Think tanks and elections: strategies to raise the quality of democracies

10 May 2018

[This article was originally published in the On Think Tanks 2017 Annual Review.]

Elections are critical milestones for democracies. They can mobilise entire  nations. For think tanks, elections are also important, and often, busy periods. Particularly, if we consider that, with some exceptions, electoral campaigns in developing countries do not generally involve serious debates over strategic policy issues, but rather revolve around vague references to universally desirable aims without any specification of how they will be achieved. Thus, elections represent a time when think tanks can really show their worth.

Though there are numerous examples of think tank initiatives that have sought to influence the direction of electoral debate, these have not been studied in much depth, nor using a comparative approach. In 2014, OTT embarked on a project to fill this gap, which resulted in a report that brought together a range of articles called Think Tanks and Elections.

Building on this first effort, OTT recently partnered with Grupo FARO, based in Ecuador, and the Latin American Network of Think Tanks (ILAIPP) to further document think tank practices around elections, and produce practical resources to inspire and help other think tanks around the world. We reviewed 15 initiatives implemented by 16 organisations from 14 countries in Africa, Europe and Latin America. Here is an overview of what we learned about think tank strategies and trends:

Check out the good practices, tools and videos (the majority of them are in Spanish).

Think tanks influence elections at different levels using a range of tactics

When election time comes, think tanks and civil society organisations design and implement influencing strategies at different levels and phases of the electoral cycle. Some focus on raising the quality of debate through policy analysis and proposals, while others take an active role in promoting and organising debates between the candidates. Campaigns to promote the participation of civil society in the electoral process are common, as are civic education exercises to encourage informed voting. Think tanks also play a key role in assessing campaign manifestos and the fulfillment of policy promises.

Out of all of these strategies, organising debates is the most risky. This is because they are unpredictable events. Success is very much influenced by the features of the competition between candidates and their incentives to debate. This means that organisations who try to convene debates need to remain flexible and adapt their strategies in response to the evolution of the campaign.

Election periods often generate more funding for think tanks

Around elections, heightened interest in key policy issues means that think tanks are able to draw on a range of funding channels to build very comprehensive projects. Funding from multiple donors not only widens the scope of work that can be undertaken, it also helps legitimise the overall influencing initiative and strengthen advocacy efforts.

Partnerships are crucial

With a few exceptions, the initiatives that think tanks implement around elections involve multiple actors so partnership-building is key. All sorts of alliances form, from institutional alliances with electoral agencies to links with media corporations, the private sector, universities and civil society organisations. This helps to mobilise citizens at the local level, which adds to the legitimacy of the work, as they gather more and diverse partners.

Think tanks rely heavily on effective communications to achieve cut through

Whether the initiatives target electoral candidates, journalists or citizens, the use of dynamic communication formats to promote messages and encourage actions is key. Infographics and videos are particularly useful in summarising complex messages and achieving cut through.

Given how rapidly things move during election campaigns, the use of social media is particularly important. Trending hashtags can, for example, help create consensus about the need for a debate between political candidates, or for an explanation around a particular policy proposal.

Digital tools and apps are also playing an increasingly vital role in informing voters about a range of election-related information, from where to vote and what documentation they need to do it, to quick-reference outlines of candidate proposals.

Think tanks do not make the most of the post-election period

A major challenge for think tanks is to maintain momentum around their initiatives, even after ballot boxes have been packed away. While think tanks often succeed in improving their dialogue with the elected administration, they often struggle to measure the uptake of their policy proposals. What is more, the initial enthusiasm that made it possible to align with different stakeholders under agreed objectives often dissipates, with organisations failing to effectively capitalise on partnerships or on policy windows created through collective efforts. In short: initiatives are currently quite seasonal in nature and organisations would benefit from finding incentives to make the most of the post-election period.

While each context is unique, the practices and approaches summarised under this project provide ideas and concrete actions to support think tanks to begin or improve their engagement in the lead up to elections, and beyond.The products generated as part of this work will be available online soon.