In July 2013, we held the inception meeting of the Think Tank Initiative’s Policy Engagement and Communications Program (TTI PEC) to support Anglophone African think thanks in Accra, Ghana. Following the event, I posted a blog outlining some of the major challenges the 13 think tanks across Anglophone Africa were grappling with and needed to overcome in order to expand or sustain their policy influencing capabilities. You can access the blog here.
Since then, think tanks have been working with individual mentors to diagnose their PEC shortcomings and prepare and execute a strategic work-plan. While the time that has lapsed between their diagnostic exercise and work-plan implementation has been short, a number of fascinating improvements have taken effect. In a series of phone calls, Executive Directors and Communications Officers, spoke about their progress and what it means for them in the months ahead.
I. Confronting the institutional and project-level communications and strategy divide.
When a key research or project opportunity presents itself, it’s hard to say no. However, some think tanks are pausing to reflect on whether new opportunities actually fit within their wider institutional strategies, and how to best leverage these prospects. Kwame Owino (@IEAKwame), Executive Director of IEA Kenya noted for example, that “instead of adding on [new projects] we need to integrate them from the start and continue reassessing all program areas.”
II. Taking multiple steps towards a better understanding of the policy and media landscape.
Among several of the challenges faced by think tanks is the difficulty in fully capturing or monitoring policy developments and changes. In the face of these challenges, IEA Kenya and KIPPRA have been using a variety of methods to better understand the landscape, from conducting in-depth literature reviews of public policy processes across multiple sectors in their country to engaging in stakeholder mapping exercises. STIPRO from Tanzania and EPRC from Uganda have also conducted stakeholder and media surveys, to engage and learn from policy actors and to study and bring to attention under-reported issues in the media.
III. Researchers becoming avid communicators.
Kwame Owino started experimenting with a weekly 600-700 word syndicated blog column in The Nation, Kenya’s largest circulation paper, to see the effects it would have on IEA Kenya’s visibility. Since his blogging, he has noticed increased traffic to the think tank’s website and inquiries from interested entities. Meanwhile, though some researchers and Executive Directors haven’t begun their own blog columns, a majority have increased their appreciation for the usage of different social media. Elizabeth Birabwa (@EBirabwa) noted for example that at EPRC, “researchers have come to realize that sharing information via peer-reviewed journals is not the only effective way.” They have avidly taken on blogging and writing opinion pieces for newspapers and since August 2013 several blogs have been posted including five at the Brookings AGI. In addition, 13 opinion pieces written by EPRC researchers have been carried in the Daily Monitor, the Observer, the New Vision and the East African Newspaper.
IV. Aligning ambition against reality.
The initial milestone of the TTI PEC program in Anglophone Africa involved a diagnostic exercise whereby mentors interviewed key think tank staff to reflect on their institutional and project-level PEC shortcomings. While the exercise was taxing to a few think tanks, some felt it helped in two important ways: (a) Aligning ambition against the reality of their situation (b) Identifying overlooked or new weak areas to improve on. For example, EPRC came to realize that their internet infrastructure was a priority to fix in order to sustain their engagement with key stakeholders and to provide an accessible and intuitive platform for sharing research. CSEA from Nigeria learned that their engagement strategies for target audiences seemed clear in writing but not so much in practice.
V. Moving towards strategic thinking and experimentation.
During the conversations, I noticed think tanks discussing a balance of concrete research products and communications tools with big picture strategy and an eagerness to learn new things. A few think tanks mentioned that while their strategies are still in progress, they have started experimenting with data visualization methods. Others have started using impact logs to think about which tactics succeed, and which have not been working well for them. A majority were ensuring that concrete steps being taken now aligns with and shapes the strategy they are planning for the next five years.
Overall, the think tanks are becoming a lot more prepared to work on ongoing and unpredictable issues with a flexible, open and practical point of view. In the coming days at the second TTI PEC convening in Nairobi, Kenya, they will talk further about the areas in which they have excelled or shown the greatest change and discuss practical ways to confront problem areas (whether it is having a clear sense of how to target their audiences, engaging the media, resourcing limitations, evaluation shortcomings, or translating strategic plans and thinking into action). For real-time updates at the meeting, follow #ttipec on twitter!
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
Image Courtesy of SIDA/www.sida.se