-30% of think tanks surveyed were concerned about their future. Private foundations have the flexibility and should use it to help think tanks weather the storm – the money might be used towards sometimes just keeping the organisation afloat – and this should count as a success in these dire circumstances.
  • If funders can bring grantees to the table as they’re thinking about their long-term strategies, leverage those relationships and build on trust, that will benefit everyone
  • We need to step outside our comfort zone. Requiring collaboration is a good way to bring in new players through existing relationships. Also providing more ‘beyond the dollar’ support e.g. networks, training etc.

Goran Buldioski

  • When dealing with a crisis, donors can be more impatient. We want the vaccine yesterday. We also need to be thinking about where the long-term investment is needed.

Henry Alt-Haaker

  • One of the challenges for funders is understanding and assessing where there are problems because of COVID-19 and where there are underlying issues.

Renata Skardziute-Kereselidze

  • A burning question in many think tanks’ minds is: how do you deal with polarised contexts, both in politics and within civil society and think tanks?
  • At GIP we’ve had some success building bridges with Western think tanks, but it’s challenging. Think tanks from developing countries have different resources, expertise and voice.

Diversity in think tanks: what can funders do?

Goran Buldioski

  • This is an amazing time for radical ideas – what was considered radically left just six months ago is now mainstream and published as an OpEd in the Financial Times. 
  • Think tanks are not avant garde when it comes to diversity in their ranks. #BlackLivesMatter has changed how people look at all institutions, including think tanks, and they have to step up their game.

Henry Alt-Haaker

  • Funders too have to look in the mirror and address issues of structural inequality and ask questions about where their funds come from.

From the chatbox!

Poll results:

What will happen to funding for think tanks in 2021?

  • (17.5%) It will stay the same
  • (74.6%) Down
  • (7.9%) Up

Will think tanks emerge out of this crisis …

  • (5.3%) Unchanged – any changes will be transitory only?
  • (36.8%) Somewhat the same – with a few upgrades?
  • (57.9%) Changed – new leaderships, business models or strategies?

Issues raised in the chat discussion included:

  • Could funders foster diversity in think tanks, e.g. through diversity requirements for funding, better salaries and long-term contracts in project-based funding? Or by funding minority think tanks to give a stronger voice to them, e.g. think tanks representing Roma views on policy issues?
  • Whether the activities that funders got their money from in the first place (stock market, capitalist investments, big industry, etc.) have contributed to the inequality that we are now trying to address in society.

We also asked participants to share their own takeaways:

  • Communication is key to get funding. Adapt to audiences and to the media.
  • COVID-19 is one reason for limiting funds for think tanks, especially from the private sector. It was also an eye-opener for many funders on how some institutions work and interact (in a negative way).
  • Funders should always pay attention not to over impose views on communication and research agenda.
  • There should always be trust between funders and grantees, especially now with needed changes in projects and research as some will not happen anymore or will be refocused.
  • Funders also have responsibility on funding ‘closed’ research, i.e. research that is not clearly communicated, hidden in reports or that is pure political campaign and not actual research.
  • If think tanks keep making the same mistakes (and in part the donors are responsible), it ends up discrediting policy research as a whole.


Keynote 1
Data and politics

 Varoon Bashyakarla from Tactical Tech

About Tactical Tech:

Tactical Tech works with a number of think tanks, technologists, technology researchers, journalists, civil society organizations, academics, lawyers in over three dozen countries. Considering the tech products and services that operate openly on the market, they felt there was reason to raise concern about the integrity of our democratic processes.

Key takeaways:

When propaganda becomes something that is personalised to each of us based on our personal data footprint, it becomes an issue to be concerned about. Everything we share online is available for those who have the money to sift through it and make targeted campaigns. Data collected on the internet can give advertisers a very intimate understanding of your hobbies and interests and values by tracking you from one website to the other and monitoring your online behaviours. 

Political campaigns do a lot with the voter data available. One of the most common things they do is run experiments to see what voters are responding to (A/B testing). A/B testing, third-party tracking, geotargeting are not new… although the scale and sophistication has changed. For instance, the Donald Trump campaign  ran up to 175,000 variations of its ads.

Geotargeting is another big source of data on where voters are. This technique was used during #blacklivesmatter protests to gather info of protesters to target democratic candidate ads to them. Even more invasive is Geofencing, a sub-technology of Geotargeting. This is a technology in which you can draw a virtual perimeter around a point of interest and send selected messages only to those individuals within the perimeter. This allows individuals, companies, governments or campaigns to draw a fence around specific locations – could be a neighbourhood, a building or single house or office – and target everyone inside with carefully designed advertising.

To tackle the issue of the use of our data for political purposes, we have to be sure to focus on the system that produced them and not get caught up in merely the topics of surveillance. Our personal data has become a political asset, a means for political intelligence, and also an instrument for political influence. The same technologies used to sell us shoes, smoothies, plane tickets, lifestyles are now being used to sell us political leaders (and ideas). 

The internet as a democratising force has failed. Big tech has come to reinforce traditional power structures. It is now an extension of the same infrastructure in politics behind big oil and big finance. Tech companies privatise the assets, creating spaces for political campaigns to run all year long, but the cost of those dynamics, the ways in which they undermine our democratic foundations and principles, is put on the public. 

This calls for think tanks to pay greater attention to the system that creates and uses new technologies – and not so much on the technologies themselves.

Can this be used for good? Are think tanks or NGOs using these technologies as well? There are potential democratic benefits- the matter lies in how these technologies are deployed. One of the problems now is that there is a huge informational asymmetry amongst internet users and amongst those developing and building these technologies for their own purposes. Elections should be contested on the basis of ideas, not on who has the better micro targeting strategy. 

From the chatbox!

Key questions from participants:

  •  Has there been any initiative on defense of civil society against the use of these strategies for smear campaigns by autocrats?
  • How much difference do these technologies make to electoral results already? How might the answer to this question evolve over the next few years?

Parallel 1
How does change happen? 

Facilitators: Jessica White (The RSA), Jeff Knezovich (WHO ), Memory Kachambwa (Femnet), and Ajoy Datta (OTT)

Facilitators addressed these five questions:

  • What does change mean to you and your organisation?
  • How are you working toward bringing about change?
  • How has Covid-19 affected your approach/work?
  • What other barriers and facilitators have you come across and how do you work with them?
  • What are the implications for how thinktankers go about their work?

Key takeaways:

  • Knowledge and information can be a useful resource for agents wanting to bring about change. But they need spaces to engage in, and need to be supported by alliances and coalitions. It is useful to have spaces for ideas, people and organisations to come together and explore how they might work together to bring about change
  • We need to consider the constellation of  actors that make up a ‘system’ and the relationships they have with one another. Change agents need to be entrepreneurial in how they engage with key stakeholders. Incentives and power dynamics are key considerations. 
  • Critical Junctures’ are the scandals, crises or conflicts that can throw the status quo and power relations into the air, opening the door to previously unthinkable reforms. Crises can help to retell and alter deep seated stories and narratives. The Covid-19 crisis has helped to uncover deep seated problems and  created an opportunity for change agents to be brought into dialogue with power holders.
  • It is important to have a close-knit team driving the influencing process with high levels of trust and varied expertise, experience and skills.
  • The digital divide has been a huge barrier and we have seen the reintroduction of radio programmes and school being conducted through TV, but of course it still leaves a lot of people out especially in the African context where data is expensive. This has implications on the roles that individuals, especially the most vulnerable, can play in bringing about change.
  • Funders need to consider a more complex story of how change happens, acknowledging multiple actors and factors are involved, that change processes are not linear, that it emerges unpredictably over time and can experience reversals. They also need to have resources to fund thinking and creation of discourse, not just action or specific outputs.
  • Think tanks all feel compelled to respond to the crisis or else they’ll feel discredited. But if they do, they may well merely add to the noise. They need to think whether this is worthwhile. Visibility is not the be all and end all.  They may well be better off spending their scarce resources on getting their head down doing important research. 

From the chatbox!

Resources shared:

Parallel 2
Doing research 

Facilitators: Francesco Obino (GDN) with the participation of Sharim Ribeira (CERES), Jana Rue Glutting (CESD), Zaw Oo (CESD), Ngu Wah Win (CESD), Adedayo Olufunso James (NACETEM), and Abiodun Ebbetokun (NACETEM)

Key takeaways:

Think tanks are part of national (as well as regional and international) research systems and broader political policy regimes. The practice of their work is therefore significantly influenced by the broader research practice. Drawing from the Global Development Network’s Doing Research programme in Indonesia, Bolivia, Nigeria and Myanmar, this session inquired how different research systems condition the nature of think tanks and affect their development, and how the covid-19 pandemic is so far affecting them

What are  the boundaries of think tanks in your country? What roles do they play? And what research do they focus on?

  • Bolivia. Think tanks are considered research institutions above all. They can be government institutions, non-for-profit organisations, consultancies, applied research institutions or advocacy organisations that do research, and  categories are often  overlapping. These organisations are considered to play an important role in research and advise and suggest decision making processes. They can play different roles, from advocating for certain policies, monitoring the implementation of others, and even setting the policy agenda. The main topics vary, but mainly they focus on: development, poverty, inequality, economic growth, democracy, social needs, health and education.
  • Myanmar. Think tanks in Myanmar are quite young. Most were founded in 2012 when the country went through reforms and liberalisation. Many of those initial ones ceased to function and there was a new surge in 2016 (with IDRC support). They are mostly dependent on external funding, so their agenda is guided by external donors, and they focus on issues like peace, conflict, governance and human rights, as well as socio-economic issues. Think tanks are not yet considered strong enough to do technical research.
  • Nigeria. In Nigeria, the term think tank can refer to:  publicly owned research institutes, functioning under ministries; private consultancies who do social and economic research along with other work; and  think tanks , which are privately-owned for-profit organisations that do social and economic research. These organisations typically research only in response to contractual requests from their clients (politicians, donors, government, businesses), and produce quality research, but do not pursue their own agenda. These organisations do research on many things; employment, democracy, education, climate change etc. They produce and disseminate research results and promote uptake. Their focus depends on the political atmosphere

Is there a visible research agenda around COVID taking shape in your country? What does it focus on? Who is leading it?

  • Nigeria. Huge body of research emerging. The top questions are: the economic impacts of the pandemic at a macro and micro level; inequality  and how the pandemic is deepening existing inequalities; the impact of the pandemic on vulnerable populations (children, women, displaced people); how people are coping with the pandemic (personally, school and education). The government is asking for answers to these questions, and think tanks are being commissioned to do research and come up with plans to solve the issues.
  • Myanmar. The private sector is interested in understanding the impact of the pandemic and they are asking think tanks to do surveys and impact assessments, and come up with recovery plans. International populations are interested in helping the population, for example understanding how COVID-19 is impacting workers and what can be done to protect them. Think tanks are using the research they have done in the past to help and support the government and private sector to make sense of things and help make decisions.
  • Bolivia. There is not a national unified research agenda, research is  mainly generated by the efforts and interests of individual institutions. Government and private sector are consuming/demanding this research. They are focusing on: how to face the crisis, how the economy, health and education systems were before and what were the weaknesses and strengths, and how to look forward based on that. The main topics of discussion are:  evaluation of economic impact, response of political instances on the expansion of the pandemic, social prevention measures, others: challenges of the healthcare systems, local economic reactivation plans, democracy, food security.

How has the pandemic affected think tanks as a sector and on the way they operate?

  • Bolivia. The main role of think tanks in the response of the pandemic has been validation and contextualisation of the evidence and passing it on to the public. And even though many think tanks don’t have direct contact with the government, they provide analysis and monitor their response. The main challenges the crisis has brought are around carrying out research, dealing with remote work, and the use of ICTs. Funding has also been affected: delays, shrinking of available funds, and the agenda shifting to COVID-19 topics (limiting funding on other issues). But there has been an increased connection at the international level.
  • Myanmar. Local sector has had to step up, as many international actors have had to leave or stop operations due to the pandemic. This has been an interesting change in the landscape, and an opportunity for Myanmar to reclaim this space. Ongoing activities have been postponed. Finances have been affected, as the  international priorities have changed, and funding has stalled.
  • Nigeria. There is more competition for funds amongst organisations, and there have been no new organisations. The existing ones  are fighting for existing funds, and the crisis will be a test of survival of the fittest.

From the chatbox!

 Poll results:

Is having a political agenda a ‘bad’ think for a think tank in your country?

  • (50%) Yes
  • (50%) No

Are think tanks in your country open about the data they access and the methodology they use in their research?

  • (43%) Yes
  • (57%) No

Key questions from participants:

  • Are think tanks replacing the role of non-higher education research institutions?
  • How is generally the connection or cooperation that exists between think tanks and HEIs? Do they cooperate, compete with each other for funds or recognition?
  • Where can I access the Doing Research Assessment reports? Which ones are available?
  • Is GDN planning to implement this research in any other countries?

Parallel 3
People, people, people

 Facilitators: Sulamba Shaban (STIPRO), Wailea Zuelch (foraus), and Milena Gaitán (Fundación Ideas para la Paz) 

 Key takeaways:

  • Different think tanks have faced the crisis differently. foraus is more like a platform for ‘bright minds’ to bring and develop ideas – it has a small workforce as most are volunteers and the pandemic has not been felt as harshly in Switzerland as it has in Colombia. FIP, on the other hand, is a more traditional think tank with a permanent workforce. And STIPRO is a relatively small organisation.
  • Associate-based think tanks (or volunteer-based think tanks) like foraus might be slow in responding to the challenges and opportunities presented by the crisis. Their associates and volunteers also wear other hats which may be more important for them. This demands additional attention to foraus’ engagement with them.
  • The crisis highlighted the fragility of FIP’s project-based approach: short-term and unstable. It also reduces the impact necessary for FIP’s main goal, which is peace building. The crisis has led to a serious rethink about its business model and is now exploring longer term partnerships with international organisations to ensure a long-term agenda.
  • Without core funding or long-term funding in some countries, think tanks may benefit from partnerships with organisations with access to longer term funding. This, however, reduces their own autonomy.
  • Alongside this reflection they have had to respond to the challenges faced by staff. This includes support to working from home, creating opportunities for open discussions and securing staff salaries in the medium-term.
  • For STIPRO, greater collaboration with larger think tanks is also on the table. But they face an additional challenge of securing their staff employment in the short-term. Support for ‘keeping the think tank afloat’ has not materialised from their usual (or new) funders.
  • It has been important, in all cases, to think strategically and develop short, medium and long-term scenarios. This enables the think tanks to consider, in advance, what challenges individual team members may face and respond to them in a timely manner.


Keynote 2
The future of politics

 Julia Pomares from CIPPEC

Key takeaways:

What do politics look like in 2030? 

Here are two questions Julia has for the future: Was COVID-19 the first in a series of intermittent pandemics that we became used to? (this question is for epidemiologists) Which of the many traits that seem unique to this pandemic will survive after we discover the vaccine?

As a political-scientist, Julia tries to answer the second question:

This pandemic coincides with a historic moment of global capitalism. 2020 will mark the end of the transition to this intangible economy of big data and artificial intelligence (Silicon Valley model). We’ve been in this process for some decades and we know a lot about the future of work. But we know too little about the future of politics. 

The move will be accelerated by COVID-19 for two reasons: 1) it has proved that we can work remotely, and 2) it has increasing digital consumption from our homes. So, if this transition is going to be accelerated, the big question now is what the impact will be on political institutions. 

Digital transformation is exponential, and it can lead us to think that these exponential changes will also be exponential for institutions. But this is the big question: are we going to follow the mantra of ‘crisis as an opportunity’, or are we going to have a more modest mantra of ‘not every crisis is a turning point’?

Because it is very difficult to make predictions, it is best to look at the trends that were existing before the first infection and consider if these will be accelerated, stopped, or have a change in course. She looks at four trends:

  1. Who rules the world? The U.S. power is deteriorating but will this mark the definite rise of China and will they take the place of the U.S.? This will affect the shape of the multilateral space. While there has not been coordination between governments there has been cooperation at the scientific and corporate level. The pandemic will shape global governance.
  2. We have seen firms get larger and the pandemic is likely to accelerate the growth of tech companies. In years to come governments will have to negotiate with very large and very powerful private actors.
  3. Are the social inequalities that we see today will increase? Yes! Among countries and within countries. This acceleration will be evidence in access to services that now have to be delivered remotely. Local leaders will have to respond cleverly in how they invest to fight these inequalities.
  4. A deterioration of liberal democracies due to a toxic combination of low trust in politics and low voter turnout. In the short-term, populists may lose ground but in the medium-term the causes of populism may be reinforced and bring them back to power.

The role of AI is very important, and we should not be focusing on how to improve the provision of services (we know that that is going to happen), but rather on what the role of AI is to promote accountability and transparency.

The great challenge we are facing is how to build a hybrid democracy: this means an augmented democracy and not less less or a deteriorated democracy. 

And what will think tanks like CIPPEC look like in 2030? Thinktankers will also be hybrids, using both AI applications and old-school research methods. Teams will certainly be more multi-disciplinary.

Greater global collaboration will be a common feature of think tanks and think tanks will have a greater ability to influence policy globally.

From the chatbox!

 Resources shared by participants:

Comments and questions from participants:

  • To Julia: You mentioned that there will be or is an increased acceleration of inequalities and this will affect Africa possibly even more. And since you mentioned that the major players are East and the West, what can think tanks in Africa do to mitigate these inequalities? How can Africa find its footing for the future?
  • When technology is disrupting the very fundamental mechanisms of democracies, rendering the very governments who uphold these fundamental values dysfunctional (government shutdowns), the very capitalistic systems are incentivised by capital and profit, which drive the influence industries. Does that mean that our political systems should also adapt to these technological changes? Do we need to come together to build ‘Democracy 2.0’?,
  • Let’s also look at how complex something like the COVID-19 tracing apps are. These technologies can be clever, but they also can really fall over in everyday experience. How do you distinguish between a driver and a passenger looking at the phone?

Parallel 4
State capture and think tanks 

Facilitator: Sonja Stojanovic Gajic (former director of the  Belgrade Centre for Security Policy)

Key takeaways:

The best way to describe state capture is through a story:The Belgrade Waterfront project was designed as a project of modernisation in the banks of the river Sava, in downtown Belgrade.

What was worrying about this project was that, in order to build it, they needed to destroy a number of old buildings and warehouses and change the urban plan for the city. To be able to take the project forward, they adopted a special law that put this project above the country’s constitution and all other documents on legislation related to urban planning, environment, traffic, etc. It was justified as a project of strategic interest for a country. They thought this would make everything go smoothly, but it didn’t, because the property in this area had owners and they didn’t want to sell it.On election night, in the Spring of 2016, a group of masked men arrived with bulldozers and destroyed private property, warehouses, etc in the area. People living in the neighborhood called the police, but they only arrived the morning after. There is evidence that they had an order to not show up while the night operation was going on. Also, the electricity was turned off in the area during the night to avoid fires. This is all proof that the violence and destruction was state-sponsored.

This is an example of state capture because it shows all the elements: you can take public goods (part of the city) for private benefit, it’s done through legislative / institutional means, and it uses different branches of power for it to happen. 

  • State capture has three distinctive characteristics: 1) It is about the capture of the rules of the game (i.e. changing the legislation) for the benefits of the private interest, 2) the capture of political / narrative ideology to legimitise a new system, and 3) the capture of political competition to be able to select the who is allowed to play and eliminate the competitors.
  • What’s important to highlight is that this context is not the consequence of lack of development or lack of resources, knowledge or capacity. It’s actually an intentional and well-designed process of well-connected groups of people who change the rules of the game so they can benefit. 
  • South Africa is the first country that has officially been named a captured state. There has been a lot of work by think tanks to educate both the national and international audience on the concept. They have developed the phrase ‘repurposing institutions’, which means that institutions stay, but they serve a purpose different to their formal mandates. Rather, they exist to fulfill four functions: limit competition, enable extraction of resources, decrease checks and balances (i.e. with the civil society and the media, who are often the target in captured states), and to maintain impunity. This is why judiciary, law-enforcement and intelligence services are key for state capture to survive. 
  • Narratives and political processes are important for state capture. State capture is always a political process… There are varieties of state capture, which are often masked under other ‘intentions’: revolution, modernization, privatization, fight against corruption, social justice, nationalism, security, etc. 
  • What does state capture mean for think tanks? This speaks to their role and their resilience and impact.  Think tanks in captured states have to consider who they want to influence and if  the policymakers should remain their primary targets.

From the chatbox!

Poll results:

Do you live in or work with the organisations in a captured state?

  • (18.2%) I’m not sure
  • (27.3%) No
  • (54.5%) Yes

How does state capture affect your work?

  • (33.3%) Other
  • (33.3%) We have been a target of pressure or attacks
  • (11.1%) We have directly engaged with the topic of state capture
  • (22.2%) We have not yet been affected
  • (0.0%) We are not seriously affected

Do you want to join the community of practice on think tanks and captured states? Drop us an email!

Parallel 5
Beyond crisis management: adapting your impact strategy through organisational learning 

Facilitators: Dena Lomosfky (Southern Hemisphere) and Claire Luzia Leifert (German Council on Foreign Relations – DGAP)

Learning is a muscle to be developed- people in think tanks have to be comfortable with discussing learning, failure and improvement.
Dena Lomofsky

Key takeaways:

  • Think tanks have had to adapt their work considerably due to the pandemic and lockdowns. Going digital has offered new opportunities but also challenges with regards to our impact and what impact we are having on our audiences. How can we know what our audiences need from us now, and how can we know what impact we are having on policy… now that we are all working remotely?
  • Learn despite the crisis. Don’t put it on hold because it’s critical for your organisation’s survival. political processes are always complex, but during a crisis our environment is changing quickly and more profoundly. 
  • A static annual strategy offers little flexibility- and might not be applicable during a crisis. However, if you just focus on crisis management, you are merely reacting to short-term needs instead of agenda-setting. How can you find a balance between these two? Constant organisational reflection process enables agile management- with or without a crisis.

Dena Lomofsky

  • A learning organisation has many definitions, but one that resonates most is from the Harvard Business Review, which states that a learning organisation is an organisation which is skilled at creating, acquiring and transferring knowledge. And then modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights. 
  • M&E has typically been about accountability, and increasingly about learning. However, often you end up using your M&E to prove that you are doing what you have committed to do. Learning, however, is about using information that you have to improve. How do we make sure that we are implementing appropriate strategies?
  • In the context of the COVID-19 crisis, a learning organisation will be asking if their impact strategy still makes sense, and if they should be doing something differently. 
  • Think to yourselves: can you actually be truly accountable without learning? Learning and accountability need each other. If you are not learning, you are just setting yourself to make the same mistakes and setting yourself up to make the same mistakes over and over again. As think tanks, we need to learn to respond to uncertainty.
  • Evaluative thinking is a way of thinking that is underpinned by dialogue, reflection, learning and improving. Evaluation is not seen purely as an assessment, inquiry or accountability mechanism. It’s an opportunity to learn and improve, and part of our organisational culture. 
  • Learning organizations need three things: framework, evidence and opportunity.
  • Everything is possible, but it’s really important to bear in mind that we are in the same storm, but not in the same boat. Not everyone has the same access, experience or lives in contexts with the same internet connectivity. During a crisis, personal contexts are really relevant. Consider diversity and avoid privileging those that have access. 

Claire Luzia Leifert (on the experience of DGAP on adjusting to the COVID-19 crisis and trying to learn from it):

  • Think about the needs of your audiences: recognise that what they were working on before might have changed. What do they need from you now and how do they want to communicate with you?
  • For their mid-year review (which had to take place online), they opened with a guiding question: How has COVID-19 changed the conditions and impact of our work? To answer this, they used a collective reflection process.
  • What did they learn from a three-hour strategy workshop with 50+ people online? 
    • Not everyone is a digital native, so acknowledge this and be empathetic.
    • Make people feel comfortable with the tech. Use it during preparation, do a briefing call, prepare a tech info sheet.
    • Build distributed ownership for process and outcome in the organisation. Let people from all departments sign up for different roles in the workshop.
    • Find a co-facilitator. It’s easier and more fun- for you and the participants. 
    • Enable self-organised cross-departmental exchange. 
  • On adapting impact tactics during COVID-19 they’ve learned that:
    • Purpose: learning despite and from the crisis
    • Ask your target group:how have their environment and needs changed?
    • Review your theory of change (see it as a living document!)
    • Set priorities: what can be achieved under these new circumstances?

Hans Gutbrod then joined the discussion:

  • It’s useful to think about how other organisations think about quality in other sectors. We broadly understand what has happened, but from what he reads on think tank papers, the mistakes are always the same ones. These are easily avoidable: it’s researchers who think through a deductive structure mentally and then push that deductive structure out onto an audience which ideally should include ministers or deputy ministers, and they’re never going to read this thing… Because it was a blog post that was extended into a paper. 
  • This is about really understanding quality control: we know what works and it is constant iteration cycles. 
  • First thing to ask is what is the lessons learned process- one that is truly inclusive and led by the head or lead acknowledging their own mistakes. This way, learning has to be broken down into the normal work-flow. 

From the chatbox!

Poll results:

For learning in your organisation, are you doing “lessons learned” reviews after every (research) project?

  • (37.5%) Not yet
  • (56.3%) Sometimes
  • (0.0%) Yes, often
  • (6.3%) Yes, always

In terms of organisational learning, COVID-19 has:

  • 1 (5.9%) Not changed much
  • 7 (41.2%) Reduced opportunities to reflect about our work
  • 9 (52.9%) Allowed us to reflect about our work and its impact

Resources shared by participants:

  • for virtual workshops
  • Menti as a mobile app for voting (the 2×2 matrix voting feature on is great)
  • for auto-transcription
  • Thinking pairs
  • Learning questions

Key questions from participants:

  • You have described how you adapted your internal formats, what about external formats? Did you shift your policy advice from group meetings/formats to bi-laterals?
  • There’s an interesting tension in a crisis where learning and reflecting becomes almost more essential in organisations. But there is often an even greater lack of time to dedicate to this, when people are trying to practically respond to the crisis itself. Any innovative suggestions on how to overcome this challenge?

Do you want to join the community of practice on Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning for think tanks? Drop us an email!

Parallel 6
Discrimination in think tanks

Facilitator: Ajoy Datta (On Think Tanks)

Key takeaways:

People who are visibly different from the majority in a group tend to draw the group’s attention, which can have several different effects. One of these is to disproportionately be on the receiving end of passive and active (and often subtle) acts of aggression (especially if they are seen as having less power/authority). This might range from receiving jibes, having proposals and suggestions met with bewilderment and hostility, having authority undermined, through to being passed over for promotion, being paid less than people with comparable experience/knowhow as well as suffering from constructive dismissal.

Is the reason for this treatment some sort of discrimination? It’s  hard to know the reasons for such treatment, especially when those who are experiencing this are somewhat isolated. Organisations can be traumatic places, whoever you are and all of us by virtue of being human can be pretty difficult at times. In organisations, early attachment patterns with parents or early care givers can play out. We can find ourselves replicating family dynamics and relational patterns – as families are usually the first ‘group’ we are a part of. This dynamic is known as transference. Moreover, someone from a minority group may well have views and perspectives that differ from those from the majority group. Minority views are not often listened to and embraced but met with intense feelings such as anger. 

But from a psychological perspective, people often find it socially acceptable to project difficult feelings  onto an ‘out group’, a marginalised group.  It’s more socially acceptable to do so. They’re seen as weaker and less likely to come back and are likely to have fewer allies to lean on. They might be women, in a male dominated environment, people of colour in a mainly white environment. There’s often no clear way of telling that this is happening and whether this is to do with race, class gender, or other forms of identity (both visible or invisible). Sometimes it is hard to disentangle one form of discrimination from another. And when those who are experiencing this do call out such treatment, they may well be ‘gaslighted’.  For people who are discriminated against, this ultimately takes its toll leading to trauma and suffering. 

People talk about the need to gather robust evidence before we can have a discussion about how big a problem this is and what we can do about. But this sort of evidence is very hard to gather on an issue such as this (partly due to denial). At the same time,  we  tend to give privilege to certain types of evidence – quantitative data, published in peer reviewed academic journals, but less to stories. Stories/testimonies provide a more bottom up, personal perspective, which can accommodate contradictions and are sensitive to context. OTT aims to collect stories of think tankers from around the world who have experienced or are experiencing some form of discrimination in a bid to raise awareness.

Issues that emerged during the discussion included:

  • Some think tankers often inflict suffering on others unconsciously
  • The lack of role models to inspire younger BAME groups (or people of colour) to consider a career in a think tank
  • The continued prevalence of racial stereotypes that dominate many people’s thinking which prevent BAME groups from being hired and promoted
  • Think tanks tend to draw from elite universities which are themselves often shaped by racial hierarchies
  • Think Tanks often put on a good impression to external audiences but internally can be traumatic places to work
  • There’s often no safe space within the life of a think tank for people who are experiencing discrimination to share their difficulties. Pubs and sports teams might be seen as informal safe spaces, but they can also be exclusionary. Open plan offices can prevent people from having private conversations. Digital spaces may have created spaces for these sorts of conversations to take place
  • Think tank managers need to muster the courage and allocate resources to carve out space in daily routines to bring people together and bring to the surface the trauma and discrimination people are experiencing. 
  • Think tank managers may not have the capacity to conduct a good hiring process that results in diverse candidates. 

From the chatbox!

Poll results:

Is there a discrimination problem in think tanks?

  • (72.7%) Yes
  • (27.3%) No

Resource shared by participants: