When working on policy influence in Africa, it is easy to encounter situations for which there is no guidebook available.
The ODI-Rapid programme has never published a research communication manual for government-controlled think tanks, for example; the World Bank has never released a handbook for research organizations working in oppressive environments.
The mentors hired by the Think Tank Initiative to strengthen the capacity of research institutions in developing countries to influence policy, confronted this stark reality. When we came together in April to share our experiences, we made the mutual discovery that there are no best practices for the real-world challenges faced by think tanks in the contexts where we work. Much of what we know about research communication does not apply in an organization making its first tentative steps toward playing a more visible role in public policy.
In Kenya, where I work, the Kenyan Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis became the country’s leading economic Think Tank because it was the government’s economic think-tank. Its research findings had a fast-track to policy influence. That is not the case any more in a country where many new voices are joining policy debates; KIPPRA’s research stands the risk of being drowned out.
To be heard above the cacophony of opinions, KIPPRA will have to communicate much more strategically, which requires big changes to how it works and changes even to its organizational culture – no easy task.
Think tanks working in African countries with a less tolerant political environment than Kenya have an even greater challenge. How should a think tank communicate its research when the findings contradict the government? When the research is at the centre of tension between federal and regional governments? When allies in closed-door meetings feel the need to be your adversary in public?
There are no easy answers to such questions, but the work of the Think Tank Initiative’s mentors has highlighted at least three principles that think tanks should consider when trying to find their own solution.
1) Stay true to the evidence. Let us admit that even in the most advanced think tanks, formulating policy recommendations from research findings can be more art than science. When researchers, who have little experience formulating recommendations, are pushed to do so by funders seeking to create a Brookings of the South, this can be disastrous. Research institutions new to the policy influence game must remain vigilant about maintaining the thread between research and recommendations, even if that means making more modest policy proposals. This is especially true in high-stakes environments.
2) Engage early, and discretely, with the government on controversial issues. For the interest of the institution as well as its researchers, some topics need simply to be avoided. This is the unfortunate reality for many think thanks. But in circumstances when a think tank has chosen to conduct research on a controversial or politicized issue, there is a way to be a “critical friend” to the government. Many of the institutions participating in the Think Tank Initiative agree that engaging the government discreetly and from the very start of the research is the best approach. More often than not, this approach will eventually win over one or two sympathetic allies to the value of doing independent, methodologically sound research on the topic. But early and honest engagement does carry its own risks: it can make the research vulnerable to political pressure and it can create demand for findings before they are ready. However, on balance, these are arguably better than the alternative – to surprise the government with a big-splash media event that presents findings critical of government and its policies.
3) Internal transparency is paramount: One of the most interesting issues to arise from the experience of mentors is how a move toward more policy involvement by a think tank can kindle internal divisions, mistrust and strife within an organization. Management in difficult environments will ultimately have to make politically sensitive decisions about whether a research project should be given more or less exposure, but they cannot appear to be doing so for the wrong reasons – and nothing breeds speculation more than silence. Even saying “this topic is too hot to go public” is better than saying nothing at all. How this transition phase is managed internally is a topic worthy of a guidebook all to itself.
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
Some really important points here Nick – i’d add to your first recommendation (Stay true to the evidence) that there is a middle way somewhere between sharing research findings and presenting recommendations. This is describing a set of policy implications which stop short of saying ‘do this’ but go further than stating a series of facts – to extrapolating a series of options of what might happen (based on the findings) if the status quo is allowed to continue. Decision-makers hate to be told what to do, but they quite like to be given some reasoned and reasonable suggestions of what might happen if they took action A or B or no action. Some research projects produce Policy Simulations which, although a tricky methodology, seek to do this in a robust and transparent way.
That’s an excellent point, Megan. I agree that there are many ways to deliver useful “recommendations” that aren’t prescriptive. Would be good to deepen this point if we write something lengthier than a blog post on this topic.
I resonate alot with #2 engaging early with the government on controversial issues, notwithstanding that the others are as critical. Discreetly or not depends on what mountain of hurdles stand before you and the implications. I have tried this before at the sub-government level and was given an opportunity to present our findings to the district council on issues about youth and governance which were very contentious during the time of the study (Note with constitutional review issues in Tanzania). However i also wrote some critique in my blog on speaking truth to power. See http://2dayintanzania.wordpress.com/2012/12/06/speaking-truth-to-power-and-some-half-truths-implications-on-research-utility-and-use/
I am not sure why you chose to call these three thoughts principles! Regarding your 2, once you embed yourself in the government system, your influence will not have the impact you desire because its more like being set up to sugar-coat reality. As you probably know, politicians don’t work on the basis of evidence or knowledge but are moved by a crisis. Be on the lookout for crises moments where you can then show them how alertness to research evidence can be part of a solution to a crisis.
Charles, thanks for the comment. On point two, consider the alternative to engaging early with the government on a controversial issue. At times, think tanks will do research without government input and then surprise them with a big public announcement that a policy is failing (or set to fail). That strategy almost never succeeds. While it’s true that working with government can bring pressure to “sugar-coat” reality, it’s still often (but not always) the best course.
And thanks for the tip on crises moments. That is very true in my experience as well. And think tanks should be prepared to move quickly when those moments arise. Cheers, Nick