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Positioning think tanks for policy influence

September 9, 2019

The Think Tank Initiative (TTI) was founded on the belief that strong and independent policy research organizations play an important role in informing and shaping policies in developing countries. But influencing policy is complex, long-term, and non-linear — and it demands more than producing high‑calibre research.

Research highlights

  • A reputation for independence rests on crosscutting organizational strengths.

  • Engaging policymakers early in the research cycle helps to ensure uptake.

  • Think tanks can play a positive role in engaging citizens in policy processes.

Across the developing world, think tanks operate in varied circumstances. Some operate in environments with traditions of civic participation; in others, non-governmental actors have limited input. Some think tanks have grown out of social movements, others have evolved from university research centres, and still others have long-standing ties to government. Despite these differences, all think tanks must grapple with political realities in their local contexts. In addition to producing knowledge, they need the internal capacity to navigate complex terrain.

After 10 years of support for policy research institutions, TTI has learned that among the many factors that shape a think tank’s influence, two are key:

  • a reputation as an independent organization that provides credible research; and

  • agility in navigating the local policy landscape and participating in policy debates.

Organizational strengths and engaging policymakers early in the research cycle can help think tanks enhance these attributes. Institutions can also play a positive role in fostering civic engagement, which can make a policy environment more receptive to evidence-based solutions. Civic culture and engagement may be more challenging to address, but they are equally compelling.

Independence rests on organizational strengths

Independence is closely linked to financial sustainability, which in turn rests on a number of organizational strengths. TTI’s final external evaluation noted that core funding has helped position grantees for policy influence by increasing their independence and credibility, staff reputations, and communication skills. Sustaining this independence over the long term demands diversifying revenue sources and strengthening internal capacities, including leadership and governance, human resources, communications and networking abilities, and strategic planning.

Initiative prospective agricole et rurale (IPAR) of Senegal exemplifies the journey that some less‑established TTI partners made along a pathway to influence. IPAR was newly registered when it first partnered with TTI. Today, it is regarded as a leading policy research organization in West Africa, and its perspectives on land tenure, agriculture, and rural development issues are widely sought by donors and other stakeholders. IPAR also works closely with the Government of Senegal in tracking progress on the Sustainable Development Goals. The Ministry of Economics, Finance and Planning has used IPAR’s research as a foundation to involve producers and other key stakeholders in a dialogue aimed at strengthening Senegal’s agricultural subsidies scheme.

To reduce institutional risk, IPAR used TTI resources to formulate a strategic plan and communications and resource mobilization strategies. Its financial sustainability relies on a combination of membership contributions, core and project funding, and, more recently, work with the private sector. It also addressed key issues related to office space, staff recruitment, and office procedures. IPAR has evolved into a strong and independent organization, with only 12% of funding coming from TTI — down from 70%.

Engaging policymakers early in the research cycle

Two policy makers

A think tank’s ability to influence policies is strongly shaped by external factors, especially the shifting openings and barriers in the political context. Remaining attuned to the environment requires agility in responding to these shifts, which rest on its stakeholder-engagement skills and in choosing the right points of entry for policy engagement.

Uganda’s adoption of a National Fertilizer Policy in 2016 marked the culmination of years of research and collaboration by the Economic Policy Research Centre (EPRC). It was EPRC’s foundational study that highlighted the declining fertility of Uganda’s soils and the need for a national policy to improve agricultural yields. With support from the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, EPRC assisted the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries in a five-year process of developing a new policy framework to guide the manufacturing, distribution, sale, and use of fertilizers. This entailed multiple rounds of consultation to ensure that policy development was informed by farmers, industry groups, and other key stakeholders. EPRC was also instrumental in conducting a regulatory impact assessment of the policy and developing the National Fertilizer Strategy and Investment Plan to guide its implementation.

Involving citizens in policy processes

On their own, think tanks are insufficient to create a culture of evidence-based policymaking. Citizens must be able to demand accountability and participate in decision-making. With TTI support, several think tanks involved community representatives, the media, and advocates for marginalized groups directly in research. This practice strengthens research design while helping communities understand the value of evidence and their own participation in the policymaking process.

In Nigeria, the Centre for Population and Environmental Development (CPED) galvanized citizen participation in building lasting peace in the oil-rich Niger Delta region. With support from IDRC, CPED helped to develop a process that would give communities affected by violence a voice in amending the government’s 2009 amnesty program, which largely benefitted ex-militants. Led by multi-stakeholder implementation committees established in five local government areas, community representatives were trained in data collection methods. Through surveys, interviews, and discussion groups, they tapped the views of women, youth, elders, former militants, and others. Through successive rounds of consultation, a comprehensive new amnesty program is emerging. In addition to securing key demands such as infrastructure and social welfare investments that benefit the wider population, citizen groups are now actively holding their elected representatives to account.

In Latin America, some think tanks have leveraged election periods to engage citizens on public policy issues. In the run-up to Ecuador’s 2017 presidential election, Grupo Faro led the non-partisan Ecuador Decide initiative to encourage democratic participation. Ecuadorians of voting age received a Facebook invitation to access the Ecuador Decide website where they could learn more about the eight presidential candidates. Voters with limited internet access were engaged through partnerships with local radio stations.

Putting lessons into practice

Three African farmers cultivating land

Our experience suggests that achieving policy influence involves the entire organization. The reputation for independence that think tanks strongly associate with their capacity for influence demands crosscutting strengths: effective leadership and strategic planning, financial sustainability strategies, high calibre research and administrative talent, and skills in communications and networking.

Donors can help position think tanks for influence through flexible funding arrangements that provide for organizational strengthening, while reinforcing think tanks’ independence.

Think tanks and their funders need to give more attention to the wider policymaking context, with an eye to building a healthy environment for civic debate and evidence-based policymaking. By bringing stakeholders directly into the research process, action research can enhance citizen participation while closing the gap between researchers and policymakers.

This article was adapted from one of seven briefs that distill 10 years of learning from TTI. Read the original TTI Insight “Positioning think tanks for policy influence” for more information on TTI’s approach and successes in supporting think tanks to achieve influence in policy debates.