Reflections on a decade of the Think Tank Initiative

5 March 2019
SERIES OTT Annual Review 2018: Public Engagement 18 items

[This article was originally published in the On Think Tanks 2018 Annual Review. ]

At the Think Tank Initiative (TTI), we just received the draft of our final evaluation report for Phase 2. Final evaluations are always exciting, if a little nerve wracking, as the team’s efforts are put under the microscope.+ I am not going to go into detail on the evaluation findings now (the final report will be publicly available for all soon) but I will draw upon it and other reflections from over the past year, including those generated at the TTI Exchange in Bangkok in November, to make a few observations on TTI’s past, what the future may hold for think tanks, and how this might relate to public engagement.

There is no such thing as stability

It seems obvious to say, but looking back over the decade since TTI was first conceived, there have been massive changes in the national and global contexts that TTI and its partner think tanks work in. On the donor side, the aid effectiveness agenda and the Global Partnership for Development days seem a long time ago. Within many national contexts, the space for civil society has shrunk and politics has become more polarised. Wars, civil strife and desperate economic prospects have led to significant increases in many types of migration. Of course, the last ten years was not all doom and gloom. Internationally, there was modest progress on climate change via the Paris Agreement and a new universal agenda via the SDG framework. Arguably there were also promising national political, social or economic developments in places as diverse as Ethiopia, Ghana, Peru and Bangladesh. However, overall, the contexts for the work that think tanks do and the issues they work on have become decidedly more complex. These changes created profound operational challenges for many think tanks, and demonstrated one value (among many) of the core support that TTI provided: a buffer against uncertainty.

Such turbulence is unlikely to cease. This will require think tanks to explore ever more creative approaches to maintaining independence and resilience. The organisational model of the past may not necessarily be the one that works in the future, especially where in some countries the space think tanks occupy is getting crowded with all manner of organisations working in public policy processes and systems. In this context, engaging with the public will be an imperative, to demonstrate social legitimacy, to ensure the relevance of research agendas and to help build alliances and change coalitions that increase the likelihood of impact in such circumstances.

Think tanks cannot thrive without an organisational vision and good leadership

When I look at the organisations I feel have made the best use of TTI support, and have done the most interesting things with it, I see that they have a strong mission and vision, and understand that they need to connect this vision with their business model and everything they do. All decisions – such as why to expand into a new research area, why to invest scarce resources and hire young PhDs, or why to expand communications and outreach capacity – were intentional. And these decisions fit within a deliberate and intentional process of organisational transformation. The intentionality of the effort, and the force to drive such a change process forward, benefited from strong leadership teams, both at the level of the board and senior management. Of course, certain national contexts made this kind of deliberate change process difficult for some organisations. But even in such circumstances, good leaders were able to articulate what value their organisations could offer, and were able to help their organisations survive.

Good leadership will continue to be important in the decade to come – perhaps even more so given increasing competition and disruption in the sector. No longer can it be assumed that being a good researcher means that you will be a good manager or leader. Those organisations that hope to do well will need to invest in transformational leadership, the kind that sees value in and possesses the ability to continually reflect on and ensure a match between the organisation’s vision and the way it operates. To paraphrase Anthony Boateng – who has helped many think tanks in Africa work through such a process – resilience organisations will have to stand for something in order to thrive.

In part, this will require an ability to tell your organisational story convincingly. We know change is complicated and non-linear (see for example reflections during Phase 1) and that a single research project won’t generate impact without all the organisation’s prior efforts to position itself, demonstrate credibility, cultivate networks and frame narratives. Taking a ‘leap of faith’ is no longer a convincing way to ask for money. There must be a convincing story that places your organisation at the centre, explains what the challenges you are working on are, what your organisation hopes to do about them and why, and how flexible support can help you get there. You also need to be able to explain what your organisation was able to do successfully in the past, why and how, capturing honestly all the messiness and complexity in the process.

Such storytelling should be considered part and parcel of public engagement more generally. Funders, especially bilateral ones, are sensitive to public perception, and through their governments and political masters are highly sensitive to notions of public accountability. They are also often involved in various forms of public engagement themselves. If think tanks can tell their story effectively, funders will be able to as well, which will make it easier to justify the investment to their political masters, boards or senior decision-makers investing in your organisation. Good organisational storytelling can thus be a critical dimension of organisational resilience.

Collaboration can yield benefits

TTI was set up to support national organisations working to improve policymaking at the national level. Yet, over the last decade, we saw amazing efforts amongst many think tanks to collaborate on many levels – from single projects, via regional or global meetings, and even through networks in the case of ILAIPP and Southern Voice. The rationale for these collaborations varied, as did the intensity of effort. In some cases, it was seen as a great way to learn from peers. In others, it was a way to contribute to sustainability and amplify policy influence: what could not be accomplished alone might be accomplished as a group. Some of these efforts have been successful in what they set out to do; others may have been too ambitious. All demonstrated that collaboration can generate value for the organisations involved.

This experience suggests that collaboration will continue to be a feature of future think tank work. The challenge of finding ways to cover the costs associated with collaboration will remain. Collaborations should likely be approached with caution, and any decision to collaborate undertaken with clear objectives identified and a solid analysis of whether the circumstances warrant it. A particularly interesting space to watch will be potential collaborations between think tanks and other kinds of civil society organisations. As citizens demand more and better ways of having their voices heard in policy processes, I wager that, in the decade to come, these kinds of public engagement will increasingly reflect notions of research excellence (in IDRC, this thinking has coalesced around our Research Quality Plus framework) and serve as important loci for driving development processes.

These are just a few of the many reflections I have coming out of TTI. Be sure to check our website regularly as we continue to roll out pieces over the coming months reflecting on insights and lessons from the past decade. It has been quite the journey for sure. But just because TTI is ending, does not mean the journey does too. There is still much work to do, and the world needs, now more than ever, the kinds of things good think tanks can provide if we are to achieve all that we collectively aspire to.