Six lessons from think tanks influencing and informing elections

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

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

Attempts to set up a presidential candidate debate during Argentina’s 2011 elections failed, with those candidates leading the polls refusing to join.

But, in 2015 there was a different political climate: President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner would not be permitted another re-election. A handover of power was certain and there was no clear front winner. The political campaigns were highly polarised, creating an appetite for public debate.

A coalition, led by Argentine think tank CIPPEC, set out to achieve the country’s first presidential debate. In doing so, it hoped to lay the foundations to institutionalise the event and promote a culture of open dialogue in Argentina.

CIPPEC had led the 2011 debate efforts, and so this time it was equipped with lessons learned, stronger alliances and political presence, and a favourable political environment.

The campaign united individuals and institutions in support of public debate. Together, they managed to instil the understanding that the debate was important for Argentina’s democracy. And once the public began to demand the debate, the political costs of not taking part rose.

On 4 October 2015, the first presidential debate in the history of the country was broadcast live on Argentinian television with all presidential candidates present.

This story from Argentina, illustrates just one of the ways that think tanks can – and do – support evidence-informed elections.

There are many examples of think tank initiatives around the world seeking to influence and inform elections. They range in ambition and scale, engaging at different levels and stages of the election process to promote public debate, inform the public and increase  public engagement, and bring evidence into the political debate.

Democratic elections facilitate the exchange of ideas in a country and are an important moment for public engagement in political processes. This means that elections are an important moment for think tanks. Elections are a think tank’s chance to influence and inform – to step forward as the link between policy, evidence and the public.

OTT and Grupo FARO developed a series of good practice case studies and practical tools on think tanks working to inform and influence elections processes in their countries.

Here are six big-picture lessons to come out of all the stories we’ve collected:

  1. You can’t do it aloneWith very few exceptions, strong partnerships play a big role in successful think tank election initiatives. Including partnerships between civil society organisations, government, private sector, academic and media organisations.Each of these players can contribute different skills and influence. For example, universities introduce an element of neutrality; media partnerships can help reach large numbers of people and increase public scrutiny; and state partnerships can help increase project legitimacy.
  2. Invest in smart communicationsIn all the stories we heard, either investing in communications was a success factor, or the need to invest more was a lesson learned. Whether you’re targeting political parties, the public or journalists, spending time and money to make your messages and products relevant and accessible is a must. Quality infographics, videos and media-broadcast are all good ways to cut through the noise. Some organisations brought on board third-party communications or social media experts to build successful campaigns. Digital tools and applications have also become increasingly popular – and effective – in communicating with voters.
  3. Build political incentives and costsPoliticians will not join in public debates or speak openly and honestly about their plans and what is feasible unless there are political incentives to do so, and political costs for not doing so. Fact-checking can be a powerful tool to hold politicians to account for what they say. Partnering with the media has proved to be a successful strategy to reach the public and increase political incentives for open and honest dialogue.
  4. Political timing is everythingIt’s important to plan your project according to the election timeline. The year before the election is the best time to start engaging political parties. By election year, campaigns are already locked into agendas and manifestos, leaving little room for dialogue.When engaging the public, wait until the election year – any earlier and there’s  little interest. In the days leading up to the election, voters are looking for information. One think tank in Ecuador capitalised on this, via a partnership with Facebook, to reach 9.5 million accounts.
  5. Pay attention to the external environmentExternal factors will also play a big role in how the project unfolds. For example, in the Argentina debate story, attempts to set up the first presidential debate failed in one election, with the two leading candidates pulling out, but succeeded in the next, in part because of a different political context.
  6. Failure is a stepping stone to success
    Again, the story from Argentina is a good example of this. While the project failed to achieve the debate in 2011, it learned important lessons, built stronger political presence and relationships and strengthened its institutional partnerships. These elements helped the project to succeed the following election. In fact, some of the most interesting stories, and most valuable lessons, come from the organisations and initiatives that have been working on elections for many years.

This article was adapted from the full collection of stories and practical advice in Think tanks: why and how to support elections, edited by Leandro Echt and Louise Ball.