Public engagement: three considerations for think tanks

9 December 2019
SERIES Ideas, reflections and advice from future think tank leaders 17 items

How does your think tank visualise ‘the public’? Is it an amorphous sea of faces, where you know they are there but you can’t make out any defining features – much like the familiar silhouette of a graphic novel?

Public engagement has become somewhat of a think tank buzz word. But to what extent have think tanks really pondered who their ‘public’ is? Does their vision of the public represent all the people they want to reach? How can they de-mystify their work, and really engage the public in meaningful ways? These are difficult but important questions for think tanks that seek solutions to bring about change on the ground.

Over the last seven months, On Think Tanks has explored the topic of think tanks and public engagement through a range of article and interviews.+ This article draws on my own experience as Programme Manager of Policy Engagement and Communications, with the Public Affairs Centre in India, to explore three important considerations.

1. Defining ‘the public’

In my experience, think tanks need to dig deeper and wider to find their version of the public. There are communities within communities, and these sub-groups are the microcosms of what makes communities tick and holds them together.

Essentially, if think tanks don’t carefully define its public for research, how can they craft the right messaging or use the right communication channels?

For a country like India, our concept of ‘the public’ is often very one-dimensional. It tends to be viewed as a group, community or communities that are naturally male-led.

In conceptualising our public, can think tanks look across the larger community spectrum to ensure that their definition represents women, the disabled, the elderly, sexual minorities and marginalised groups, among others?

Of course, full representation may not be logistically or fiscally feasible. But what’s important is for think tanks to identify who it needs to reach, to be inclusive and open.

In the Public Affairs Centre (PAC), we placed emphasis on understanding citizens from the outset, through our Citizen Report Card (CRC). CRC is a simple but powerful tool to provide public agencies with systematic feedback from the users of public services. This provides a basis for dialogue and engagement between communities, civil society organisations and local governments on public service delivery.

2. Demystify think tanks

In the past think tanks have seen themselves as being somewhat intellectually superior to the public, and made no attempt to make their research understood. Public engagement, therefore, tended to be rather transactional and one-directional: disseminating research findings.

Increasingly, think tanks are positioning themselves as mediators between the public and policymakers. In order to do this, think tanks must demystify their work. This requires making a conscious effort to ‘de-jargonise’ research, so that it is accessible to the pubic (non-specialists).

Some of the ways we work to do this in PAC are: communicating our research to community members (with whom we work) through special Gram Sabhas (community forums) and through our local/community-based partners. Our community-based partners are our eyes and ears on the ground, keeping us in touch with the communities for whom and with which we’re working.

3. Involving the public

Increasingly, discussions around think tank public engagement recognise that it’s not all about disseminating findings (the public functioning as just passive recipients), but rather involving the public within the scope of the research, looking at them as co-curators within the ambit of the knowledge generation.

Do think tanks have a larger role to play in making research and recommendation-generating processes more inclusive, and therefore representative?

If the public is non-specialist in a topic, how far will, or should, a think tank go in building knowledge among the public on a particular issue? And what sort of investment (time and money) would it take to sustain this?

In the PAC, we’re working hard to contextualise and tailor our engagement work to the individual communities we’re working with. Take, for example, a recent rural sanitation project in two Indian states: in one state the community was already invested in the importance of toilets, so our engagement work centred around improving the understanding of technical and maintenance matters. We worked to demystify this process using wall paintings, which received a great community response. In the second state the focus was on creating awareness around, and support for, toilets. Quite organically, women from the communities joined our awareness campaign, becoming our foot soldiers of change, leading to 12 additional villages being declared Open Defecation Free villages.

Think tanks have to evolve with the times. They play an important role as contributors of evidence-based research. It is vital that they stay relevant and find allies amongst the public, and this calls for constant engagement with community citizens.