Our Policy Engagement and Communications (PEC) Program: On the importance of flexibility

3 March 2014

[Editor’s note: This blog has been written by Julie LaFrance, Senior Program Specialist, Think Tank Initiative (TTI), IDRC. It constitutes an important attempt to learn about capacity development efforts.]

For nearly five years now, the Think Tank Initiative (TTI) has supported 48 institutions in Africa, Latin America and South Asia through a model of core funding, capacity building, and shared learning. This past year we launched our Policy Engagement and Communications (PEC program, which aims to support capacity development and shared learning through a mentorship model. TTI-funded think tanks receive customized capacity development support from facilitators, as well as a chance to join a community of practice to share experiences, learn together, and ultimately improve how they communicate their research.

As we’ll soon be heading into TTI’s second phase, we’re reflecting on the program’s successes and challenges, as well as how to move forward with our capacity development programming. We’ve learned a great deal since we rolled PEC out nearly a year ago, and many of these important lessons relate to flexibility. Here are just a few examples:

  • Adapting to regional and institutional needs: When we first developed the program, we intended for it to be consistent across our three regions. However, we quickly realized that regionally tailored programming was the way to go. Despite the challenges of moving away from a centralized approach, we now work with multiple coordinating organizations in order to deliver support that is better suited to regional needs: Niyel in Francophone Africa; Comms Consult / Results for Development (R4D) in Anglophone Africa; and Institute of Development Studies (IDS) / Practical Action Consulting in both South Asia and Latin America. We also recognize that mentorship must be highly individualized in order to effectively meet the needs of each organization.
  • Pairing institutions with the right facilitators: Facilitators were pre-selected into the PEC program based on the right blend of skills: awareness of the context; expertise in PEC methods, approaches and tactics; and softer skills such as negotiation, listening, and flexibility. While the delicate balance of this relationship flourished in most cases, a few think tanks expressed concerns about their respective facilitators. In many countries think tanks function within a small community; some think tank Executive Directors knew their facilitators from past engagements and had not always experienced positive interactions. Where appropriate we adjusted the model to meet these different needs. In one case, a South Asian think tank received interim support from the IDS team when it expressed concerns about its assigned facilitator. In another, a Latin American think tank was already working with a reputable consultant to support its strategic planning process and did not wish to start a fresh relationship with a new facilitator. This facilitator joined the PEC facilitation team and, based on her extensive experience supporting policy research institutions in the region, is now playing a larger contributing role in the PEC Latin America program. Through these experiences, we recognize that facilitator-think tank relationships, while crucial to the success of the capacity strengthening venture, take time to build. In this spirit, we have been open to embracing existing relationships and this is something we’ll reflect on as we move into Phase 2.
  • Adapting survey approaches: For the initial diagnostic step in the PEC program, all regional coordination teams started off with the same set of survey questions. These were intended to serve as a baseline and needs assessment for the program and to inform each institution’s PEC workplan. After receiving only partial data in response to the survey, the PEC Francophone Africa team shifted its approach to a more informal dialogue on each institution’s needs assessment, while the Anglophone Africa team customized the survey to various audiences within each think tank. In Latin America, IDS / PAC faced resistance from think tanks who expressed concerns about the purpose of the survey. As a result, the regional coordination team made a decision to adjust the diagnostic step to a light touch needs assessment based on conversation rather than an exhaustive survey, and eventually did the same in South Asia. A key reflection is that a flexible approach, incorporating surveys, interviews, discussions, and other methods as needed might prove more fruitful.

Through these examples and many more, we’re constantly reminded of the importance of being flexible and adapting our program as we receive feedback from TTI-funded institutions. Think tanks are in the best position to determine and define their own capacity development needs, and it’s our responsibility to listen to their feedback and adjust our approach accordingly. While this may not always be the quickest or easiest way to provide support, we’re committed to learning and adapting our approach as we go and we plan to keep documenting what we’re learning.