What is in your think tank’s DNA?

27 January 2012

A post by Nancy Birsdall on Fred Bergsten stepping down as head of the Peterson Institute for International Economics (and an email by Lawrence MacDonald) has drawn my attention to an issue that I find particularly interesting: what drives think tanks? Norma Correa has long been saying that when trying to understand a think thank we need to look into the life histories of their leaders (and founders). She is right. This idea is behind the interviews with Orazio Bellettini and Simon Maxwell.

Nancy mentions the DNA of the think tank as a source of inspiration for much of what makes CGD what it is:

More importantly, I imbibed much about Fred’s think tank model: a small organization (a dozen fellows), with a single shared mission and expertise, grounded in original and solid research, reflected in evidence-based accessible publications, with a point – namely better policy and practice.  The Peterson Institute’s DNA is reflected in our weekly no-holds-barred staff luncheon seminars, a bureaucracy-light administrative structure, and a devotion to saying the right thing in the right time at the right place. Today the two organizations are about the same size, with about 50 staff and an annual budget of roughly $10 million.

After more than a year of writing this blog and researching for a book on think tanks that is taking longer to write than I expected, I realise that finding that DNA is essential to understanding think tanks -whatever their shape and functions might be. Simply assuming that they ought to look like some idealised idea of a think tank won’t do.

When working with think tanks, donors who would like to support them should avoid sending in consultants to fill in some forms and the 2 day workshops that they tend to prefer. There are no cheap solutions to this.

Decoding that DNA is not something done with an ‘organisational assessment’ tool. One has to experience the organisation. I was lucky last year to spend some time in think tanks in Indonesia, Zambia, and Peru. I have been lucky, too, to develop long-term relationship with other think tanks in Ecuador and Argentina. These short visits and the frequent interaction with them has got me closer but certainly not there yet. I’ve had coffee with their staff, talked to people at all levels and involved in all kinds of jobs for the organisation, sat through management meetings, gone out for drinks and dinner with the staff, sang happy birthdays, etc.

Think tanks are as complex organisations as any other. They fulfil a great many deal of functions and have layers upon layers of changes to their structures that never quite make sense unless there are seen from the perspectives of the people who make them up.  Understanding where they are coming from is crucial to help them get where they want to go.