Seven things an Abuja based think tank can learn from D.C. think tanks

3 September 2017

As the Executive Director of a leading think tank in Nigeria, a key aspect of my responsibility is to develop strong networks with other think tanks in the region and beyond. In June 2017, I embarked on a journey to Washington D.C. where most of the big and reputable think tanks are based, with the aim of building new networks with them, and also understand how they operate.

In this note I present a summary of my key observations from engagements with the staff of some of the major think tanks in D.C.. My brief enquiry was focused on strategic orientation, research approach, and communications strategy.

1. Research institutions play a key role in the entire policymaking process

The US government regularly engages with research institutions to discuss policy formulation, design, implementation, and evaluation. Some major think tanks have substantial government funding, and they conduct research on areas of national interest – a key aspect of maintaining economic and political hegemony. Other  non-governmental think tanks receive substantial amount of grants from foundations, donors, and development partners and are relied upon for independent and objective perspectives on policy relevant issues.

In both cases, you find elaborate buildings, well-staffed organisations, elite and engaged staff in think tanks and other research institutions.

In clear contrast, think tanks in Nigeria are generally struggling for recognition and involvement in the policy space. Both the government and non-government think tanks and research institutions are struggling to stay financially afloat. With a huge plunge in crude oil prices, and the attendant decrease in government revenue, research funding has been hugely affected. Similarly, the non-governmental thinks tanks remain financially constrained, as their lack of policy impact continues to present limited justification for substantial funding.

The culture of engaging think tanks in the policy decisions is still at a developing stage, as policymaking are mostly driven by political and ideological considerations, leaving limited space for evidence.

Thus many research institutes and think tanks have unimpressive buildings/office space, operate in silos, under-staffed, and are in constant battle for funding.

2. D.C. based think tanks are a lot more specialised

Think tanks in DC are quite specialised, with specific programme/research areas. Thus some are focused on economic development, while some center on peace-building and security, among other areas. This is likely driven by the policy and research landscape which provides substantial activities and traction in the selected areas of their specialisation. Given that the US is a super power with very dynamic sectors and diverse issues that require critical knowledge creation and deliberation among various stakeholder, the research institutions are quite specialised as the scale of activities provides the adequate spaces.

In Abuja, and most of Nigeria, the non-governmental think tanks are more flexible as they struggle to be relevant and sustainable in an environment of low appetite for evidence. Specialisation by think tanks in Nigeria tends to limit the issues they can work on, and could render them relatively inactive. Thus they tend to accept and grapple with issues presented to them by donors/funders

3. There is deep knowledge about the policy process and activities of policymakers among D.C. think tanks

Staff mobility between the policy space and think tanks in DC allow for good knowledge about the policy process and activities, as well as substantial level of interaction among them. Some staff that have worked within Capitol Hill move to the think tanks and apply their knowledge of the policy environment in their research.

Knowledge of the policy landscape allows them to effectively track policy developments and connect their  research agendas with them, and thus respond to opportunities in a timely manner. D.C. think tanks are able to follow the updates on hearings in the Congress, policy discussions in various government bodies, and other relevant activities in the policy environment.

In Nigeria, movement of labour from the policy space to think tanks is scarce, which leaves the centres in constant struggle to understand the workings of the policy environment. Access to the discussions in the policy environment is generally limited both to think tanks and the public.

4. Approach to research at D.C. think tanks is issue-based

The approach to research seem to follow the following process:

  1. First they generate ideas on an ongoing policy issue;
  2. Next they look out for the policy levers, and
  3. Then build activities around the levers.

Thus the activities could be policy dialogues, setting up working groups, conducting research, among other options. The crux of their research agenda is that it is driven by the issue, which determines the levers and activities chosen to align with the objective.

This is considerably different to the strategy of think tanks in Nigeria, which tend to approach most issues with the same type of activities. Think tanks in Nigeria seems to work in the reverse order – they decide to carry out research on a relevant issue based on their own capacity and then attempt to impose policy relevance onto it.

5. There is wide diversity and revisions of publications

The issue-based approach tends to generate a wide variety of publications that are fitted for the purpose. The activities generated to respond to issues yield publications that are suited to the target audience and stakeholders involved. Thus there are working group reports, books, working papers, policy briefs, speeches, testimonies, discussion papers, among several others.+ For each publication, there are usually revisions aligned to the target audience and the central point of the research usually appears as a tweet in their twitter handle.

For Nigeria, while there are considerable variety of publications, they are not well-aligned to the target audience. Also, there seems to be a preponderance of lengthy and “traditional style” academic paper writing format which suits only a very limited audience.

6. Grant applications are structured and institutionalised in D.C. think tanks

D.C. think tanks have a well-instituted grant applications team with specialised skills. The team monitors the donor community and keep track of their areas of interest and events. Importantly, the team is responsible to transmitting the ideas of the research team into grant applications which comprises of well laid out activities and budget. The team usually comprises of staff with very good writing skills and an ability to take different pieces of ideas from the research team and put them as a document.

In Nigeria, grant applications are usually done by the researchers themselves and the budgeting part by the finance personnel. Thus they struggle with the responsibility of generating ideas and writing them as convincing grant applications.

7. D.C. think tanks have a robust communications strategy

Think tanks in D.C. apply creativity and innovation to their communications strategy. A key feature of their strategy is that they monitor their audience and periodically adjust their content to their demands or preferences. Thus they monitor the type, style, and length of their content that stimulates more readership among their audiences, and adjust their communication strategy to suit them. Shorter pieces have been identified as more attractive in the policy environment and they adapt their publications in a manner that distills and not dilute the information. Modern approaches to communication such as the use of podcasts are employed.

In Nigeria, the communications strategy is not well-aligned to the target audience and the usual traditional challenges are dominant. Social media has not been adequately exploited as a communication channel for research, despite the reputation that Nigeria has a very vibrant social media landscape.

How is this relevant to Nigeria?

While the essence of pointing out the disparities and gaps between D.C. and Nigeria based think thanks is to consider aspects that could be adopted or emulated, there are fundamental constraints that would potentially impose limitations.

First is the level of funding and scale of operation. Think tanks in Nigeria do not have the necessary financial strength to adopt the attributes of D.C. think tanks and their small-medium scale of operation would not allow effective specialization and innovation.

Similarly, the culture of evidence-based policy making is still at the developing stages and thus the demand or appetite for the outputs of think tanks is still rather weak. Thus think tanks in the region are in a continuous struggle for relevant and visibility.

Lastly, Nigerian think tanks have not really gained the confidence of the donor community, as there are still huge gaps in research quality and organisational governance. Most grants on projects focused on Nigeria are channeled to Northern based research organisations and the best the local think tanks can get seems to be a local partner with the former as the lead.