Knowing your audience

Policy or process? A strategic decision for think tanks

By 10 February 2014

There is a presumption that good policy research bolsters democracy.

But consider this example from Kenya.

The country’s leading think-tank, the Kenyan Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (KIPPRA), was concerned when legislators began contemplating price controls in 2010 in response to the rising cost of basic food – a consequence both of a global price spike and of some local problems with Kenyan food markets.

KIPPRA marshalled the compelling evidence against price controls; in Kenya, as elsewhere, price controls have given only short-term relief to the poor, creating food shortages and even causing the collapse of whole sectors in the long term. Though a bill was eventually passed to enable the government to enact price controls, a Senate committee heeded KIPPRA’s warnings and has since been able to temper implementation of the bill.

This was a victory for evidence-based policy-making, but to the many social movements that had been pushing for a government response to the price spike, the incident felt like a defeat. This had been an opportunity for KIPPRA to influence policy, but it was also an opportunity for the think tank to bring citizen groups, lawmakers and industry stakeholders together in a shared understanding of the challenge facing the country. It was, in short, a lost opportunity to democratize the public policy process – to respond to legitimate demands by citizens with something more than populist measures.

And this is where think tanks must make a strategic decision that will fundamentally affect the way that they approach their communications and advocacy work. Will they focus their efforts on influencing what policies are made, or will they also concern themselves with how policies are made?

That question became critical in the Think Tank Initiative’s support for policy engagement and communication work in Kenya targeting two research organizations.

Policy or process?

Think tanks thrive in a democratic environment. Experiences from Mali and other countries on the African continent suggest that demand for research and evidence rises quickly after the fall of authoritarian regimes. Progressive decentralization also favours the emergence of diverse political actors with an interest in research.

But think tanks are not only beneficiaries of democratization; they can also be stewards of the process. In Kenya, KIPPRA chooses to focus its efforts on producing quality research and on ensuring that existing policy debates consider the evidence. This strategy makes a great deal of sense given KIPPRA’s position as a parastatal organization.

The choice is different for Kenya’s Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), which sees its role as to help others to participate in the public policy process. The IEA puts more emphasis, for example, on building the capacity of other organizations to understand budget documents. It also positions itself as a broker, or channel of communication, for those wishing to influence the Treasury on budgetary issues.

Making strategic choices

This strategic choice thus has big implications for how, where, when and to whom a think tank communicates, and it has further implications for how a think tank should measure its own success. Under any circumstance, policy influence can be tricky to achieve, and doubly difficult to prove. When striving also to build the capacity of others to participate in the public policy process, a research organization cannot reasonably be expected to achieve the same level of policy influence – at least not in the short term.

Of course, this is not an all or nothing decision; different research projects or institutional divisions might emphasize the process or the policies in differing measure, as along a spectrum. But any organization, when contemplating their strategies and objectives, will certainly benefit from asking the question.

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This post has been produced as part of the Think Tank Initiative’s Policy Engagement and Communications (PEC) programme. However,  these are the authors 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.