Transferable and new skills that think tanks need to work on evidence use

26 June 2024
SERIES OTT Conference – Think tanks and their communities

Think tanks are experts in producing and communicating research to influence policy. But when we shift our focus from the supply of research to the demand and use of it, what changes? Are there unique capabilities or tools that think tanks need to work on evidence use?

At OTT Conference 2024, we were joined by many organisations interested in this topic – think tanks, but also communications experts and funders. The discussion built on a recent webinar we hosted on the topic of evidence use, with three think tank executive directors. At the Conference session, we were joined again by two of these think tank leaders: Frejus Thoto from ACED, Benin, and Laura Boiera from Veredas Institute in Brazil.

Three transferable capabilities think tanks need

  1. Trusted relationships. Working on evidence use means working in coalitions. Think tanks need trusted relationships, and trusted relationships take time to build. Many think tanks are experts in building and maintaining relationships–so this part is definitely transferable from working on evidence supply.
  2. Communications expertise is a critical part of producing policy-relevant research. It’s also a critical part of strengthening evidence use. One example of this is that strengthening evidence use may involve, for instance, helping underfunded and marginalised government research/data/analysis teams to strengthen their visibility and profile with decision makers.
  3. Research expertise. For think tanks working on evidence use, their research expertise will enable them to utilise their experience to contribute to the growing literature on strengthening evidence use.

Three new skills think tanks will need

  1. Identifying windows of opportunity for evidence use. Think tanks can use specific diagnostic tools to do this, especially when working in other countries. The WHO Institutionalisation Checklist & ACED’s evidence ecosystem diagnostic tools are good examples. Here is more guidance on choosing and using the right tools.
  2. Understanding evidence users. We had one breakout session entirely focused on understanding government partners. What level or branch of government to target? Many think tanks talk about policymakers as politicians – but we were reminded in this session that it is also important to understand civil service incentives and performance structures that shape evidence users’ behaviour, and the management and processes that shape the identification, planning and resourcing of evidence from within government. This type of ‘state capability’ assessment might not be a natural area for some think tanks.
  3. Relationships with evidence users. It’s not only about analysing/understanding government from the outside. Working closely with government partners is essential. Think tanks that have experience codesigning/cocreating research with policymakers have a head start here. But as we were reminded that strengthening evidence use requires close, day-to-day, working relationships, including being on hand for quick/responsive support.

Frejus Thoto and Laura Boiera are both part of lively regional networks focusing on evidence use. To get involved in these discussions, check out the LAC Hub, hosted by Veredas Institute. Frejus and colleagues at ACED host an annual event on evidence use in Francophone West Africa, as well as a community of practice and newsletter you can subscribe to via their website. And of course you can reach out to OTT to find out more about our work on Evidence Use!