Think tanks, communication, and impact

14 November 2014
SERIES Think tanks and communications 26 items

[Editor’s note: this post has been written by Francesc Quintana who is currently working as a consultant for knowledge organisations (research centres, universities and other higher education institutions, foundations, government related bodies, high tech parks). It reflects work he has undertaken as part of his thesis (in Catalan) that you can download here. This is also an opportunity to call out to any researchers or students out there who are writing or have written a thesis on think tanks to get in touch with us. We’d like to help you share your work with the think tank world.]

The ability of Think Tanks to influence the decision-making process within the political arena has become a recurrent debate. A Think Tank’s main goal – to influence – becomes a must if it hopes to offer something of interest and value to donors, clients and society at large.

However, if we have a closer look to the scientific literature on that topic we notice that the focus of influence is commonly placed outside a Think Tank’s staff, structure and organization. If influence ability depends mainly on internal organization mechanisms, it doesn’t make sense.

Is there any strategy?

As many authors have pointed out, a Think Tank is composed of a balance of research (ideas) and the ability to sell these (marketing). The common goal is impact. As far as a Think Tank is able to provide empirical evidence on its impact, it is supposed to get into a kind of virtuous circle that provides more fundraising capacity, more resources, more influence and so forth. Once we understand “empirical evidence on impact” as the key challenge for the Think Tanks’ day-to-day life and work, many questions arise.

Firstly, ideas are always better marketed if time is invested in their planning, in trying to find a better way to achieve them. This is called “strategy” and is composed of a sound environment analysis, goal definition, resources allocation, organization system, action plan and the ability to build and maintain a monitoring and assessment system on a Think Tank’s impact. Although it may sound obvious, questioning a Think Tank about its strategy it’s still very relevant.

Secondly, it is necessary to remember the well stablished distinction between outputs and outcomes. Outputs are commonly defined as the measurement by indicators of how active a Think Tank is when trying to influence the final result of policy issues and its debates. Outcomes are achieved results according to established goals, not mere actions. Although this allegedly clear distinction may get blurred on more than one particular issue or policy arena, it still remains a significant difference. Furthermore, inputs should not be forgotten. At the end, inputs, outputs and outcomes must be taken into account in order to avoid an unrealistic sense of influence capacity among any Think Tank staff members.

Therefore, within a well-designed strategy it seems clear that an evaluation system on impact is the key factor for providing the aforementioned empirical evidence. Experience teaches us that inputs and outputs seem to be more easily measured by quantitative indicators; meanwhile outcomes tend to be more clearly objectified through qualitative ones. At this point, next step should be to focus on internal organization, provided that Think Tank outreach can be improved.

Placing the focus inside

Generally speaking, internal Think Tank organization can be divided into two main areas: staff and boards. The first is devoted to ordinary work, while the second accomplishes a different function, more linked to advice and qualitative assessment. Therefore, within an evaluation on impact framework, staff should provide empirical evidence on inputs and outputs on a regular basis through an indicators system that sheds light on Think Tank resources and activity related to established goals. Additionally, board members should concentrate on data interpretation and to confront it to establish goals and policy environment analysis, assessing from a qualitative point of view the actual impact of Think Tanks in influencing policy decisions. As a result, to implement a true Tracking Outcome System would be a mix of quantitative measurement and qualitative interpretations rigorously applied in order to build evidence on impact and influence.

A Tracking Outcome System should be understood as part of the internal self-learning process by which a Think Tank define its mission and goals, internal organization, resources provision and allocation, communication plan and action plan. All these items should be placed next to an assessment system on impact. A possible outline of such a proposal could be as follows:


UntitledMaking it operative

As concluding remarks, it can be stated that:

  • In order to gain influence capacity, Think Tanks should place the focus inside their own organization as much as outside because the second depends on the first.
  • If a Think Tank’s DNA is the production and selling of ideas, this must be placed at the organization’s heart. Therefore, if an assessment system on achieved impact is part of the strategy adopted by the Think Tank, it should be a matter of concern for those professionally and personally involved on the project.
  • An assessment system on impact must be dynamic and open to continuous change, depending on policy environment evolution and goal setting process. In addition, it should include a balanced mix of quantitative and qualitative information in order to create relevant knowledge for the self-learning process.

Think Tanks try to show its influence capacity to donors, customers and society, and it can be certainly improved by externally designed social and political communication plans and a set of apparently objective indicators. However, for Think Tanks, the hardest job starts at home.