4 ways to improve #globaldev think tank management

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin. Think tanks can play a major role in helping countries find innovative solutions for the challenges they face. Photo by: Fredrik Rubensson / CC BY-SA

From the expanding burden of climate change to the unforeseen impact of rapid globalization, policymakers face a complex landscape of unprecedented circumstances — with increasingly higher stakes. With the growing complexity of local, national and global problems, policymakers’ need for timely research, concise information and quality analysis is greater than ever.

Think tanks are uniquely positioned to fill this need due to their ability to bridge research and policy. This added value has seen them institutionally expand their role, reach and number in the past two decades. According to the “2013 Global Go To Think Tanks Index” report, there are now over 6,500 think tanks working in over 180 countries.

There is ample evidence that think tanks can play a major role in helping countries find innovative solutions for the challenges they face. This is especially the case in developing nations, where these organizations can do much to empower governments and populations by conducting research and providing an evidence base for sound public policymaking.

I have spent many years exploring and analyzing the successes and failures of think tanks to effectively influence policy. And I have found one major — and often overlooked — factor that can greatly impact a think tank’s success: management.

Best management practices form a foundation upon which think tanks can conduct quality research and promote sound, innovative and effective public policies that benefit society. On the other hand, poorly managed think tanks can fail to affect policy or, worse, advance policies that harm. This is especially important in developing countries, where the need for more and better think tanks is perhaps most pronounced.

Based on extensive research and many case studies from developing, recently developed and developed nations, I have come up with a practical guide to help think tanks improve their management practices.

I would like to share four of the most crucial elements:

1. Continual reflection on management.
2. Attraction of and investment in talented staff.
3. Peer review systems for good research quality control.
4. Strong internal and external communications.

Like with most of life’s challenges, the first step to improvement is recognizing what to improve.

Improving think tank management requires continually reflecting on how well a think tank is being managed. It’s quite possible to have serious management problems that are not immediately apparent, but may be holding back the entire organization.

For example, a think tank can have the best policy analysts in the world, and the world’s most influential policy advocate as executive director. But if it can’t control costs or steer revenue toward the most important activities because of a bad financial management system, the whole organization can end up in jeopardy.

Moreover, a think tank will have an extremely hard time hiring or retaining the best policy analysts if it does not invest in its people. People are perhaps the most important asset. However, finding and keeping great people is often a challenge. I found that around 85 percent of African and Asian think tanks find it very hard to recruit capable young analysts. Those that can afford to do so, bid high salaries for these talented individuals.

Good managers will invest in their staff — beyond monetarily. They create an environment where talented people want to work and provide incentives to keep them motivated to produce their highest quality research. This requires mentoring and providing opportunities for new challenges and professional development.

It takes time and energy, but is central to the third element of think tank improvement: research quality control. Quality research can determine a think tank’s effectiveness — and even survival.

Peer review is the backbone of research quality control. But we must consider that think tanks today produce a range of research products — from dense original reports and presentations to blog posts and much more. So, having a uniform system of peer review is inefficient and drains resources.

The key to good research quality control is having a flexible peer review system.

A perfect example comes from the Bandung Institute for Governance Studies in Indonesia, where senior managers implemented a strong review system after observing that presentations made by some of its staff lacked focus. The system was successful because it tailored the depth of the review in accordance with the expected audience’s composition — particularly whether government officials would be in attendance.

But because think tanks exist to influence, producing quality research is just one part of their core business. Think tanks need to value strong communications as much as they value quality research.

This is all the more important today as the number of think tanks continues to grow, while facing competition from a growing number of information sources in general. As a result, think tanks often struggle to remain relevant authorities on policy issues.

To influence policy change, good management will value engagement with the think tank’s key audiences, and they will continually work to strengthen it. To do this well, policy engagement and communications strategies should be developed at the start of each project — as early on as the project proposal stage.

One example of effective research and communications comes from the Center for Democratic Development in Ghana in its work on teacher absenteeism. CDD decided early on that mobilizing public opinion and speaking directly with government officials and other key stakeholders was the best approach.

CDD released its report using a strategy carefully calculated to draw public and media attention and organized a series of media encounters with participants from key stakeholder groups. The strategy worked. The media reaction was enthusiastic, and six newspapers published major stories.

There are many different ways to apply these recommendations to local contexts, and certainly many more recommendations to be had. But there is no doubt that in order to do the most good, think tanks must prioritize implementing the best management practices. Solid management has demonstrated effects on the quality of advice these institutions give and that ultimately, governments decide to act upon.

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About the author

  • Raymond Struyk

    Raymond Struyk is a senior fellow at the nonprofit Results for Development Institute and author of the newly published "Improving Think Tank Management: Practical Guidance for Think Tanks, Research Advocacy NGOs, and Their Funders."