Making your research accessible

Making policy engagement and communications low effort for think tanks

By 29/05/2014

From April 28 to 30, the Think Tank Initiative (TTI), R4D and Comms Consult held the second and final convening for Anglophone Africa think tanks in the TTI Phase 1 Policy Engagement and Communications Program. We developed a meograph summing up the workshop story, which you can view here:

Our aim was to explore common themes and priorities that emerged from the mentorship activities and progress made on these activities; provide additional technical support for think tanks; and brainstorm strategies for sustaining policy engagement and communications learning beyond the end of the project.

These goals translated into a dynamic agenda, one that involved different types of exercises and learning opportunities – from break-out sessions, an external panel to mapping stakeholders and brainstorming strategies against mock scenarios. The workshop began with a quick recap of what happened over the past nine months and a lively people scavenger hunt to break the ice (see pictures here).

While the workshop largely achieved the goals we set out, we also learned a lot about what works well in peer learning – and what we could improve upon for future sessions. I use a SWOT analysis (typically conducted for assessing internal and external risks to come to an informed decision) unconventionally to reflect on what worked and what didn’t work within the context of the workshop.

[STRENGTHS] Peer Learning, Learning by Doing, and Invited Experts

Three key components of the workshop agenda worked well based on feedback provided by think tanks.

I. Peer Learning: Your peers aren’t just peers; they can also be experts and mentors. This became clear in the sessions on M&E, institutional-level communications strategy, and stakeholder mapping. We had a few think tanks present on tools they have been using to monitor and evaluate their outputs, activities and influence which to a few was helpful given their “insider knowledge” that some external advisors just don’t have. For example, some advice beaming from think tanks included:

  • Involving policymakers early in the process of developing policy inputs if you want sustained engagement and buy-in from them
  • Blogging since it can generate media interest
  • Being proactive about seeking audience feedback – using their responses to formulate your policy direction and elements you use to undertake your outreach
  • Defining policy engagement as a process, one in which you have to document the “process” just as much as you track the outputs
  • Thinking of social media policies as not a shiny manual but more of a conversation with upper management about what you’re doing

Second, many breakout sessions entailed think tanks from one country sitting together, for instance to provide feedback on their institutional-wide and project-level narratives. In one conversation between The Economic and Social Research Foundation (ESRF) (@ESRFTZ) and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy Research Organization (STIPRO) about ESRF’s development news database, STIPRO was listing the several key attributes that ESRF’s database could offer, despite the fact that the two could be competitors.

Third, during stakeholder and policy mapping exercise, think tanks were keen to hear about IEA Kenya’s (@IEAKenya) policy literature review and how that helped to unpack a great deal of uncertainty about specific sectors. In this session, Nick Benequista (@benequista) gave a basic overview of techniques and questions used to map policy stakeholders along with case studies of techniques the Kenyan think tanks used, including the desk-based literature review. His presentation was followed by a hands-on mapping exercise where think tanks were asked to identify and chart priority stakeholders in a select sector along an interest and power matrix.

II. Hands-on exercises: The stakeholder mapping session and a learning by doing exercise led by R4D and Consultant David Olson (@davidjolson) pushed out critical insights from think tanks. For example, in thinking about public engagement, one think tank supposed a key factor why some think tanks can’t attract mass audiences is because “we think of ourselves too seriously and are more focused on things like credibility at the expense of understanding and engagement.” Interestingly, on the flipside, some think tanks actually recognized how important it is to reach out to the underdogs in their country, namely civil society organizations or even farmers.

III. Expert Panel: In the course of one hour, we invited two mentors, Sue Martin and Kudzai Makombe, who previously directed and advised media organizations and Obinna Anyadike (@Enugu62), Editor-in-Chief of IRIN News, to discuss best practices in engaging media on research. Obinna spoke about IRIN’s achievements in raising advocacy around the HIV/AIDS epidemic and used that as the basis for his advice for think tanks to be persistent, visual, creative and accessible to journalists while also keeping in mind that they too must understand the media. For example, he advised not to “say ‘no comment’, it drives people bonkers!”

[WEAKNESSES or LESSONS LEARNED] Crowded and Broad Agenda

I. Crowded and busy agenda: We were ambitious with our agenda given there was a lot to cover and a lot of interest in many diverse topics; however workshops can only hit the tip of the iceberg. By covering many topics across the two days, we sacrificed depth. In hindsight, it would have been great to dedicate a day or half a day to a smaller number of topics, particularly M&E and developing an institutional-level communications strategy.

II. Not catering to all levels of think tank capabilities: This was a difficult effort – and a double-edged sword. The same differences in think tank ability that really helped with peer learning also meant that many sessions catered to one level of think tank capacity and not others. On M&E for example, we organized two different sessions according to whether think tanks had zero or basic and advanced M&E understanding or experience. However, these sessions could also have benefited from speaking to the issues think tanks faced for operating within a university setting or government.

[OPPORTUNITIES] New Questions and Learnings

In a traditional SWOT analysis, opportunities are considered in the context of external trends and activities. Here, I discuss “opportunities” in terms of future lessons and areas to explore for PEC.

What emerged from the workshop were key avenues for learning more about PEC and improving PEC-focused programs in the near future. New areas for exploration that materialized and will be addressed in a number of thought pieces over the coming months, include:

  • Resourcing and Budgeting: Providing more in-depth information on how to budget and resource communications. Additional guidance on this will be available in the coming year by Ray Struyk and R4D who are working together to publish Struyk’s new book on improving think tank management.
  • Good Enough Communications: Understanding what is “good enough” communications for a think tank with limited to no communications capacity. Does a think tank need to have a perfect communications team or processes in place to get things done?
  • Balancing Research and Opinion: Striking a balance between focusing on research and opinion, which is arguably becoming more important for positioning when approached with an opportunity to address public feedback, an external event or media interview.
  • Virtual and Peer Learning: Addressing the challenges in maximising peer learning and especially virtual learning in Africa. This would include understanding how best to make new skills visible, the costs of such learning, the infrastructural challenges of virtual learning, and the skillsets needed to participate in such sessions.
  • Mentorship: Outlining the key attributes of a good mentor and mentee which would include experiences of think tanks on being mentored; tips on how to maximize what can be achieved from mentorship; issues about outsiders coming into organizations – what can go wrong and what helps to make it go right; and the distinction between mentor vs coach vs consultant vs advisor.

[THREATS] Infrastructure

In an unconventional way of using SWOT, I think of threats in terms of challenges faced during the execution and planning of the workshop. The workshop faced a number of infrastructural issues. A few of the sessions depended on providing a real-time demo of the Research to Action website to alert think tanks to a library of resources at their disposal. This session couldn’t go as planned due to wifi connectivity issues.

At the end, we were still convinced that despite the challenges in operationalizing PEC, its value in getting think tanks to think more strategically about what, where and for whom they’re producing research, and even getting a better sense of how influential or unique they are, is unquestionable. This is undoubtedly the first success of the TTI PEC program.


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