Policy analysis and influence: researchers or communicators?

26 April 2011

One of the most common concerns of many think tanks these days has to do with how to staff their communication teams. Some think tanks, under the influence of donors like DFID who are going through what could be called a self-doubting phase, are facing an even greater challenge.

I think that one solution might be right under our noses. Up until now we have been thinking about either a complete separation of roles (communicators do communication and researchers do research) or getting researchers to do both research and communications.

But never have I been asked about the obvious missing option: that communication teams could do research, too -or at least analysis.

Last week I shared a coffee with a former colleague, Hans Rothgiesser, who is now working for Perú Económico, but was telling me of his time at the Instituto Peruano de Economía. The IPE is what could be called a political think tank –funded and promoted by people from a particular ideological perspective with clear political interests.

Anyway, IPE is not the subject of this blog (maybe some other time). Rather, Hans described an interesting alternative to the traditional role often awarded to communication teams in many think tanks across the developing world. I might have embellished a bit in the process of writing -I am sure that it I not as easy as I have tried to make it sound.

Hans’ team, when he was in charge of communications there, was not just busy formatting papers and publishing reports on the website. Rather they constituted what I have interpreted as a mini think tank within IPE that was charged with:

  • Monitoring key opinion columns, blogs, newspaper sites, think tanks, and other influential opinion makers to attempt to predict when a few core themes or policy issues of interest to the think tank would become hot topics;
  • Monitoring information sources outside the think tank –the pages of the World Bank, other reputable think tanks, journals, etc.- in search for evidence and data that may be useful if and when they had to respond to these hot topics (this was also done to make sure that the sources used were not always the same ones);
  • And they would also keep their own databases (of databases) up to date and undertake their own analysis to explore interesting correlations, identify new lines of arguments, correct evidence presented by ‘competing’ think tanks, etc.

The researchers at the think tank were not completely delinked from all of this but they were not expected to engage on an on-going basis –after all, they were working on different timeframes. Their efforts were focused on medium to long-term research projects that demanded attention and therefore commenting on daily events would have distracted them. This is something I have read about Brookings, too.

In this way, working in close coordination with the director, who himself had an eye for politics and the media, Hans and his team could plan and prepare responses (often pre-empting the zeitgeist) for maximum impact.

This constant monitoring and analysis paid off. How much? According to Hans, Felipe Ortiz de Zevallos (FOZ, the founder of the Grupo Apoyo, quite the celebrity among Peruvian intellectuals and a Latin American think tank pioneer) had told him a few years ago when he was working for him, that:

If you get 1 out of 5 right then you must be brilliant. If you get them all right it’s probably because you are not being ambitious enough.

So a few hits were ‘pretty good’.

Many think tanks’ communication teams already monitor the media –although their focus tends to be on mentions of their think tank rather than of key policy issues. But few, if any, have the mandate to respond with their own analysis. Instead, they have to call on the researchers and wait for their attention.

This, in my own experience, can be too slow, and have the undesired effect of distracting researchers from the serious business of proper research -transforming them instead into popular but rather shallow bloggers and twitters.

So this is the innovation that I think is worth considering: Communication teams with staff educated and experienced in both a policy related profession (e.g. economics, politics, public health, education, trade, science –whatever the think tank focuses on) and a communications related one (e.g. journalism). Of course, I recognise that there are not many economists with a degree in journalism running around –but there are a few. And my feeling is that they may be more expensive but they are also likely to be far more value for money than a team of pure communicators who, as good communicators as they may be, do not have the skills to undertake robust analysis and engage in a public debate on the content of policies.

Many organisations have these staff already: these are the prolific analysts who spend more time out and about in events and in meetings with journalists than involved in medium to long term studies. Why not give them a more appropriate role? Other think tanks could take competent communicators and develop their content knowledge and confidence.

Here are three organisational options to consider:

  1. A head of policy and communication (with policy/research and communication backgrounds) and a team of you communicators and analysts.
  2. A head of policy and communication (with a stronger communication background) and a team of more senior analysts and younger communicators.
  3. A head of policy and communication (with a stronger policy background) and a team of more senior communicators and younger analysts.

The other innovation that this approach presents is partially delinking the short and long term policy influencing functions of the think tank. This model recognises that research and policy operate in two different timeframes (and cycles) and works with it, rather than against it.

In it then, the research team works away on medium to long term projects to address more fundamental policy problems –and even more fundamental questions of justice, freedom, development, etc. Researchers provide the backbone of the think tank and their research constitute an inter-temporal vehicle through which the organisation ensures its relevance in the future. In other words, the research agenda’s value is in what it promises to respond.

The policy and communication team, on the other hand, is focused on the short-term: on today. They are in charge of keeping the media and policymakers’ interest and attention on the think tank –even when no new studies have been published.

A great partnership if it works.