February 3, 2021

Opinion

Think tanks in times of crisis. Prepare. Prod. Promote. Pitch. Produce.

Part 20 of  
COVID-19

[This article was originally published in Simon Maxwell’s blog as a summary of the session on policy-relevant research and influence at the School for Thinktankers 2021].

Another blog, another mnemonic. I know. Sorry. But it helps me to remember, and may help others.

The topic here is what changes for the policy role of think tanks at a time of crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic is the current example, but there have been previous ones, for example the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-8, the Asian financial crisis of 1997-8 or, going back further, the structural adjustment crisis in Africa in the mid-1980s. These are multi-country crises rather than local, and sudden onset rather than continuing. Local crises (e.g. extreme weather events) offer similar challenges. Long-term crises also, like climate change, but those crises play out more slowly: see here on how think tanks can respond.

Why write about this subject? Partly because of the circumstances of the past year; but more specifically triggered by being asked by On Think Tanks to run a session on policy-relevant research and influence for their young leaders at the 2021 School for Thinktankers – and realising that the usual frameworks used in previous years had a leisurely feel about them, not suited to the urgency of the current emergency.

So, this is what we did in the session – and I should thank the participants for their contributions to this co-creation, especially to the action plan with which we concluded.

First, we noted that the COVID-19 crisis is much more than a health crisis.  It is also economic, of course, and fiscal. And political, and social, and moral. And foreign as well as domestic. And for the young even more than the old, including in terms of mental health. And of course for women, particularly, as well as for men. In brief, the COVID-19 crisis touches on almost every aspect of the universe in which think tanks operate. It requires consolidated and joined-up policymaking, at a very fast pace, and often on unknown territory. It is not surprising that policymakers have been under extreme stress for the past year.

So how can think tanks help? This was the question I put to the group, in the form of the latest of the ‘pizza night case studies’. This is the seventh in the series of case studies I have used to help train young think tank leaders. For earlier versions, on different aspects of think tank management and governance, see here and here and here.

This year’s case study was adjusted for lock-down as follows:

It was pizza night and the family had gathered in the kitchen. In one corner of the main bedroom, however, a light still burned. Cecilia wanted to go down to her family, she had hardly seen the children all week, and one more Zoom call would probably give her a nervous breakdown. But there was a global pandemic kicking off, and as Director of the think tank, she needed to show leadership.

The phone had been ringing off the hook all week, never mind the deluge of emails, and the inevitable zoom calls. Ministers, special advisers, civil servants, NGOs, business people, the media, all with the same question: ‘what are we going to do?’.

Cecilia thought it would be easier to answer that question if the think tank had a dedicated and pre-existing department, called something like ‘What do we do about a global pandemic if ever one should occur in the future’. But, of course, it didn’t. What it had instead was a range of researchers, all working on different topics, some relevant, some less so, and all busy. Plus, everyone was now working at home.

So the easy answer for Cecilia was to say ‘Sorry, no idea’. But she knew that wouldn’t do. Faced with a global catastrophe, the think tank would have to step up.  As leader, it was her job to make sure the think tank was both relevant and timely. ‘What I need’, she thought, ‘is a short-term action plan of things my team can do’.

That was quite an ask, Cecilia thought. She pulled off a page from her pad, and wrote a heading:  ‘Responding to the pandemic: a short-term action plan of things my team can do’. She needed to fill that in, but it was too late to do more. She thought of the pizza and her mouth began to water. Margarita, she wondered? Or Quattro staggioni? It was time to go downstairs. Cecilia rose, stretched, and switched off the light.

The usual frameworks are not unhelpful, and we reviewed the ODI ROMA model, the IFPRI Kaleidoscope model, and my own summary of think tank roles and think tank collaboration. We talked about Sheherezade, Paul Revere, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and Rasputin; about policy code-sharing; and about the five questions every think tank person interested in policy should ask (WHO is making WHAT decision, WHEN are they making it, WHAT PRODUCTS do you need to influence the decision and WHEN do you need them?). +  There is a video on OTT in which I talk about future think tank leaders and how think tanks continue to evolve.

Then we turned to the case study, specifically to the question Cecilia was asking herself about a short-term action plan of ‘things my team can do’. I was not looking for solutions to the COVID-19 crisis (I wish!), but rather for ideas about how to manage the policy work of think tanks in situations like this. The group had some great suggestions, and I added my own. This is my summary of the points we discussed.

Prepare

  • (Not policy-related, but . . . Carry out internal house-keeping to manage business continuity, working at home, sanitary security in the office, and the health and mental health of employees. This includes making sure you know where everyone is, especially those overseas, bringing people home where necessary, and reviewing travel arrangements. The think tank will face its own pressures, including financial. This may feel a very fragile time.)
  • Create an internal mechanism to manage the research and policy response, in the form of a crisis task force, probably led by the Chief Executive or the Director of Research. This could be the repurposing of an existing committee or could be an additional item on the agenda of such a committee. The important thing, though, is urgency and frequency of meeting: the mentality and mode of operation of a ‘war cabinet’.

Prod

  • Turn over every stone, looking for existing material and existing expertise that can be useful in the crisis: ‘prod’ the research archive and the research expertise of staff for relevant evidence and ideas. The COVID-19 crisis reaches into every corner of policymaking, as noted, and therefore into every corner of research.  Of course, retain critical faculties: the crisis is not an excuse to dig up second rate work.
  • Extend the prodding to networks, domestically and internationally. Policymakers have not always in the past wanted to be beaten about the head with international experience. But when there is a crisis, the rules change. Every good idea is useful, no matter where it comes from.

Promote

  • Policymakers need material which is succinct and well-packaged. Make sure there is a COVID-19 landing page on the website, structured to lead readers quickly to different themes and topics, and as fully populated as can be managed. Include external links.
  • Develop new materials specifically dealing with the crisis, available quickly. This could be a special series of briefing papers, a collection of short essays, or a series of opinion pieces.
  • Think about offering private briefings to policymakers or parliamentarians, closed workshops to stakeholders of various kinds, or public meetings to foster discussion or highlight debate.
  • Draw in others. Maximise the convening power of the think tanks, not just the research and policy expertise inside the walls.
  • Make sure that specialists are available at short notice, including to senior policymakers and to the media. Support researchers in simplifying and polishing messages. The Director does not need to be the only mouthpiece.
  • Do all this quickly. Focus on being agile and responsive. Make maximum use of social media.
  • But beware pitfalls at what is likely to be a time of heated political argument. Stay true to the research.
  • Review progress frequently and share lessons internally, and with others in the think tank network. Keep a log.

Pitch

  • Talk to donors immediately about the impact of the crisis on current programmes. Agree when a change of course may be necessary. Negotiate delays in delivery if necessary. Donors will be facing their own pressures and are likely to be sympathetic. But transparency is essential. And trust.
  • Talk to donors about supporting new work on the immediate response.
  • And talk to them also about medium-term recovery – one of the roles of think tanks is to be thinking two or three steps ahead. If everyone is talking about building back better, the think tank can be the body which knows how.

Produce

  • The prodding, the promoting and the pitching are all essential, but the long-term viability of the think tank depends on maintaining a sufficient flow of new research.
  • However, don’t just add to the workload of researchers by expecting them to produce as much research as before, in the same form, at the same time as all the new crisis-related activity.
  • Think about new ways to carry out research: for example telephone surveys rather than face-to-face interviews; or focus groups carried out online.
  • Capitalise on the response and recovery work to produce research outputs.
  • Celebrate good research as well as good policy work.

I am sure we missed a lot in this discussion. What can others add?

About the author:

Simon Maxwell:  Former Executive Director, Overseas Development Institute

Read more from: Simon Maxwell

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