Think tank strategies to influence policy windows: opportunities, risks and lessons

28 March 2019

Elections are critical milestones in the political cycle of any country. They also represent a unique -yet highly charged- policy window. But there are other highly political policy windows that offer high returns, albeit the high risks: budget reports, parliamentary committees, polarised public debates, among others. These scenarios represent an opportunity for think tanks to use their expertise to foster informed debates or promote change. What are some innovative ways in which think tanks can maximise the use and impact of their research during these “policy windows”?

During the last Think Tank Initiative Exchange that took place in Bangkok in November 2018, I co-facilitated a session with Estefanía Terán Valdez from Grupo FARO, aimed at sharing some innovations and lessons from the rich experience on think tanks’ engagement during electoral cycles and other policy windows. In this article I highlight some of the main discussion points and lessons that panelists and participants exchanged during the session.

Let me start with some references on the concept of policy windows. One of its main scholars was Kingdon, who said that these windows are

[Fleeting] opportunit [ies] for advocates of proposals to push their pet solutions, or to push attention to their special problems
(Harper Collins, 2995).

Like Judge McCormack and Braude state in this blog post published at OTT

A policy window can be an event, process or topic (or even all three), which offers actors such as [think tanks] an opportunity to focus the attention of stakeholders on policy choices and outcomes and the implications thereof, for a country, region or even globally.

Thus, policy windows act as catalysts for the adoption of policies and create an appealing environment for policy entrepreneurs to tackle them using a variety of strategies (Zahariadis, 2014).

Typically, policy windows are of short duration. They can be predictable or unpredictable. The former tend to be institutionalised events, like elections, changes in government administration or annual budget allocations. The latter could be sudden corruption scandals, political crises, or natural disasters. Moreover, different issues can evolve until becoming a window, like it happens with value-based debates like abortion, sexual education or same-sex marriage.

In order to show the range of type of policy windows, Estefanía Terán Valdez presented the following categorisation by Howlett based on Kingdon’s theory, according to the degree of institutionalisation of policy windows:

Michael Howlett: Types of Windows of Opportunity

The policy window approach: advantages and risks

McCormack and Braude encourage think tanks to adopt what they call “the ‘policy window’ approach”, which:

Involves choosing the major external policy processes that are relevant to your programme’s work, and then planning research and communication activities around these processes.

According to the authors, this approach has several advantages:

  • provides a focus for planning,
  • helps concentrate efforts
  • helps coordinate work within a project, across an organisation, and with external partners
  • maximises impact

While the advantages presented by the authors are clear, there has not been a lot of reflection on the risks that policy windows can pose for think tanks trying to influence critical events and decisions that have significant impact in society. Indeed, some major political, policy and societal events and conjunctures might not be worth or be too risky for think tanks. Among these risks, we have identified:

  • Association of the think tank with a political party or position
  • Feeling of excessive criticality by the government, with the consequence of damaged relations
  • Pressure to avoid neutrality, especially in front of value-based debates
  • Lack of expertise of the think tank to make a relevant contribution to the debate

Four experiences of influence in policy windows

In order to illustrate think tanks’ interventions in policy windows, the session convened four panelists from think tanks in Africa and Latin America. Two initiatives to influence electoral processes and two to influence annual budget allocations were presented. Indeed, when election time comes, think tanks 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, others promote and organise debates between the candidates, conduct campaigns to promote the participation of civil society in the electoral process, carry out civic education exercises to encourage informed voting, or assess campaign manifestos and the fulfillment of policy promises. Similarly, the passing of a government budget into law also presents an opportunity to provide an independent and analytical perspective to the assessment of the budget.

The representatives of the four think tanks reflected with the audience about different aspects of their organisations’ approach and experiences. A brief description of these experiences follows:

Electoral processes: Fact checking – By Daniel García, Espacio Público, Chile

Chilecheck was an initiative developed by Espacio Público and other partners to verify the public discourse during the campaign period in the 2017 elections. The initiative sought to enhance the quality of the debate by encouraging the incorporation of reliable data and information, thus strengthening democracy. At the same time, ChileCheck intended to promote the citizens’ informed involvement in elections, promote a more active journalist work in order to check information and to demand justification and sources, and put some barriers to fake news-based speech.

See more about this initiative (strategy, partners, implementation challenges, etc) in the publication Think Tanks: why and how to support elections

Electoral processes: Guatemala camina – By Ana Lucía Blas, ASIES, Guatemala

Since 1990, in the face of each electoral process, ASIES draws up an agenda of policy priorities for Guatemala aimed at contributing to the debate, encouraging informed voting and informing the development of policies of the new government administrations. Facing the general elections in 2015, in a context marked by strong allegations of corruption, citizen discontent towards political class and the resignations of the President and Vice President, ASIES reissued their efforts within the framework of the initiative Guatemala camina: pasos firmes para cambiar (Guatemala walks: firm steps to change).

See more about this initiative (strategy, partners, implementation challenges, etc) in the publication Think Tanks: why and how to support elections

Annual budget allocations: Pre-Budget Hearings – By John Mutua, IEA, Kenya

IEA encourages corporate, social and other interested stakeholders to participate in the budget making process by submitting their budget proposals to be included in the budget statement by the National Treasury. For that purpose, IEA-Kenya holds annual pre-budget hearings in which different stakeholders submit proposals which IEA later synthesizes in form of a Memorandum of Principles and Proposals and presents it to Treasury for consideration. Along the budget cycle, the Pre-Budget hearings are followed by the participation in public sector hearings, a pre and post budget conference and in legislative stage-public hearings.

Annual budget allocations II: Budget review – Chukwuka Onyekwena, CSEA, Nigeria

The 2016 Nigerian government budget coupled a series of features that made it a unique opportunity for CSEA to work around it: it was the first budget from a newly elected government, it was the first time the government applied Zero based budgeting (budgeting according to needs and costs as opposed to incremental budgeting), and there was a huge public interest in understanding how the budget would reflected the diversity of revenue sources and the sharing of capital expenditure. In this context, CSEA provided an analytical review of the budget and disseminated it through the media.

Lessons on interventions in policy windows

While these four experiences were unique in terms of their contexts, their strategies and the stakeholders involved, the exchange in the session threw some lessons around think tanks’ interventions in policy windows:

  • Policy windows are unique opportunities for think tanks. The tension and the attention generated by policy windows create a fertile space to influence debates and decisions, which is the main goal for think tanks. Moreover, they can give think tanks huge visibility especially when these windows have to do with highly political topics or are of interest to the media. At the same time, policy windows can allow a think tank to scale-up the impact of any other initiative as it puts the think tank in the spotlight. Multidisciplinary approaches favour the capacity of the think tank to address one issue from different perspectives.
  • But not all policy windows are of value for think tanks. Think tanks need to think carefully about whether it is relevant for its agenda or convenient for its reputation to participate in certain events or debates, no matter how much in the spotlight these are. Highly polarised debates might not be the best field for think tanks that want to remain neutral. Similarly, not all presidential campaigns represent a window of opportunity for policy influence, since sometimes the context may end up dictating how events unfold (e.g.: the lack of political competitiveness can hinder the efforts to promote evidence-informed debates).
  • Managing reputational risks is relevant. When policy windows refer to highly polarised debates, think tanks need to be very strategic to avoid undermining their credibility. For instance, a review of the budget can be taken as a criticism to the vision of a government administration. Similarly, sometimes the topics are so highly polarised that taking a position can harm other aspects of a think tank’s work. However, some think tanks decide to express themselves when it comes to value-based debates, because their organisational values do not allow them to be neutral when facing certain debates.
  • Political timing is critical. When dealing with institutionalised or routine windows, it is important to plan the project according to known timelines (especially important in electoral and budget cycles). For a multi-component project, it’s important to plan and coordinate the different components well. It is helpful for projects to have short, medium and long-term objectives to prioritise work and allow for results analysis at each stage.
  • Policy windows can be highly demanding. The duration or the suddenness of a policy window can put some pressure on the organisation that needs to react timely to the demands of the situation. The willingness to take advantage of the policy window might demand additional effort from the staff.
  • Strong partnerships play a big role in successful initiatives. Strategic alliances with civil society organisations, government agencies, the private sector, academic and media organisations can bring visibility and legitimacy to an initiative.
  • The post-policy window can be uncertain. Some think tanks struggle to develop a strategy to continue influencing a debate once the policy window is over. Some initiatives that are set up with the goal of influencing policy windows cannot be easily replicated after that period (e.g.: electoral campaigns vs non-campaign years). 

Finally, for readers seeking for some advice on how to make the most of policy windows to influence policy and debates, I recommend reading Judge McCormack and Braude’s article.