Supporting think tanks series: synthesis of the think pieces and (possible) recommendations

21 March 2014
SERIES Supporting think tanks: evidence from around the world 8 items

The following practical implications and (possible) recommendations build on some of the conclusions and suggestions included in the previous post on supporting think tanks. They are based on a series of think pieces commissioned to support the evaluation of a pilot of the Knowledge Sector Initiative:

The list below is not exhaustive. It reflects my own priorities and opinions and has been inspired by the think pieces as well as my own experience and research. It is intended to provide food for thought particularly since the KSI is already underway and hoping it can inform other initiatives, too.

On dealing with culture and politics

An important lesson emerging from the think pieces is that when dealing with culture and politics it may be best to incorporate these into the intervention rather than attempt to control or avoid them. This could translate into the following practical recommendations (as well as others):

  • Critical thinking: encourage the grantees to explore their own organisation and context by developing a research fund focused on the knowledge sector in the country, including: studying the relationship between politics and ideas, think tanks, support and capacity development, etc;
  • Ownership: act on plans developed by the grantees themselves in the expectation that their ‘pathways of change’ for organisational development will reflect the real challenges and opportunities that the face -and let them be responsible for them;
  • Peer to peer: grantee leaders are more likely to respect and accept the advice of people they recognise as their peers –or at least people with the right kind of experience. While they may not share the language and intricacies of different cultures and politics they will be able to relate to each other based on the nature of their jobs and careers. For instance, NGO or advocacy think tanks may be easier to understand by NGO or Advocacy think tank directors or former staffers in other countries than by someone with experience in consultancy or academic think tanks. Similarly, public or government research centres or units would be more appropriately served by former policymakers;
  • Language: if possible, work in Indonesian and for Indonesians (or in Spanish and for Bolivians, etc.). Not only will this reduce the transaction costs involved in translating materials and conversations but it will dramatically facilitate a more open and rich conversation between all parties. When working in the local language a lot more information can be communicated and shared that would be missed out in translation -the good thing about the KSI is that the DFAT team is fluent in Indonesian so it should help them stay on top of things. Other funders need to look for that, too;
  • Monitoring by well-informed peers: when monitoring progress and, later on, the influence or value of think tanks in their countries it is best to use peers within the policy research community to make any assessments. External observers who are not always privy to the nuances of the multiple paths and mechanisms of influence that exist in any given context tend to demand and rely on objective and measurable indicators. These, by their very nature as outsiders, fail to recognise the full range of possible contributions think tanks can make to their societies. On the other hand, a panel of local opinion makers, journalists, politicians, policymakers, philanthropists, business leaders, NGO leaders, and think tank directors and staff may be better placed to assess think tanks’ progress and overall value and contribution. (A local Think Tanks Award like Prospect’s or PODER’s could be a good solution.)

On donor–grantee relationships

Efforts to develop the capacity of think tanks need to follow previous efforts to develop or find the right (appropriate) donor-grantee relationships. All the examples that refer to donor support for capacity development efforts relate to direct interventions; that is, where donors provide the support without a managing contractor. The only case that involved a managing contractor was the last phase of the SISERA programme, mentioned in Stephen Yeo’s think piece – which failed and led to its closure.

Given the complexity involved in understanding donor and grantee cultures, politics, and interests –and their relationships with each other and third parties – it is not surprising that introducing a  managing contractor would have presented such a problem. But this third party need not be a seen as a challenge alone; it offers important opportunities, too.

This is particularly relevant for the DFAT Knowledge Sector Initiative where a separate entity has been charged with implementation. The following challenges and questions may need to be addressed by parties involved:

  • The relationship that exists between DFAT (the donor) and the grantees will change; but will it be strengthened or weakened by the new arrangement? Will DFAT be seen as an ally (a confidante, and critical friend, and so forth) with whom to be open about challenges and shortfalls, or an auditor with whom to be coy and opaque?
  • The donor’s, the grantees’, and the contractors’ cultures, politics, and interests may not be easily aligned –and if they are, will any one party have to sacrifice or change the most? Who will it be?
  • The contractor itself is made up of a consortium including consultancies, think tanks, and academic research centres – will their own cultures, politics, and interests align? Does this demand a strategy and indicators of its own?

A common approach to dealing with the challenges is to attempt to control the relationship between grantees and supporters (funders and contractors). But a possible negative externality from this is the formation of a clique or closed-access community that in effect limits the sources of advice, information, inspiration and support that think tanks and other knowledge sector organisations support.

Fortunately, the KSI’s own arrangement, offers a possible solution. In Indonesia the arrangement involves three parties: grantees, contractors, and donor. This is similar (and more complex) in the case of the Think Tank Initiative. All parties can try to avoid the formation of these cliques by acting as monitors of each other’s role in the initiative; but the donor in particular is in a better position capable of doing so. The donor can monitor the relationship between the grantees and between the grantees and the contractor to ensure that this is open, introduces new actors (new grantees or new sources of expertise) when necessary, etc.

This three-party arrangement can also allow DFAT to be more risk-taking by encouraging the contractor to explore avenues of work that as a bilateral donor it would not able to. For instance, in Zambia, DFID has hit a diplomatic wall in its support to a new political think tank. The Zambia Economic Advocacy Programme, however, should have been able to take a bigger risk and support it nonetheless (it hasn’t yet).

On the other hand, it is quite clear from the think pieces that have addressed this that the effect of the presence of a third party, the contractor, remains largely unexplored.  More so, the effect that the presence of a suddenly hands-off donor with historically better relations with the grantees and a better grasp of the local context than the contractors themselves will have on the programme is uncertain. Both would constitute important research questions to be explored by the donor as part of an ongoing learning effort.

On developing organisational capacity

On developing organisational capacity three central issues arise. The first relates to the manner in which this is managed or provided, the second to the focus or content of said capacity, and the third to the source of inspiration and expertise.

The manner in which capacity development is managed is important. Goran Buldioski’s think piece presents a significant break from the past –a past accurately described by Ajoy Datta in the case of Vietnam. Goran Buldioski and the Think Tank Fund’s new strategy place the lion’s share of the responsibility on the future grantees. It transfers the agency to them: if they want to develop their capacities, the Think Tank Fund’s strategy appears to be saying, they will have to become intelligent customers. Ownership in this new strategy is not just about ‘wanting something’ but it is about the grantees ‘knowing what they want’. This is a welcomed development in the sector.

The direct implication of this for a programme like the Knowledge Sector Initiative is that the grantees need not be ‘forced’ into receiving support and that this support should not be decided, designed, or delivered by the contractors as a matter of course even if their needs assessments support them.

Instead the initiative should rest on the grantees’ own initiative to inquire into their own needs, identify their preferred means of support, and demand the services they require.  In other words, ‘empowering’ cannot involve passive grantees.

The role of the contractors then may be more appropriately described as champions and enablers of the process: supporting the grantees’ decision making process as well as their own search for and management of the organisational development services offered by the market at large. This is a longer-term process that most capacity building initiatives plan for but one that the KSI project horizon certainly allows.

It implies, too, that grantees that do not make the transition from passive to active agents of their development could (should) be ‘let go’ to give way to more proactive ones. This needs to be monitored closely with a combination of objective (e.g. the grantees conduct their own assessments, look for the right service providers, actively seek support from the contractors) and subjective indicators. The latter will be easier to gather when the grantee-donor relationship is stronger and by triangulating perceptions between the three parties involved.

The focus (content) of capacity development is also relevant. To begin with, the capacity to make strategic choices, to become an intelligent consumer, may be a prerequisite of any organisational development effort. But other personal and organisational competences must be given attention, too, including:

  • Political competencies: to understand the context in which policy decisions are made and implemented and apply that understanding to the definition of policy and research questions, and the development of appropriate policy recommendations. This should not be confused with political analysis tools; rather practical experience and better and more frequent interaction with the political process need to be provided;
  • Funder relations: to manage the relationship of the organisations with their funders (public or private; domestic or foreign) to find and maintain the right alignment of interests;
  • Organisational development: to plan and manage organisational change beyond the presence of funders interested in supporting this effort;
  • Governance and management: to get the basics right – even before attempting to encourage think tanks and other relevant organisations to influence policy and assess their success, it is important that their accounts are in order, basic processes are under their control, and so forth.

The direct implication for the KSI is that efforts to develop organisational capacity must look beyond the usual research and communications skills which are often the focus of these interventions. Instead the initiative could consider, first, the capacity of the organisations to develop their own capacity – as intelligent consumers – and, second, their capacity to understand and manage their context and their relationship with key actors that will affect their development. This is about governance and management.

At the centre of this challenge is the development of leadership and managerial capacities among young researchers and communicators whose career paths could be better guided to take on increasingly senior management positions. This is a ‘career’ path often absent in think tanks where the post of director is limited to the most senior researchers rather than the most competent mangers and leaders.

Finally, inspiration (and the source of expertise) for these reforms should be extended beyond the Aid or international development industry. Domestic think tanks in the US, UK and Australia can be, even with their different contexts, important sources of inspiration for Indonesian think tanks; so can be think tank in Latin America and Eastern Europe, which have faced similar (and recent) democratic transitions, dealt and deal with institutional uncertainty, and enjoy comparable economic development stories. The dependence on ‘international development think tanks’ and consultants has to end.

On developing the enabling environment

Another point could be made: the capacity of others to support the grantees’ own capacity development efforts must not be overlooked. To develop their capacity in the long term, the grantees will need to access services (for example, on research, management and communications training, digital services, accounting and legal services, and so forth) from local and international sources (including organisation and individuals). These, however, may not yet have the necessary capacity to satisfy these needs (this can include not knowing how to reach Indonesian think tanks and non-government organisations, as well as simply not having the right level of knowledge and skills that the grantees require).

There is a role for the KSI to develop this ‘supporting infrastructure’ to ensure that, in the future, Indonesia does not need a KSI. In practice, DFAT can monitor progress towards this ideal situation by measuring the proportion of services (not funding) provided by non-KSI parties – as well as the services that are contracted directly by the think tanks themselves.

The think pieces appear to highlight a number of ideas related to how we work with that environment and the kind of competencies we may want to develop.

On their own, think tank are never as effective as when surrounded by others: strong political parties, professional philanthropy, reputable academia, vibrant civil society, an effective civil service, experts with different views, strong and competent counterparts and competitors, and so forth.

The think pieces identify a number of specific interventions that could be considered by any effort that seeks to work with the sector as a whole:

  • Invest in service providers: in Indonesia and abroad to ensure that the grantees have a sustainable and competitive supply of relevant and high quality services (for example, on capacity development, management, financial, accounting, legal, and so forth.) well beyond the lifetime of the KSI;
  • Invest in people: to offer think tanks and funders with a wider choice of researchers and policy entrepreneurs, reduce the labour cost for research centres, reduce the barriers of entry, and generate clear incentives to invest in organisational development. In practice this is likely to mean an investment in tertiary education on key professions;
  • Invest in data: to offer researchers a basic input for their work as well as a way of giving existing researchers and think tanks a new function to fulfil in their countries. In most cases this will mean investing in the release of already existing data held by public and private agencies, but in other cases this could be better served by addressing key gaps such as freedom of information legislation, supporting access to data analysis software and journals and literature at affordable prices, supporting think tanks with clear transparency objectives, conditioning funding to think tanks’ making all their data sets and supporting evidence available online, etc.;
  • Invest in debate: to offer think tanks, particularly government policy research centres, with alternative views and recommendations on any given issue, thus providing them with the opportunity to remain as neutral as possible. This could translate into encouraging the development of competing research agendas among public and private think tanks. But it could also include investing in the programmatic capacity of political parties and the journalistic capacity of media groups;
  • Invest in the local funding environment: to help think tanks diversify their funding and make it more sustainable and aligned to their countries’ needs. Goran Buldioski’s and Stephen Yeo’s think pieces, in particular, draw attention to the potential dangers of donor-grantee relationships that could be described as ‘too close for comfort’. Both recognise the importance of diversifying the funding base. But both recognise that unless this includes new funders this will not be possible. New funders, however, will not join without a concerted effort to encourage and help them to do so, including: reforming domestic legislation, piloting initiatives, supporting the professionalisation of philanthropy, and so forth.

Of course, the environment is too broad for a single actor to tackle and it will demand the active participation of those people and organisations whose capacities need to be developed: philanthropists, universities, the media, political parties, and such. As a key player in Indonesia’s knowledge sector, DFAT should act as a convenor of all research funders –domestic and foreign.

The enabling environment should not be confused with the external environment. Even if the analysis of culture, politics, and interest is only partly correct then these are clearly endogenous to the organisations. A key implication for the KSI in relation to the enabling environment is that, as the biggest intervention in Indonesia, it is, itself, a part of the environment. The KSI, by its only existence, has an effect on the culture, politics and interests of the grantees and of the policy, research and broader civil society communities.

Its large funding potential has effects on the decisions of the grantees and of individuals whose own income expectations would be affected. The choice of contractors, too, would have signalled the grantees and others interested in providing them with services of the kind of intervention that could be expected; what they may be looking for in grantees and service providers and how to present this more effectively. Transparency is the most appropriate way forward to avoid misunderstandings.

Once the KSI is underway, too, the context will be affected. Locally hired KSI staff will most likely come from the same pool of researchers, analysts and practitioners from which the grantees look for their own staff.

It would be rational then to expect that the KSI’s initial employment drive will affect the grantees’ own labour market and the wages they will have to pay for their experts. Later on, the newly appointed staff will surely face ethical challenges due to their unavoidable personal and professional links to one more of the grantees as well as to possible service providers for the KSI. This could have additional effects on the relationships between the grantees if these links are not managed properly: transparently.

The KSI, too, will no doubt, affect how other research funders behave and how they approach their own grantees –either by reacting against the KSI’s approach or by copying it.