Working with governments: lessons from Latin America

19 October 2017

[This article is part of a series of reflections from trainers of several capacity building activities within the OTT Consulting project: Strengthening the sustainability of ILAIPP and its members.]

This article offers an overview of some of the main ideas developed and presented at a webinar on working with governments in the context of an effort to support the Latin American network of think tanks, ILAIPP, to explore new funding models. It brings together the views of three panelists: Ángela Penagos, from RIMISP (Chile and working regionally), Oswaldo Molina, from Universidad del Pacífico (Peru), and Juan José Rodil, from CIPPEC (Argentina).

Why should think tanks work with governments?

According to Oswaldo Molina, there are many opportunities for think tanks to engage with governments that result from the way the state is, itself, set up. The institutions of the state often count with fewer staff than they actually need to deliver their functions, are immersed in day-to-day activities, and tend to be staffed by non-specialised staff.

This means they have to outsource activities that demand specialised knowledge and imply medium to long term results. For instance, policy design processes often involve questions and challenges in which think tanks can make a difference. They may be able to provide the evidence base to support the design of programmes or projects.

Juan José Rodil offered a foundational reason why think tanks should engage with government: this is what they are supposed to do, their raison d’etre, he argued. Engaging and working with government is necessary for think tanks to fulfill their missions.

What can think tanks do to work with governments more effectively?

According to Rodil, learning to work with governments, however, can take time. During CIPPEC’s first 7 years the think tank focused on developing its research capacity and agenda. Their policy briefs were stronger in research than policy -certainly in terms of reach. In 2007, CIPPEC reviewed its approach. Up until then, it had managed its engagement with government through the communications team and through the personal interactions of individual researchers or programmes. CIPPEC opted for a new model and established a unit in charge of managing all its projects with the public sector. Its mission was to centralise, strengthen and develop new linkages with the public sector and the administrations that govern it.

As a consequence, funding from the public sector increased significantly: 1685% between 2010 and 2013. Such was the increase that CIPPEC introduced a rule to limit the share of income from the public sector to 33% of the total budget.

What instances of the policy making process present more opportunities for think tanks? For what type of projects are they usually requested?

For Ángela Penagos, the biggest opportunity for think tanks are in helping to design policy and programmes. Policy is still the responsibility of the state -governments are accountable for policy- but the skills to design them are increasingly outside government.

Moreover, governments have little time and capacity for pilots and long policy development processes; rather they are more interested in and better prepared to implement policy. They require solutions in the short term, and tools that are applicable very quickly, and think tanks can help satisfy that demand.

In particular, RIMISP is usually asked to support the State with policy evaluations, operational designs and capacity building for decision-makers.

Who in government tends to show a greater interest in working with think tanks?

But working with government is not an impersonal affair. It involved engaging with individuals. Molina argues that not everyone in government is easy to work with. The need for evidence does not necessarily translate into an effective demand. He suggests that the areas in government that are better disposed to work with think tanks are those that are not focused on operational roles but in activities linked to the design for policy, regulation and the generation and use of evidence.

A great development in Peru is the growth of divisions in charge of monitoring and evaluation, economic research, policy teams, etc.

Are there any differences in working with governments at the national and local levels?

Whether the government is local or national should not guide the think tank’s approach. At CIPPEC, Rodil, argued, the entry-point is the policy issue. By focusing on the policy issue and what needs to be done to bring about evidence informed change they are able to identify opportunities to work with governments at the local or national level.

With this in mind, there are differences, of course. These have to do with different bureaucratic structures and the dimension of government scope and resources. The projects championed by the national government tend to be significantly more ambitious than those with local governments.

However, working at the local level offered opportunities for innovation than might not be available at the national level. And lessons learned and successes achieved at the local level can then be used to argue for more ambitious projects at the national level. In that sense, working with local government can be a good investment for the think tank.

Moreover, in a federal country like Argentina, working at multiple government levels allows generating the necessary balances for the organisation to remain politically independent.

What other advantages and opportunities may emerge from working with governments?

For Penagos, working with government offers the best chance to influence policy. But it is also an important source of funding, particularly in a context in which foreign funding is facing cuts and public grants for policy research are not readily available.

Molina agrees. Working with government opens an opportunity to inform policy directly. Sometimes the government can be a funder but others it can be a partner, offering access to data and decision makers. The video below illustrates such an opportunity.

It was also stated that working with governments is an important asset when approaching other types of donors, which usually value that experience as it demonstrates a greater capacity to influence public decisions.

What are the risks involved in working with governments and how might they be mitigated?

Working with the government is not without risks. Oswaldo Molina considers the following three:

  1. A change in policy that can undermine the research project; especially when these are long-term studies. Changes can be expensive and affect many within an organisation. He described the case of a researcher who had to return the grant to the funder.
  2. Changes in policymakers which may paralyse a project.
  3. Changes in government that could risk payment.

Some of these risks can be mitigated by working on areas that have less to do with the political cycle.

For Juan José Rodil there are two main risks:

  1. Political risk due to a close association of a particular government or party. This could come as a result of working on many projects for or with the same government or ministry or from an association with a minister or president.
  2. Financial risk due to an irregularity or uncertainty of payment.

One way to address this is to consider a higher overhead for government projects. Another is to try to approach several political parties and offer advice and support. And, finally, to limit the proportion of the budget that comes from a single source -including government.

Moreover, responding to all the requests from governments might lead to the loss of agenda focus by the think tank. The organisation needs to find the equilibrium to support governments urgencies but at the same time align that work with its own mission and areas of interest.

How can think tanks begin to develop a strategy to engage with government?

Ángela Penagos suggests developing an offer that governments need. For instance, produce or systematise data that they do not have. To be useful, think tanks need to understand how the government actually works. It is not enough to be thematic experts, knowledge about how government works and how to bring about change is important. The think tank can gain that knowledge by hiring professionals with working experience in public agencies. This will also help the think tank go through the bureaucratic hallways of the State, an important aspect when if the think tank is contracted directly by the government.

Juan Rodil agrees: hiring researchers with government experience helps identify opportunities. Another way to approach government is to work with parties and candidates in the run up to elections. This is an approach that many think tanks in Latin America have adopted.

How to combine research with policy advice?

Evidence must be at the center of all the work. Evidence should address concrete policy problems and orient on their solution. Think tanks need to use evidence to systematyse leading cases, do more comparative analysis and building scenarios with alternative solutions to policy problems. This work should be underpinned by more communications efforts, more publicity of available knowledge and more training of decision makers.