Supporting think tanks: Advice from the think tanks themselves

8 October 2012

Last week I spent a few days in Jakarta participating in a conference focused on think tanks. About 50 organisations that could be categorised as (but are not necessarily) think tanks met to discuss the sector, their strengths, and challenges. Most of the event took place in Indonesian and so I am limiting my comments to the presentations in English, what was translated, and to conversations with other participants.

The event tool place in the context of the AusAid funded Indonesia Knowledge Sector Initiative about which I have written before. There were a number of presentations that I think are worth sharing and I will do so as the videos and supporting material is made available by the organisers. In the meantime, let me share some of the ideas that emerged from the conversations I had. I should add, too, that most of this advice is not just targeted at the AusAid programme. Other similar initiatives could find this relevant as well.

Direct policy influence is not the only measure of success for a think tank

This was one of the main points I tried to make at the event. Think tanks are small players (ultimately policy decisions depend on others) and can make, for the most part, small contributions to policymaking. But these contributions can be made in many different ways, for example by:

  • Direct advice and implementation (easy)
  • Revolving door of staff
  • Formal and informal ‘training’ of future decision makers
  • Affecting the way individuals make decisions with new data or methods
  • Creating and maintaining spaces to reflect on issues of public interest and develop new relationships
  • Informing the public agenda via the media
  • Brokering linkages between decision makers and third parties

Focusing only on direct influence would greatly limit all that think tanks can do. And this is particularly important because direct influence is not always a good idea. First, because it may undermine the efforts to strengthen evidence informed policymaking (this is not the same as policy influence) and secondly, it may come about by undermining and weakening other institutions such as the media, political parties, NGOs, Universities, whose roles in society are far more important than those of think tanks.

The choice of approach and the objective of the approach taken should be based on a number of factors including the organisation’s nature (not all think tanks are equal) as well as the context in which they are working. Andrea Ordoñez’ blog on a paper we worked on together provides a food guide about what to do when:

  • Unstructured (when both knowledge and values are unclear): build capacities, make sense, explain the problem
  • Agreement on ends (values and norms): search for solutions
  • Agreement on means (knowledge): ask more fundamental questions
  • Structured: why not break the consensus?

Think tanks therefore should consider the following recommendations when thinking about influence:

  • By developing arguments and big ideas
  • …and look for battles ‘of ideas
  • By working with others
  • … but not for others
  • By not taking over the roles that belong to others
  • …or at least help them fulfill those roles
  • By leading in articulating the problem, learning and bringing the public along

Defining a think tank

Although there isn’t a single definition of think tanks it is worth trying to do so for initiatives as important as this one. It would be a shame if, for example, important organisations such as advocacy NGOs, grassroots support organisations, and others gave up on some of their core roles to mould themselves into the shape of the ‘idea’ of a think tank.

Not only would the programme find itself struggling to support organisations with the right mix of resources and mechanisms but Indonesian’ society would also suffer: think tanks are only one of many other important organisations; and they are certainly not more important. I have observed this ‘self-labeling effect’ happening as a result of the Think Tank Initiative and the Think Tank Fund.

To keep this from happening, initiatives should attempt to define ‘a think tank in Indonesia’ (or any other country) employing a flexible and functional approach (what are the functions of a think tank?) and drawing boundaries with other types of organisations. These boundaries should be constantly reviewed to make sure that the definition does not become outdated. For initiatives covering various countries and regions an effort must be made to avoid the temptation of having a single definition.

Balance between long-term support and excessive funding

A real and important risk of initiatives such as this is that their sheer size may have negative effects on the market of experts in Indonesia. The ‘supply’ component greatly focuses on supporting think tanks (although think tanks could also be thought of as intermediaries –more on this below) and it promises to do so with a combination of funding and in-kind interventions.

With so many organisations to support it is likely that the programme’s managers will try to find one or two mechanisms to fit all or most. A problem with this is that even organisations that fulfill the same functions can be extremely different from one another. For multi-country/region initiatives this is even more important.

Depending on the organisational culture of the managers and the way the programme is designed there is also a risk that funding will be provided in excess. I have seen this before mainly in Africa and in work I have been involved with organisations in low income countries such as Bolivia and Sri Lanka. The pressure to spend the money promised by the funder is translated into impossibly irrational and unsustainable fees and grants to think tanks which lack the capacity to spend them. Not surprisingly, their directors and researchers command salaries higher than those of their peers in the UK or in the US (in nominal terms), senior staff are often rewarded with ‘a company car’, school allowances for their children, etc. The quality of their work, however, leaves a lot to desire. And without the incentives to do any better, any ‘capacity development’ efforts, are unlikely to lead to any meaningful changes.

A consequence of this overfunding is that think tanks quickly become unsustainable. A relatively new think tank I worked with recently had started with a budget close to US$1 million. It had hired staff, rented facilities, etc. before any research had even been planned. With salaries well over US$100,000 for relatively unproductive junior researchers, what domestic funder would ever be willing to take on the post from its original funders? And how realistic could it be for foreign funders to keep up this level of support in the long term?

This overfunding is partly the consequence of blindly following the idea that the problem with developing countries is lack of money; in this case, that there is not enough money for independent think tanks to pay for good researchers. The problem is not money: the problem is that there are just not enough good researchers to go around and be shared between think tanks, universities, the government, the private sector, the media, etc.. A simple supply and demand analysis should tell these over-exited and rich funders (I am thinking of and ACBF and DFID for example although their northern based sub-contracting agents are also partly to blame) that more money would only lead to inflated salaries and few outputs. This is why I constantly argue for more funding to go to universities or think tanks in universities.

But a more immediate cause is the way in which funders tend to work: searching for quick solutions (they want a big think tank from day 1; rather than start small and build it up) and one-size fits all mechanisms (one type of grant, one type of training, etc.).

To avoid this, the initiative’s manager should make sure it is very careful about the absorptive capacity of the think tanks is will be supporting and that at no point in the programme its performance is assessed by its capacity to spend. Spending more should not be confused with doing more. And it should either include a component to strengthen universities or work with initiatives that are doing that already.

Management by people, not by results

I’ve recently heard that a project focusing on supporting think tanks and political debate that I worked on last year has gone to the call for proposals stage with four large consultancy firms in the running. Unlike other initiatives this is a small project and it was designed to avoid the large admin costs that are associated with large consultancies. A team of three people would have done.

There was logic in this. The project was designed to support individuals within a small number of think tanks through on-going mentoring (on economic research and analysis, communications, and leadership). Face to face, in small groups of peers, and over a prolonged period of time. No in-and-out consultants, no large teams with lots of admin and logistic specialists, no fancy project management tools; just good old fashioned people talking to people.

When trying to learn about and work with think tanks I have found this to be the most reliable approach. Think tanks are rather complex organisations. For a start they have to exist in several places simultaneously: politics, academia, consultancy, media, etc. And their organisational culture is often the consequence of a number of inherit tensions: independence versus influence, rigour versus speed, etc.

Relying on managers to support think tanks as if they were a homogenous group of input-output type of organisations is unlikely to have the desired effects.

Supporting think tanks must therefore involve efforts to build close professional relationships with them that allow for a nuanced and deep understanding of the organisation’s culture. Anyone can read up the annual reports and go over the outputs. It is the culture, the formal and informal relations that exist among the staff and the wider policy community, that matter the most.

Breaking the system into pieces

One of the most important and valuable characteristics of the Knowledge Sector Initiative is its support to the system and not just one or two sets of organisations. Having said that, I have argued before, that some important members of the system are missing: the media, political parties, the private sector, universities, etc. In Indonesia last week I learned that there are other initiatives that are working with some of these so we shall have to wait and see how it all comes together.

The initiative, however, is separated along the lines of supply, demand, and intermediaries. In conversations with several of the participants at the event, it was clear to me that few of the think tanks represented saw themselves as just suppliers of research and analysis (or knowledge). All played intermediary roles (the most interesting ones played, a la Hoppe, boundary roles) and many, through their many formal and informal activities, were also involved in the demand; or what the initiative calls demand.

When designing the programme’s management and when implementing it therefore it is important that these separations are avoided. Either by working together or by conducting research on the system as a whole, or ensuring that any demand intervention has a supply and intermediate component (and vice versa) the manager must ensure that the initiative does not create and reinforce divisions along these lines.

National and regional ideas

Among the guests there were people from the region. In the past I have been particularly interested by the work being done in China on think tanks as well as the politically nuanced discussions on think tanks in the Indian press. My Google Alerts on ‘think tanks’ is often full of articles from the South East Asian press, too.

In large initiatives like these it is always tempting to use the big names of the sector and bring in the consultants for everything from writing papers on the politics of societies they can only know from what they read or are told about to capacity building workshops to develop skills that may or may not be relevant for the organisations and people of those societies. The real skill in these initiatives is in finding and promoting local ideas.

I was therefore particularly pleased that the event gave the think tanks an opportunity to develop their own framework of analysis. Asked what made think tanks effective, the participants identified the following areas of organisational importance (sorry for the lack of detail -most of this was done in Indonesian):

  • Vision
  • Communications
  • Partners
  • Resources
  • Funding
  • Targets
  • Products
  • Content

I have made a few small changes to these to take other important dimensions of analysis. The resulting framework could be used to study think tanks in Indonesia: and it would be one developed by the think tanks themselves.

  • Context (including the general political-intellectual context and sectorial politics if relevant)
  • The think tank’s functions
  • The think tank’s organisation (to deliver its functions in its context)
    • Vision and mission
    • Governance (including management arrangements at the board, senior management, and research levels)
    • Communications (including resources, strategy, key audiences, branding, etc.)
    • Research agenda (content, including how the agenda is set and how leads on it)
    • Resources (including staff, facilities, funding –with particular emphasis on mechanisms and sources)
    • Services, products, special projects (in other words, how research, communication, resources, and management come together)
    • This should make it possible to do some analysis on challenges and opportunities for the organisations
    • And develop, often emerging from the discussions with the organisations themselves, recommendations and actions

Think tank led

Whatever support is provided should be led by the think tanks themselves. Most of the organisations at the event wanted to be because they see the initiative as a real opportunity for them. This interest could be translated into agency; but could also be transformed into dependency.  For a funder and the manager of a large initiative like this, dependency is often the easiest one of the two. Agency can lead to too many different requests, at different times, and demands for support that the managers may not know how to provide. Speaking as someone who has been on the funder/manager side: it is much easier to identify needs that we can address. (Which is why needs assessments and support maybe should be separated.)

So rather than evaluating them, funding them, training them, etc. the initiative must try to encourage the think tanks to take the lead and act as responsible agents. This means that the initiative’s manager should not rely on quick fix needs assessments, trainings, toolkits, etc. to fill in any awkward silence from the think tanks. The think tanks themselves should be doing their needs assessments (I advice, asking outsiders, including and specially their boards, to do this) and they should approach the funders/managers with ideas about what they need and how it could be provided -and why. And above all, they should be allowed to fail.

Leading means being willing to fail. Taking risks and living up to their consequences.