Supporting think tanks series: Lessons from TTI’s Policy Engagement and Communications program in Francophone West Africa

5 July 2013
SERIES Supporting think tanks: evidence from around the world 8 items

[Editor’s note: This blog post has been written by Julie LaFrance, Senior Program Specialist of the Think Tank Initiative, and Valerie Traore, Executive Director of NIYEL. It is an additional think piece written as a contribution to the series focusing on supporting think tanks initially planned for the evaluation of two pilots for the Indonesian Knowledge Sector Initiative.]


In December 2012, the Think Tank Initiative launched a Policy Engagement and Communications (PEC) capacity building program for partner institutions in francophone West Africa. The PEC Program is based on a 1-year mentorship model that allows for highly engaged support, as well as constant learning across the participating think tanks. It is targeted at the staff responsible for the communications function within the institution and enables TTI-funded institutions to customize their own capacity development with the support and ongoing input of a mentor.  To act as mentors for the institutions TTI selected NIYEL, a Dakar-based campaign agency with a solid network of expert analysts, strategists, communicators and campaigners through a highly competitive process.

This think piece focuses on interim lessons from the first six months of the program.

PEC Approach

The PEC Program emphasizes peer learning between TTI-funded institutions where common synergies have been identified. This model aims to encourage a learning-by-doing approach where think tanks enhance policy engagement and communications by sharing best practices with peers, adjusting and innovating to suit the specific context. Although the program strives for a balance between individualized institutional support and group-focused support, the appropriate ratio of support is based on the needs and interest of TTI-funded think tanks in each region.

What actually happened?

The PEC Program in Francophone West Africa started with an inception workshop in Dakar to develop a common understanding of the PEC program by the TTI-funded institutions, their role, and NIYEL’s role  and to start developing a workplan with each institution that clearly layed out immediate next steps (in the next three months) as well as how they would interact with NIYEL.

The inception workshop focused on each institution setting key objectives for three dimensions: 1) Internal Communications; 2) External Positioning of the Institution; and; 3) Policy Change.  For each of these dimensions, the think tanks developed key objectives, targets, strategies and an action plan for the first three months of delivering on the objectives. As the sessions were facilitated by the mentors the institutions would engage with over the coming 12-months, they began to identify ways of working that would be the most appropriate for each institution-mentor relationship including the frequency, level of engagement and support. This ranged from daily, weekly or monthly engagement via telephone, skype to regular face-to-face meetings and involvement by mentors in strategic planning, rebranding and positioning of the think tank to more direct focus on communications and dissemination activities such as revamping websites, designing and packaging communication outputs on key research findings or for key events.

After the inception workshop, all participating communications staff and executive directors returned to their think tanks to get institutional buy-in and begin the process of implementing their workplans for the first 3 months.

At the inception workshop, the institutions identified a common need for increased capacity in influencing public policy and crafting effective policy briefs. This led to a training on policy influence in early April, 2013 bringing together the TTI-funded institutions with the following expected outputs:

  • An understanding by participants of the importance of the strategy, as well as the importance of setting goals, and identification of the target audience in the process of change;
  • Thorough knowledge of different tactics and tools of policy engagement and communication acquired by participants;
  • Policy briefs prepared by participants using case studies from their respective institutions;
  • Knowledge of strategic lobbying and oral expression in public settings acquired by participants.

Lessons Learned to date

Six months into the implementation of PEC in Francophone West Africa, there are several lessons that have emerged from the process:

  1. Leadership: The engagement of the leadership of the organization is key to the program. The presence of the executive director, or someone that has the mandate to drive the program within the institution is necessary from the get go. At the Dakar inception meeting, only one executive director was present the entire time. Another institution had the head research person present and with a clear mandate from his director to drive the program. The work has been very smooth with these two think tanks as the choices that were made in consultation with the executive directors are those that guided the workplan development. For the other two, the buy-in from the think tanks’ leadership had to be built after the inception workshop.
  2. Think tanks’ purposes: Despite the fact that all participating think tanks opted-into the PEC program, not all institutions in West Africa see their role as policy influencers. Instead they might see their mandate stopping at producing research and not actively pushing for policy change. The communication (dissemination of findings to various audiences) is what they are more comfortable with.
  3. Value added: It is necessary to establish very early on, what the point person sees as the added value of the mentor to their work. Despite submitting statements of interest to participate in the program, a team of consultants may not be what they had envisioned to help them achieve their objectives. Ensuring that the motivation of think tank participation is clear, their expected working relationships and in some cases the fact that they may see the consultant as wanting to ‘replace’ them as the communication team, is important.
  4. Monitoring and learning: As much as this is a year-long program, breaking down deliverables in quarters has been very useful for the think tanks and the mentors in order to maintain steady progress towards reaching intermediary objectives. This also allows the think tanks to review quarterly and adjust the strategy as needed.
  5. Real demand led: One of the main elements in the mentorship model is the sustainability element focusing on ensuring that institutions are stronger and capable of managing their policy engagement and communication work after the program. Consultants, sometimes feel the urge to ‘just do’ because the institutions may not be delivering at the expected rate. It is critical to strike a balance between showing results and ensuring that mentors are not substituting themselves for the think tank’s communication team.  Workplans should be structured in order to report on the products that the institution is delivering, the tools that the mentors are supporting them to develop and the capacity that is being strengthened throughout the process. Mentors must remain accountable to the capacity development aspect of the program.
  6. Roles and responsibilities: The work planning process is done in collaboration with the communications team of the institution and signed off by them. This is key in creating accountability and ensuring that think tank staff feel ownership for the process and the outcomes.
  7. Whole-of-the-organisation solution: There is a danger within the institution that this program is seen as just the problem of the communication staff. Any initiative that involves researchers and other staff of the institution will go a long way in consolidating the work. For example, the development of one of the think tank’s communication strategy was done through a one-day meeting with the entire staff that defined together what the identity of the organization was and how they wished to be perceived. This allowed others to see themselves as agents of the institutions’ brand and create more interest in how they in their own capacity position the institution. The policy-influencing workshop that brought together communicators and researchers also greatly contributed to this.
  8. Policy engagement in itself is not an objective, however some institutions may see it as an end in itself and their visibility as the means. While it has been a challenge to push each think tank to identify the actual policies they want to influence and the research that they have to back those change arguments, some institutions have found this very useful as it has helped to focus their work. A retrospective analysis of instances when the institutions positioned their research when a policy window emerged, is another way to get think tanks to systematically assess their influence path and how they might pursue influence in the future. .
  9. Learning across think tanks: Although an anticipated dimension at the outset of the PEC program, joint sharing and learning between institutions through virtual sharing has not emerged; despite developing a platform for learning and sharing, instilling this practice has been a challenge. Sharing and peer learning was not a dimension that was emphasized enough at the outset, and it has become evident that establishing a culture of sharing quite early in the process is essential.

On the eve of launching the TTI PEC Program in Anglophone Africa, Latin America and South Asia, the lessons emerging from the Francophone PEC Program are already informing the global approach and implementation.  While it is valuable to consider these lessons, it is anticipated that interim lessons that emerge from the other regions may look quite different from these as they will be influenced by an array of unique political, economic, and social factors at play.  The role of context cannot be underestimated in the global roll-out of TTI’s PEC program so stay tuned for lessons from the other regions as they emerge.