Knowing your audience

The role of information partners in policy influence among think tanks: Lessons from STIPRO

By 15 July 2014

The Science, Technology and Innovation Policy Research Organization (STIPRO) is a Tanzanian think tank that undertakes research to inform policies in the area of Science, Technology and Innovation (ST&I) for productive sectors which includes agriculture, manufacturing, energy and natural resources. In the past four years, STIPRO, like any other young organization, had been facing challenges especially on the communication aspect. This forced the organization to conduct a communication audit which indicated that STIPRO did not have a network of information partners resulting in difficulties for stakeholders outreach.

A think tank is basically an organization that performs research in order to influence policy on various issues – it could be social, political, economical, technology, and culture. Most often, people confuse the role of think tanks and academic research institutions. The major difference lies in communication and policy influence: whereas think tanks’ major concern is policy influence/change, academic institutions are more concerned about knowledge generation under the assumption that it is the duty of policy makers to translate research findings into policy action if they wish.

By definition, information partners are people who have influence in communication/media landscape in a given locality. Those might include journalists, effective bloggers, people with influence to the public and on social media, parliamentarians, musicians etc. From a technical point of view, it is often difficult to deal with specific individuals, and we have found that it is more effective to work with those already in a network. For instance, if your think tank is focusing on sport, you can link up with Sports Journalist network; the same applies for health, environment, gender, democracy, science and technology as well.

An example from our experience in this area may be helpful for other think tanks. Four years ago, when STIPRO was first established, there was some thinking that media does not pay attention to ST&I policy issues because the general public in Tanzania is only interested in social and political issues. It was only when we decided to enter into a partnership with the TASJA (Tanzania, Science, and Journalist Association) that things changed for STIPRO. The partnership came about through Mr. Greyson Mutembei, who we once contacted for media coverage to our Annual Research workshop. We spent some time talking after the event and he introduced us to the whole network (TASJA). Afterwards, STIPRO came up with a proposal to engage TASJA in a more formal partnership that entails working collaboratively.

TASJA have members who are journalists working in different media houses in Tanzania, and the partnership between STIPRO and TASJA has mutual benefits for both sides. STIPRO offers capacity building trainings to TASJA so that they are able to cover ST&I issues adequately, and initiates research projects for ST&I media coverage that are implemented by both TASJA and STIPRO. TASJA on the other hand ensures STIPRO research products reach the public, provides adequate media coverage for STIPRO events, and helps in following up on how STIPRO is reported in the media. This kind of partnership can be very fruitful in policy influence and organizational visibility in any context.

Lastly, although I am aware that think tanks operate under different contexts, two things remain in common: one is research and the other relates to research uptake in terms of policy change or applicability of research results in making a difference. The most important question is how do you achieve this impact and ensure the public you target will now have access to your research findings? The significance of information partners goes beyond just reporting of the issue to the public, but that it provides in depth focused media coverage. This is because a think tank will be dealing with informers who are well knowledgeable on the research agenda of a particular think tank. In sum, I encourage think tank leaders or communication heads to look for information partners as one of their communication enablers.

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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 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

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