Making your research accessible

Think Tanks explore shared challenges in influencing policy

By 20 September 2013

In mid-July, twelve Anglophone African think tanks convened in Accra, Ghana to embark on a yearlong process, administered by the Think Tank Initiative’s Policy Engagement and Communications Program, to strengthen their ability to synthesize, package and deliver evidence in a way that ensures policy-influencers can efficiently use it. TTIPEC is predicated on the belief that research-based evidence is among one of the pillars of strong think tank performance and effectiveness, and that what largely fuels the impact of research is policy engagement and communications (PEC).

That said, influencing policy or generally making a research-driven “impact” has its own challenges. Taking into account their own developments and experiences to-date, think tanks, mentors and program implementers collectively voiced a number of PEC-specific challenges at the inception workshop. We have highlighted some of these below.

Influencing policy is a time-intensive, risky, and convoluted process.

Time-intensivebecause it depends on being anticipatory, responsive and strategic as the need and opportunity emerges for policy input and evidence.

Risky – because the process also involves engaging with many actors who have their own biases and agendas.  Some of the think tanks reported having encountered or overheard incidences of media misreporting and corruption.  Moreover, think tanks are in a precarious position – they’re responding to changing political pressures and contexts with policymakers that have the potential to affect their independent stances.

Convoluted – because the route to translating research into policy inputs and recommendations, which are then acted upon and implemented, is unclear and indirect. Other factors that complicate the process are the urgency and timeliness of the issues; how conducive the political environment is to think tanks; competing donor priorities on what to report and capture; and the heavy usage of jargon which can often impede the clarity of need and theory of change.

Policy engagement can be hindered by the lack of internal coordination.

Beyond just enumerating areas to build expertise in, think tanks at the workshop also sought more clarity on the polarized worlds of research and communications. Particularly in the context of recruiting, they emphasized the difficulty in crafting job descriptions for communications professionals, researchers, and executive directors whose roles are very much intertwined. In fact, how do you drive these individuals to collaborate since they work with very distinct work processes, incentives and conceptions of success?

Measuring impact involves being honest about your own competencies.

In response to draft qualitative and quantitative indicators presented by R4D, think tanks suggested focusing on the mechanics of implementing communications and policy engagement strategies. Is it possible to implement a strong PEC strategy and related monitoring without overburdening staff with more tasks? Would they also perceive additional reporting of metrics, such as frequency and type of interactions with policy-makers, an infringement of their privacy or a signal of mistrust?

This dovetails into an earlier point mentioned – researchers and communicators aren’t always on the same page in how they conceive the importance of one another’s work and what success and influence means. Certain communications metrics can be at odds with researchers who dislike how their work can get filtered and shared. Long-term planning doesn’t also work smoothly if implementers all have different priorities in mind.

This list of challenges is certainly not limited to just the Anglophone African experience. In fact, think tanks also learned from NIYEL Executive Director Valerie Traore about barriers faced by their program counterparts in Francophone Africa. These lessons and experiences have been outlined in a TTI blog-post.

With these challenges in mind, in the next month the PEC program will lead a customized diagnostic for think tanks and mentors to tell their stories, understand fully the situation and context in which they are operating and to use this information to develop a plan for improvement.

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This blog post has been produced as part of the Think Tank Initiative’s Policy Engagement and Communications (PEC) programme. However,  these are the author’s personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of TTI. You can find all ongoing outputs related to this project via the PEC mini-site on Research to Action. To get updates from the PEC programme and be part of the discussion sign-up to our RSS or email updates. You can also follow our progress via Twitter using the following hashtag #ttipec