The relationship between think tanks and their communities – Liliana Alvarado | OTT Conference 2024 keynote address

4 June 2024
SERIES OTT Conference – Think tanks and their communities

Liliana Alvarado, Executive Director of Ethos innovación en Políticas Públicas in Mexico delivered this keynote address at the OTT Conference 2024, at Fundació Bofill, Barcelona, Spain. 

Good morning colleagues, and members of the think tank community. First of all, I would like to thank On Think Tanks, Enrique and his incredible team, as well as the Bofill Foundation for the invitation. I have to say that it is an honour to be here today, to open this event and have the opportunity to reflect on a topic that is of great relevance these days: the relationship between think tanks and their communities.

I do believe it was a great idea for On Think Tanks to have taken the initiative to shed light on the different roles that think tanks have adopted over the years. It is somewhat absurd to think that, from the early 20th century to the present day, think tanks around the world have remained unchanged in terms of their objectives, mission, functions, and actions, and that, in general terms, the think tank model is static, because it really isn’t. That would be like assuming that the version of myself at 5 years old, 15, 30, and 47 (this is where I stand today) is the same, and that the social and economic context in which I grew up, didn’t influence my development at all.

Our traditional role

All of us here are aware of the fact that for decades, think tanks have played a fundamental role in shaping public policies around the world. Traditionally, we’ve been characterized as organizations that conduct analysis, generate data and evidence, that have become essential inputs for decision-makers. Despite the fact that think tanks around the world have different topics, and focus and contexts, influencing the public sphere is part of our essence. I would say that’s the foundational and traditional role that largely explains our raison d’être (as the French would say).

However, let’s not forget that think tanks are also catalysts of change and innovation. In many regions of the world, we’ve had the capacity to be resilient and adopt different roles in response to new contexts. In my opinion, some of the “new contexts” are due to 3 main factors: 1) the weakening or even breakdown of communication channels with the public sector, 2) changes in the priorities of donors, and 3) decisions made by the think tanks. This context has led us to think about different ways in which impact can be made and to open channels of communication with new actors in order to influence policy change.

As a think tank, once you’re in any of these situations, you can’t act like it’s business as usual and pretend nothing has changed. Think tanks around the world are so diverse that I wouldn’t want to make generalizations, but many of these organizations, for example in the Latin American region, have exchanged communication with the government with work with the community. This could involve all areas of research within a think tank, or only some.

Concept of community

At this point, I would like to pause and reflect on the concept of “community”. It would be inaccurate to speak of the community as if it were a homogeneous group of people with the same objectives and interests. Within communities, there are different actors that think tanks can engage with, such as civil society organizations or certain demographic groups such as women, youth, and indigenous groups, among others. In this scenario, we assume that policy change can also be achieved by empowering the community.

Change of actors

Again, considering this scenario, where there is a possible change of actors, the question is: how can we effectively engage with the community? Advice number 1, stay away from sophisticated and technical language and promote a much more didactic communication style. We must make sure that our ideas also resonate with those outside circles of specialists. I am convinced that simplicity in language facilitates understanding and removes barriers with the community.

Let me give you an example of a situation that occurred in my own country. When the National Anti-corruption System (NAS) was initially introduced in Mexico back in 2015, numerous doubts arose regarding its operation. The system is governed by 7 regulatory laws, which, to be honest, are quite difficult to understand, except for lawyers. At Ethos we were interested in promoting citizen participation (reports on corruption), however, we realized any kind of citizen engagement seemed unrealistic. We would have to assume that individuals would voluntarily want to invest their time in deciphering the complex legal framework surrounding the NAS.

So what happened next? At Ethos, we made the decision to create an Anti-Corruption Booklet. At that moment, The Libro Vaquero or Cowboy Book, was a Mexican comic book held a very special place in Mexican pop culture. In fact, it was the most widely read periodical publication in the country, reaching both urban and rural areas.

By making an alliance with the editors, we were able to introduce a new chapter to the story, in order to explain basic concepts of the NAS to citizens in an easy, didactic, and creative manner. We addressed fundamental questions such as: What is the system´s purpose? How can citizens actively participate? This initiative also aimed to foster a culture of legality. I have to say that the comic book was quite successful and that we ended up printing more copies due to the interest it generated.

My second piece of advice would be to reassess the power of collaboration. In cases where it is considered useful, think tanks must work with other organizations and make alliances. This can perhaps translate into establishing networks at the subnational level, as has been our case, as it may increase the likelihood for policy change.

For this purpose, in 2019 we formed two collectives of organizations: one called the Anti-Corruption Citizen Force and the second one called Suitable Profiles Now, which together include more than 30 CSOs from across the country. In general terms, their purpose is to highlight deficiencies in both the design and implementation of the system and to generate pressure for appropriate appointments in strategic positions within the institutions that make up the NAS (such as the anti-corruption prosecutor, for example). With the support of both collectives, we managed to push back against a presidential initiative that sought to eliminate key institutions within the system.

Thirdly, in order to improve our relationship with the community, it is important to be aware that sometimes information must be adapted so that it can be understood by certain demographic groups. At Ethos, for example, we have worked on anticorruption issues alongside indigenous groups. We are aware that in order to mitigate the problem of corruption, we need the support of the entire population: However, there are certain groups that face significant disparities when trying to access knowledge and information.

For example, how could indigenous communities participate in a system like the NAS when information is only published in Spanish? Or through electronic means that are sometimes not accessible to these groups?

A few years ago we worked with Kintiltik, a civil society organization from the Mexican state of Chiapas in order to make a diagnosis on how corruption affects indigenous groups. As a result, we created a communication and awareness campaign with various materials (including infographics, and videos, among others) that were translated into six indigenous languages. These products also emphasized the importance of access to culturally relevant information. I believe that little by little the democratization of knowledge will become an objective for think tanks. This not only implies the publication of studies and policy briefs, we should ensure that information is understood and useful for everyone.

Support for the Community

Next, I would like to share with you the type of support that we, as think tanks, can provide to the community. As a first step, we must assume that the communities hold valuable knowledge and experiences that can be integrated into the design and implementation of public policies. Think tanks are beginning to recognize that change is also possible when they embrace their roles as facilitators and collaborators. This collaboration can take various forms:

Firstly, think tanks have the ability to be effective partners to communities by complementing the empirical knowledge of local actors with rigorous methods and strategies to generate greater impact. Our research and analysis expertise allows us to offer an evidence-based approach to the challenges faced by communities.
Secondly, think tanks have the opportunity to help strengthen the communities’ learning processes. We can help them to better articulate their needs, identify effective solutions, and advocate for significant changes. Similarly, if this is something that interests them, it is also possible to strengthen the capacity of communities to interact with local government, to ensure that their voices are heard and considered in decision-making processes. In this regard, think tanks can play a crucial role in coordinating diverse actors in order to ensure a more efficient implementation and greater sustainability of the interventions.

How to gain the trust of the community?

I would also like to address another of the questions guiding this conference, which is: how can think tanks build trust with the community? In response, I would like to emphasize that transparency and clarity are crucial.

We must explain in a simple way what the: 1) objective of our work is, 2) how we plan to carry it out, 3) the timeline, 4) who are the participating actors, 5) if there is funding involved, and 6) expected results. Similarly, we must be very open to answering the questions that members of the community may have.

It is also important to consider that it is very likely that other organizations or think tanks have already worked or tried to work with these communities in order to implement other initiatives, and if the relationship in those cases did not yield the expected results, a feeling of distrust toward external actors may remain.

In our experience, it is also extremely important to be flexible and adapt to community. Every hour a person spends giving an interview, attending training, or any other activity that is part of your project is time that they could spend doing another activity that could even generate income. Therefore, we must keep in mind the social dynamics and try to adapt to facilitate active participation. In these contexts, it is particularly important to take into account the double or triple workload that specially women have.


Finally, I want to emphasize that some think tanks are already deeply immersed in this process of change, while others may still maintain their traditional roles and perhaps haven’t even considered or visualized a potential shift in direction in the near future.

So if your think tank finds itself in this position it’s perfectly acceptable. I just wanted to explain what the 2024 landscape might look like for some of the think tanks sitting next to you.

For now, the main idea I want to transmit is that working with the community shouldn’t be seen as a deviation, but rather as a natural expansion of our work. So, with this reflection, I would conclude my intervention and would be glad to answer any questions.

Thank you very much.