What is the upshot from our meditation on context as it relates to think tanks?

28 April 2015
SERIES Think tanks and their context 8 items

[Editor’s note: This is the last of a series edited by Elizabeth BrownAprille Knox, and Courtney Tolmie at Results for Development, focusing on think tanks’ context. This post is written by Elizabeth Brown. The series addresses a subject of great importance to think tanks as well as to those supporting them. It provides a substantial contribution to On Think Tanks’ efforts to promote a more nuanced discussion on the subject. If you want to be a guest editor for On Think Tanks please get in touch. This post is based on the study “Linking Think Tank Performance, Decisions, and Context,” undertaken by Results for Development Institute in partnership with the University of Washington and with generous support by the Think Tank Initiative.]

Linking Think Tank Performance, Decisions, and Context (“Linking Study”) considers context from a think tank’s perspective, separating out a think tank’s internal capacities from the external context in which it operates. We emphasized the distinction between these factors because think tanks can choose to develop their capacities (i.e. the size and skill sets of their workforces, the closeness of their ties to government officials, or the extent of their partnerships with other organizations) but they generally cannot choose or particularly effect the political, economic, donor, civic, and intellectual climate in which they operate.

If an organization mostly controls its own choices, it will need to know and leverage its capacities to confront challenges from the changing contextual environment in order to retain or maximize its influence.

Does it make sense for think tanks to carry out a comprehensive or systematic evaluation of their context to maximize their influence? Maybe. Think tanks could use the Framework for Thinking about Context as it Relates to Think Tanks and Their Decisions (below) presented in the report to develop a comprehensive set of indicators for their exogenous context and endogenous capacities. They could spring to action if they noticed any important changes in the indicators over time…. but is this a practical exercise for a busy think tank director or her staff?

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After engaging with hundreds of think tank staff members through the linking study, we’re convinced of two things: first, think tank executive directors and researchers are well aware of context, and second, they have very limited time available to carry out an analysis of context. Therefore, if more systematic knowledge of context is a useful input for think tanks to design strategy, a structured but less intensive context self-assessment tool might help them manage organizational change and implement strategic self-improvement initiatives.

Organizational self-improvement

Think tanks could potentially engage in more targeted analysis of context to inform organizational self-improvement at some of the major decision points along the road to policy influence. We think there are three major stops on this road:

  • Policy agenda decisions– Ongoing and anticipated political, economic, donor, civic and intellectual context factors at the global, country or regional level are likely to help define and influence the think tank’s policy priorities (in conjunction with its affiliated or independent strategy). Think tanks may also select a policy agenda depending on the current capacity of their staff to research it, or they may adjust their allocation of human or financial resources over a period of time to gain capacity to move in prioritized policy areas.
  • Research decisions – A think tank’s choices in setting the policy agenda set the stage for its research priorities. But the development of specific research topics depends on the interaction of staff interests and skills with exogenous factors such as available funding resources, and priority policy questions. Such policy questions might come from ongoing political, social or economic debates, or from a shift in priorities caused by a catastrophic natural storm or an epic government failure. Other research decisions have to do with the process of managing research, e.g. assigning research tasks, improving staff capacity and training, knowledge management and sharing, data and resource acquisition, and implementing quality control.
  • Communications decisions – The topic of a think tank’s communications depends heavily, but not entirely on its policy and research areas. However the frequency, messaging, communications outlets, and degree of communications responsiveness to regional, country and global events depends on the think tank’s choices in implementing its communication strategy.

Developing awareness of the external factors driving organizational decision making and knowledge of the think tank’s key strengths may help think tank leaders develop new tools for managing change. Two abbreviated stories from a recent TTI publication, ‘Action Research and Organizational Capacity Building: Journeys of change in southern think tanks’ illustrate how think tanks have used self-reflective processes to improve their research capacity. The think tanks in these stories were invited by TTI to participate in action research for organizational capacity-building.

  • Sri Lanka’s Center for Poverty Analysis (CEPA), founded in 2001, sought to improve its research quality after the external and internal context changes. When CEPA’s funding landscape shifted, it came to rely on tightly-financed short term consultancies which negatively impacted its research quality by underfunding tasks such as peer and literature review. Rather than impose cultural shifts from the top, CEPA developed an organic, bottom up, participatory approach to improving research quality. This approach reflected CEPA’s culture in managing organizational change. CEPA staff worked in small teams to improve research by generating a statement of research quality; developing a complete and comprehensive set of research guidelines; and developing a monitoring and evaluation framework.

A second example comes from Ghana’s Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA).

  • Founded in 1989 when the country was still under military rule, IEA became Ghana’s first independent public policy think tank. IEA envisions a democratic and economically viable Ghana with open and free institutions. IEA has influenced a number of policies and contributed to Ghana’s Whistle Blower’s Act, the Right to Information Bill, and the (Presidential) Transition Act, among others. IEA’s performance depends on its credibility and relevance to current debates. As a result, the IEA board continually seeks ways of improving research quality. During its self-assessment, a core group of researchers met every other week for “research in progress meetings” to discuss ways for IEA to retain its policy relevance, train new hires, implement knowledge-management, improve technical survey skills, and balance its long and short-term policy responsiveness. IEA credits this regular engagement with its ability to institute new staff training; staff coaching and peer review processes; staff performance evaluation; a system of financial rewards for excellence; and an initiative to improve organizational knowledge management capacity as a result of the intervention.

The two examples usefully illustrate how exogenous context factors interacted with organizational capacities to shape specific decisions regarding research capacity. The stories both suggest that internal and external factors set the stage for management action. In CEPA’s case, a shift in funding resources caused research quality to deteriorate. CEPA’s choice was to take steps to improve research quality using a method that was consistent with its organizational culture. IEA addressed the challenge of institutionalizing research capacity by assigning a core group of research staff to analyze the problems and develop solutions.

Taken together with the Linking Study, the stories suggests a possible set of questions think tanks could ask themselves in order to strategically manage key decisions:

  1. What is the problem?
  2. Which factors affect it?
  3. Are the factors changing or static over time?
  4. Are these factors external to the organization? Or, are they choice variables?
  5. What impact do the external factors have on organizational choices?
  6. What choices have we made that now need to be changed?
  7. What existing capacities can we leverage to implement an effective and lasting change?
  8. How can we design a change process that uses our strengths to address the problem?
  9. Is there any other action we can take to address things beyond our control? (i.e. more regular monitoring of external factors in the future, or by seeking to change the external environment in some way).

These questions could be further developed into a self-assessment exercise. Ideally, such an exercise would require a minimum of staff time and resources. Perhaps a small number of staff members (in both cases, about 10-20 people) could engage in regular meetings over a period of months to answer the questions and develop ideas on how to address them. The Framework for Thinking about Context as it Relates to Think Tanks and Their Decisions presented on p. 14 of the report could serve as a useful visual reminder of the external factors that may be influencing the problem’s development or persistence. Identifying the factors is important because context factors can be dynamic and subject to change. Thus carrying the implementation of a solution into the future might entail monitoring key factors on an ongoing basis.