Setting up a think tank: lessons from Timor-Leste (Part 3: what is the best model?)

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

It depends … on the local context. That’s where we started our work (and this article): with the research, evidence and policy environment in Timor-Leste.

In the Timorese context, our conclusion, based on wider international experience and our understanding of the local context was that creating a new institution with a large number of research staff would be unwise, at least for two reasons. First, identifying and recruiting highly qualified researchers was likely to be difficult: such researchers were scarce and were highly sought after by the government, which offers high salaries. The second reason was that an institute with a large number of (potentially expensive) staff would be difficult to fund in the longer term, especially in light of the possibility of key donors reducing their commitments to or even withdraw from Timor-Leste.

A sensible first step seemed to be a “lightweight” institution that avoided hiring large numbers of full-time research staff, but relied instead on a “research fund”, i.e. a pool of financial resources that could be used to commission policy analysis as needed.

This lightweight model seemed to offer a good starting point for a think tank and the basis for its operation for the first few years. Over time there are several directions in which such an institution might evolve: the lightweight structure may well prove sufficient to generate all the policy research and analysis that a country needs (and can absorb). But the initial experiences may suggest the need for an institution that has access to at least some full-time research staff: in this case the institution can consider incremental expansion, provided it can demonstrate that there is uptake for its research and analysis by the government, that staff with the necessary expertise can be recruited, and secure funding is available.

Our recommendation for Timor-Leste was therefore that the institute should begin at the network end of the continuum, with a director, a small secretariat of administrative staff, and a pool of funds to commission research by Timorese or international researchers. The research topics would be selected based on discussions within the Policy Leaders Group, whose meetings and activities would be organized by the secretariat.

The recommendation was clear, but was qualified in two ways:

  1. Even though the new institute should begin at this end of the continuum, it should not necessarily remain there: even a small country such as Timor Leste should not rely on external expertise to inform its policy debates: it can and must develop local capacity. After all, that is one of the more important contributions that a think tank can make to promote more evidence-informed public policies in a country.
  2. The success of the network model very much depended on whether the director (or other senior management) has experience of commissioning policy research (e.g. the skills to frame a policy research project and set its terms of reference), as well as extensive contacts in the academic and policy research communities, in order to recruit from the network. If the director had a background in research, this would not be a serious concern, but if instead the director had a different background (say in the policy community), then it was important that there be a strong and active advisory group to assist the director in identifying suitable experts, especially those based outside the country.