You may be proud of being ranked as a top think tank, but what about your staff?

16 April 2014

Much is said about rankings of think tanks. Few are happy about global or regional rankings but even fewer are willing to challenge the publicly. It is better to be on the ranking than to not be on it, is the answer (or excuse) I often get from directors who, although disagree with the University of Pensilvania ranking’s methods, still use it.

The trouble with rankings goes beyond the methods (quite a lot has been written about this already). Rankings hide what is really going on within organisations.

Think tanks can be influential or, as is the case of the UPenn ranking, visible and popular yet still be unsuitable places of work, inefficient, have questionable values, etc.

A recent post by Think Tank Watch provides an excellent example of this. Think Tank Watch reports: Troubles Brewing at Top Think Tank SIPRI? It publishes extracts from reports from an employee at SIPRI, the Swedish think tank ranked 5th in the world by the Upenn ranking.

The situation at SIPRI seems, based on the reports from the unions representing 85% of the staff, quite dramatic -and serious. I had the chance (and luck) to be a union representative at a UK based think tank and can certainly relate to their report. Among the worst issues reported by the unions are (some are direct quotes from the letter from ST and SACO (the unions) to the Foreign Ministry:

  • There have been 25 cases of staff turnover over the last year -out of 50 total staff;
  • 22 of the 26 respondents (to a survey) suffer from stress-related problems (manifesting itself in for example sleep problems, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, miscarriage, high blood pressure, pressure in the chest, and others);
  • In a letter that was presented to SIPRI’s governing board, 79% of research staff and 80% of senior support staff stated that they did not have confidence in the leadership; and
  • Eleven Grievance Procedures on different types of issues have been submitted (there are only 50 staff); among other.

I cannot comment on the accuracy of these complaints of course. On Think Tanks is not a journalistic site, after all. But the letter to the ministry seems terribly familiar. The complaints made by the staff may sound extreme but are easily found in think tanks across the world. And little if anything is ever done to address them.

There are two issues here then. The public image of a think tank and what really goes on in them can be two entirely different realities. (Or one is a reality and the other an illusion.) Judging think tanks by their cover alone can be incredibly misleading but also irresponsible.

The second point is that the welfare of think tank staff is hardly ever discussed. Difficult political conditions, funding constraints, poor governance and management, employment (because of funding) instability, and other factors, can contribute to situations where staff’s well-being can be at risk. It begs the question whether funders, particularly public funders, should not be paying greater attention to monitoring staff well-being rather than demanding impossible measures of policy impact. Paying attention to governance and management is crucial.