Think tanks and electoral processes: an opportunity that should not be missed

16 October 2014
SERIES Think tanks and elections 17 items

In the winter of 2007, Carlos Eduardo Aramburú (CEA), joined a group of LSE students at a table at the back of a pub in Holborn. He’d just been involved in the organisation of the 2006 presidential debates in Peru and in which CIES, the organisation he led, had played a key role in staging. Anyone who has ever listened to CEA tell a story will be able to picture the scene in that rainy and dark afternoon in London. All our attention was on him and on his tales form the underbelly of peruvian politics. The pints remained untouched for as long as he spoke.

The debate was the cherry on top of a new project that CIES had launched earlier in the year: Elecciones Perú 2006. The project sought to improve the quality of the electoral campaign and use the electoral process as a way of influencing the future government. It was a true innovation and went against everything that we’d heard about elections and think tanks in the past.

I was one of the few at the table who knew about it because CIES had been working with the RAPID Programme, where I worked, to share its experience with Grupo Faro in Ecuador.

Elections, think tanks are often quick to say, are not the best time to attempt to influence. Although elections in developed countries appear to be the perfect moment to showcase think tanks’ research to a political class keen on new ideas to present to the electorate, few think tanks in developing countries see it that way. For them, elections are a period of uncertainty that is better to tread carefully. This is not a time to rock the boat, they say. It is better to focus on research than on communications. Better to build relationships in private and maybe even inquire about possible future jobs in government; but not to challenge and get on the wrong side of possibly future leaders.

This is understandable. Elections in many developing countries, where one is unlikely to find mature political parties, competent and well-informed journalists, and a decent political debate, can be a mine-field for think tanks that, on a regular year, struggle to remain neutral or, at least, at the margins of an ever worsening political system. In Peru, a study by Martin Tanaka and others found that the relationship between political parties and think tanks was so strained after a long-term process of weakening of the institutions of the political system that no respectable researcher would want to be seen to be too close to a party. Connections, when they existed, were purely informal.

It is also dangerous, in some cases, to use elections as a platform for think tanks visibility. In countries where authoritarian political leaders frown upon the participation of others in the political space, think tanks could be easily and quickly undermined. And given that many think tanks receive foreign funds or depend on public funding this could play out  in many different ways -but always against them.

By and large, think tanks have little or no influence on politics and, in electoral years, they cannot expect things to be much better. They can, however, expect them to get much worse. All of this conspires to make think tanks particularly risk adverse during elections.

CIES and other think tanks in Latin America, however, appear to have found a way to turn the tables on politics and gain some control over the process and the political space.

They have created a small and temporary oasis of technocratic certainty from which they can launch a strategic ‘attack’ on the enemies of good politics. And this approach appears to be working.

The idea

The idea is quite simple. It makes me think a bit of the UK shadow cabinet model. But I think it also has elements of a cross-party commission. Basically, think tanks (on their own or working as part of a network of organisations) turn their attention away from sector specific policy influence to develop and promote a whole-of-government manifesto: they set out the challenges and policy solutions that the next government (whoever wins) should address.

This manifesto, that in all cases, involves a series of papers (some more academic than others, depending on the think tank and the context) produced by a range of authors and experts, provides a technocratic basis (although I will be the first one to argue that there is no such a thing as purely technocratic) for the project.

The real work begins when the think tanks take this policy portfolio to the parties, the media and the public. Unsurprisingly, during a year in which they are all open to listen to ideas, demand for this kind of input is particularly high. After all, whether they want to accept it or not, electoral years are a time when they definitely need new policy ideas. In some cases, incumbents, especially is they are popular, might not be interested in the more public engagements that the project proposes but they will still be willing to listen.

The projects described in this series all seek to communicate their ideas through various channels to make sure that they reach all the important players in the political system -and who will be responsible for outlining the future policy agenda. They work with academic networks to reach technocrats, with parties to reach politicians, with the media to reach all the former as well as the general public.

In the process they must address a number of possible mine-fields:

  • By talking with everyone they avoid being labeled as partisan. Sure, they are working with political parties but with all of them. And they try to do as much as possible in public -the meetings with the parties may be private but the advice they provide is published.
  • They try to avoid technical debates only by reaching out to the general media and not just one favourite journalist.
  • They try to tackle the most important issues facing the country, making sure that they have to work in partnership with other organisations.

In the process, these initiatives help the think tanks to become not only sources of ideas but, for the manner in which they work, a new public space capable of promoting and sometimes hosting technical and political debates. CEA’s story was as much about the politics of the negotiations between the parties as about the fact that all the parties decided to place their trust on a group of research centres. In the manner in which they had conducted themselves until then (in the way they had chosen the policy issues to study, how they commissioned and produced the reports, and how they communicated their fundings), they had demonstrated to be neutral to the interests of the parties and their leaders.


In the pre-RCT world, ideas did not need to be scientifically tested to be replicated (if that was even ever possible). It did not take much for this new idea (which CIES had not invented itself) to spread across the region. Each think tank that took it on decided to adapt it to fit its own context. And even then, they have learned a few things during their implementation, that will surely help them in the future.

This idea would work well in other countries and in other regions. It gives think tanks control over a process they often have none. It provides them with an opportunity to learn from repetition (electoral processes can be broken down into small ‘games’: policy papers, events, debates, etc. that can help them learn faster). This idea gives think tanks an opportunity to shine in years when they would have otherwise not expected to get a mention in the media; or shine in a way that shields them from undesirable consequences. They may even become national institutions if they manage to position themselves as the promoters of presidential debates.

The idea is not expensive to deliver. These initiatives can be undertaken with think tanks own funds and simply by re-focusing the think tanks’ attention away from unrelated and uncoordinated project based communication towards the elections themselves. Think tanks could, for example, re-brand their publications during an electoral year so that they would become associated with the initiative; Policy Briefs, for instance, could become Electoral Briefs.

Communications during the electoral year could prioritise communications with political parties, the media and the public in a manner that focused the attention on the electoral process.

They could even seek to produce new research in preparation for the elections.

CIPPEC’s model is particularly interesting in this respect. While CIES sought to commission new studies on key (yet board) sectoral issues (even if they were systematisation), CIPPEC focused its attention of a number of policy challenges and used existing evidence and knowledge to address them.

By working with other think tanks as part of a network, think tanks could ensure that their proposals cover all aspects of government. They could ensure that their work and ideas would reach a broader audience than if they did it all along. By including organisations with different skills they could combine research, communications, logistics and even politics without having to spend an extra penny.

With more funds, however, think tanks could seek to develop a more complicated initiative. They could work on the electoral process ‘on-top’ of their day to day work.

This kind of effort would work well in countries in Africa or Asia. It would work well even in countries where democratic institutions are less developed than in Latin America and could, if done correctly (that is, not exploding them but working with them), strengthen them in the process.

My preferred design

If I had a choice (and in this blog it is fun to pretend that I do), I would consider the following characteristics:

  • Funding: a combination of own funds and pooled funding from multiple (mostly domestic) sources. Keep funders invalid but do not let them choose the agenda nor have a say in the analysis and recommendations. You’ll have to make sure they know you well before they agree to support you.
  • Choice of issues: keep is manageable first, but make it coherent. That means that it is better to cover a few related topics than lot sod unrelated ones. But you should never leave out economic policy issues. It is, after all, the economy, stupid.
  • Combination of channels and tools: the policy papers are an important output for this kind of project but they cannot be the only one. These projects demand that communications be given a lot more attention than think tanks tend to. A head of communications should be as important as the head of research of the project.
  • Partners: work with others but not just think tanks. It works best if the coalitions include organisations that can contribute in logistics, communications and fund-rising as well as research.
  • Compete: if other think tanks or networks are organising their own initiative in the same country then engage with them early on and organise debates with them. What better way to lead than by example?
  • Not a one-off: these projects can be planned as long-term initiatives to include national and local elections over a period covering 2 or 3 mandates (presidential or parliamentary). In the long run, new efforts will benefit from the previous iterations of the project. Also, think tanks can rise funds to monitor new governments’ implementation of their recommendations as well as to revise them year on year.
  • International learning: I would include advice from the think tanks that have done it already and seek to report on what was done with the growing community of think tanks that are working on similar initiatives.


Funders will want to know what impact they could expect for their investment. Surely, we cannot expect that all the proposals made by the think tanks would make it to the new government’s plans. Impact can come in many shapes and forms:

  • Quality of the debate: above all, I think that one of the best possible outcomes of these efforts can be seen in the quality of the political debate. We often assume that politicians and the media do not care about information and knowledge. Or that they cannot use it even if they have access to it. I do not think this is true. Given the chance, they are more likely than not to be wiling to use it. The reasons why this approach works is that for once, researchers are thinking about the politics of policy right front he beginning. This is not an after-thought at the end of a research project. This is ‘politics first, research latter’. And this means that for a change researchers are able to communicate with politicians and journalists on issues that matter to them and in a way that makes sense and is useful.
  • Ideas: not facts, not findings, not research papers but ideas and arguments. These processes have the capacity to generate policy ideas and arguments that are more likely to survive the trauma of elections. And they are far more likely to make it into the plans and the policies of future governments than the facts and findings in research papers that think tanks often try to peddle.
  • People in government: the exercise of thinking about politics, of doing research for the challenges of government, communicating with politicians and the public, defending one’s ideas and recommendations in public and private meetings, and the sheer intensity and length of the process inevitably leads to the influence of those who are to take on posts in government. But more interestingly, the process also provides an opportunity for political parties to find new possible policymakers from among the researchers and experts involved in the project.
  • People in think tanks: the process, of course, also influences the researchers and experts in the think tanks. Never before and never again could they gain greater access to the private spaces of politics as during these periods and thanks to these projects.  The new knowledge they gain about the politics of policy will prove to be invaluable in their daily work.
  • Continuity: in countries where politics follow the winner takes all model, or where oppositions focus on scandals rather than ideas, think tanks provide one of the few options for political stability. They are they only to take care of the ideas that will one day safe the nation. They are like genetic or seed banks: meme-banks. These kind of projects provide a huge boost in their deposits.
  • Democratic institutions: by working with political parties and the media to develop their capacity to understand and use their ideas (this is not just about crude influencing) think tanks can help to build the kind of democratic institutions that will eventually make their work much easier and much more valuable in the future.