Winning work from government agencies: the Managing Think Tanks series

29 April 2013

Diversification of funding sources is important for think tanks – it allows them to have more freedom and flexibility when deciding what projects to undertake and what issues to tackle. We have covered think tank funding extensively at on think tanks, and this week’s Managing Think Tanks chapter builds on this issue by focusing on how to procure governmental projects as a way of diversifying resources.

Local sponsorship lends a certain type of credibility to policy recommendations and it helps protect a think tank’s activity level against the “donor fatigue” common with international foundations. Because philanthropic support from foundations or corporations remains generally underdeveloped outside Western European and North American nations, working with government eventually becomes very important to most think tanks.

The following steps serve as guidance for winning work from government agencies. Think tanks must understand why their country’s government agencies outsource research and program evaluations, and be familiar with how they do so. Then, the chapter gives advice on how to win government contracts. Finally, it considers what to do when a think tank is in a country whose government has little or no research outsourcing.

(For those interested in the subject, there is an excellent chapter on public funds for public policy research in Latin America: a study by Lardone and Roggero, in the book: Vinculos entre conocimiento y politica: el rol de la investigacion en el debate publico en America Latina.)

Why do governments outsource research and evaluations?

There are three reasons why a government agency would ask organisations outside itself to provide it with research and program evaluations. First, these agencies usually have staff constraints; it is unlikely that a ministry could hire the amount of people necessary to conduct a proper research or evaluation. Second, government agencies do not really attract the necessary mix of professionals (economists, policy analysts, statisticians, etc.), to serve as civil servants. Third, outsourcing allows flexibility, as agencies operate a range of programs that require diverse skills and backgrounds.

How does the outsourcing process work?

Above all things, in order to outsource research, the agency needs money. They usually have a budget specifically allocated for this type of work; if not, the agency is forced to divert funds to finance it.

There are three models of research outsourcing, which can be categorised in three models: model A, model B and model C:

  1. Model A is found in many Western countries, and is unlikely to be used in transitional ones. There is a special office responsible for policy development and research that reports directly to the minister.
  2. Model B, commonly found in Eastern Europe, is less centralised than model A: responsibilities are share between the program office and the procurement office.
  3. Model C coexists with model B in most agencies and the program office has full responsibility.

 Think tanks are well advised to understand the procurement cycle, since this is the first step in developing a strategy on how they can operate effectively in this environment.

The following are the usual steps taken by government agencies to procure external research. They can vary according to the model used:

  1. Determining the annual budget. As part of regular budget preparation,the agency determines the research budget for each office;
  2. Preparing the terms of reference (TOR). 
  3. Distributing the request for proposals (RFP). The standard procedure is for a RFP to be made widely available. Often, this means it is placed on the agency’s web site on a page where all procurements appear.
  4. Scoring the proposals. For a full and open competition, proposals are formally scored using factors for award that are announced in the RFP.
  5. Negotiating the contract. The universal practice is that strictly contractual matters, such as the conditions stated in the draft contract about the firm’s right to publish the results, are the responsibility of the procurement office.
  6. Quality control and acceptance of deliverables.

As mentioned above, this chapter focuses on cultivating relationships and developing advantages for winning government contracts. In order to do this, think tanks can, for example, influence the agenda: help a government organise its future research agenda by offering ideas for projects. Having a good reputation is always a great asset, as it increases chances of being invited to bid on limited competition contracts; also, being respectful of government officials.

Winning awards from the government in many countries is an insider’s game. Partnering with another organisation with complementary skills is a good strategy. Think tanks also benefit by learning from failed efforts by evaluating projects unsuccessfully presented (and the way they were presented) to government agencies.

What to do when government agencies don’t have research budgets?

Two approaches can be used. First, demonstrating the utility of using research in the policy process. Examples of research conducted by think tanks that played an important role (particularly those funded by international organisations) can help illustrate this idea. Second, think tanks can unite and lobby government ministries and members of the legislative branch to enact legislation that would set aside resources for outsourcing research.