Setting up a think tank: lessons from Timor-Leste (Part 2: alternative institutional structures)

19 February 2018
SERIES Setting up a think tank in Timor-Leste

The first article in this series highlighted some aspects of the local context that were important in designing a new think tank for Timor-Leste. The balance between “in house” and “external” expertise seemed particularly important for Timor-Leste, but the strengths and weaknesses of each option are also likely to be important for any effort to setup a new think tank, especially in small countries with limited research capacity.

The “in house” model for a think tank involves permanently employed research staff (in addition to its administrative, financial and communications staff).

The “In-house” Option: Strengths and Weaknesses

Potential Strengths Possible Weaknesses
Work of in house researchers perceived as more legitimate

Researchers have more opportunities to influence policy

Potential for interdisciplinarity

Researchers more committed to the success of the institution

Helps build local capacity

Requires highly qualified staff

Delays in recruiting and training staff

Bureaucratic rigidity

Financial sustainability is more challenging

Need for funding to meet high fixed costs reduces institution’s ability to respond to local policy priorities

Perceptions of partisanship

Let’s explore the strengths and weaknesses of this model, based on the experiences of think tanks in other countries (in the region and elsewhere).

As we said in our first article, the availability of human capital matters when setting up a think tanks. Thus, a first challenge of this model in a small country is that staffing the think tank with highly qualified researchers may be an issue: good policy analysts are likely to be scarce and highly sought after by the government and private sector, which can offer generous salaries.

But this model also comes with advantages. For instance, policy research carried out by local researchers may have more legitimacy among policy makers. They may believe, for example, that local researchers are in a better position to take into account the local context in their analysis and recommendations. Also, as a practical matter, in house research staff are more readily available to pursue influencing actions. Since they are employed by the think tank they are in principle available to build relationships with policy makers, and to identify emerging policy issues and opportunities.

But on the other hand, in house staff may contribute to perceptions of partisanship and bias, especially in highly politicised environments. Research staff will naturally have an interest in policy issues and think tanks in other countries have on occasion been perceived as aligned with a particular party or its positions. This creates a risk that the think tank as a whole will be perceived as having a partisan bias, which might reduce its credibility (though our interviews did not suggest that this has been the case with the PLG). Moreover, finding the funds to support an institution with a large number of highly trained (and possibly expensive) staff may create financial pressures that may push the institution to work on issues that reflect the priorities of funders instead of responding to a locally driven research agenda.

International experience suggests some other important advantages from bringing together a group of researchers “under one roof”. The in house option offers opportunities for interactions and discussions among the research staff: this might, for example, encourage a more interdisciplinary and problem oriented approach to policy issues. In addition, if the think tank manages its human resources well, motivating its researchers and offering them good career prospects these researchers may be more committed to the long term success of the institution than external experts engaged on short term contracts. If the number of research staff grows over time, there is a risk that the think tank may become more formal and bureaucratic in its procedures and loose the flexibility to respond to emerging policy issues on which its researchers do not have experience.

The in house model also contributes to broader goals beyond the organisation itself: providing the local staff with opportunities to carry out policy research contributes to a long-term goal of building national research capacity. Recruiting and training the staff can, however, be a lengthy and time-consuming process, and this may well reduce the number of research outputs the think tank can deliver in its initial stages.

From the point of view of sustainability, a think tank with a large number of research staff may be more difficult to fund in the longer term, especially in countries where external donors are reducing their commitments and local sources of support (e.g. philanthropy) have not yet emerged.

In the “network model”, rather than relying on research staff that it employs on a permanent basis, the institution makes use of external experts who are contracted to produce specified outputs. Ideally these experts would be based at local universities, but if this is not possible, then recruited from outside the country.

The “Network” Option: Strengths and Weaknesses

Potential Strengths Possible Weaknesses
Coverage of issues

Financial sustainability


Capacity Building


Reduced political legitimacy

Difficulties in building relationships with policymakers


Ensuring High-Quality Outputs

Local Capacity Building

In this case, international experience suggests that the legitimacy of the think tank in the eyes of the policy community may be an issue: research and analysis produced by “external” (especially foreign) experts may lack political legitimacy, thus limiting its influence on policy. This gap will need to be offset by a greater involvement of the Executive Director and Board members in building strong relationships with policy makers via sustained interactions.

On the other hand, think tanks working as networks are able to cover a wider range of policy issues when local human capital is scarce, by drawing on a wider pool of expertise beyond the staff of the think tank itself. At the same time, the institute may be able to produce outputs in more timely fashion, which is particularly important for issues that arise unpredictably and / or must be completed in a very short period of time. It may be possible (at least in principle) to identify and engage external experts who already have experience in the relevant topic, while in house research staff may need time to familiarise themselves if the topic lies outside their field of expertise.

Experience in other countries suggests three additional challenges related to not having staff who are full time employees. First, managing projects carried out by outside experts means that a contract must be agreed before any outputs can be produced, and this can cause delays. Also, monitoring remote work can also be difficult, both in general and in Timor-Leste, where connectivity can still be problematic. Second, care has to be taken to ensure quality control in the selection of the experts and in the outputs they deliver. An active “advisory group” is needed to ensure that the right experts are engaged for each project. Third, externally based researchers or consultants might not be able to participate in the meetings and events needed to ensure that the research outputs influence policy. Important meetings with senior policy-makers are often arranged at short notice, and those based outside the country may find it difficult to participate. Video conferencing may help address this issue, but the think tank’s senior management need to play a particularly active role in presenting and “selling” the research outputs generated by outside experts

The network model also facilitates building partnerships and links with academic institutions that provide the expertise. If these are local institutions, such linkages can make academic life more attractive and help build research capacity within the country. But if partnerships with local institutions are limited and the think tank relies too heavily on “external” researchers and consultants, incentives to develop local capacity for policy research and analysis will be scarce and will constrain the think tank over the longer term.

From the point of view of sustainability, this model shows at least two strengths. On the one hand, it avoids the fixed costs of a large permanent research staff and so eases the problem of sustainability. On the other hand, it provides flexibility and allows the think tank to grow incrementally.

This analysis shows there are clearly advantages and disadvantages associated with each of these models, and as a result, few think tanks rely on only one or the other model: in practice they use external experts to strengthen the work of in house research staff on particular topics, and in some cases “buy in” expertise in areas on which they need to work, but where they have no experience.