The role of citizens’ voice in think tanks’ body of evidence

24 June 2019

The perceived failure of top-down approaches to development has put pressure on think tanks to involve the public more. Stuti Khemani’s research highlights the agency of the public in policy discussions and the indispensable role of politics. However, what role should citizens’ voice play in think tanks’ body of evidence and policy making?

The case may be convincing for think tanks to be more deliberate in incorporating citizens’ voice in evidence production. Yet it is not easily apparent how they should do this. How should they define the public? Will the public provide meaningful participation? How can think tanks mobilize and manage the citizens’ voice? All these are valid questions for a think tank considering more robust engagement with the public.

In this article, I share an experience with public engagement in my organization as a case for how a think tank can facilitate the meaningful engagement of the public in knowledge creation for policy use.

In February 2019, we conducted Education Awareness Workshops across five Nigerian states. These workshops targeted the election cycle to facilitate constructive discussions between political aspirants and stakeholders around education issues in their context. Elections provide a unique opportunity for informed and interested community members to engage with candidates vying for political offices on policy issues. Specifically, politicians are keen to craft campaign messages to engage with citizens in the build up to elections. Therefore, these engagements were carried out as part of a research project to evaluate the role of the implicit social contract between newly elected officials and other stakeholders (teachers, parents and community leaders) in influencing school governance and learning outcomes.

The activities in the build up to the workshops and elements of the engagements during the workshop provide some ideas to how a think tank can meaningfully engage the public in building evidence. The entire process began with first incorporating public engagement in the research design. Particularly, the experimental design of this project provided an opportunity for robust public engagement as part of funded research activities.

Planning the workshops involved identifying education stakeholders and speaking to them. These stakeholders included parents, teachers, PTA reps, school-based management committees, school administrators, education officials within government, NGOs, community leaders, and gubernatorial candidates in each state. Local facilitators + were engaged to help with stakeholder identification and engagement.

Before engaging with stakeholders we carried out desk research to prepare a two-page brief detailing what publicly available data says about basic education in each selected state. This was done to get a preliminary picture of what was happening in each state and identify the unique issues they may have. It also helped us to prepare guiding questions for preliminary engagements with selected stakeholders. Although the data highlighted some relevant challenges, the engagements revealed the most pressing issues as identified by those most affected. It also punctured holes in the data. The issues emerging from the preliminary engagements with the stakeholders were merged with the official data to develop a new brief, which was presented at the workshops as a primer to discussions.

The workshops drew a lot of insights from the engagement the stakeholders had. Ordinarily, these insights would not be apparent from data analysis or routine unilateral stakeholder engagements. The political aspirants left with first-hand demands from community members, acknowledgement or better appreciation of the issues that they need to deal with if elected, and a promise to adopt recommendations in their policy plans.

The think tank’s role in this case is to facilitate the honest sharing of experiences and free contribution of ideas that relate to the policy issue in question. Furthermore, to document the results of the engagement in a coherent manner for policy making consideration.

A crucial consideration for the sort of engagement described in this article is the amount of human and financial resources needed, making it difficult to imbibe it as a regular practice for think tanks without reliable and dedicated financial provisions. Therefore, think tanks will have to find creative ways of covering the costs of public engagements. As seen in this case, including it as a funded research activity helps. Moreover, the public are contributing to knowledge creation so justifying such expenditure should not be too difficult.