Independent Analysis and Ethics: The case of the “Uncomfortable Truth”
[Editor’s Note: This post was originally published at Research to Action. During a session on the role of ethics at the Think Tank Initiative Exchange, Margarita Beneke De Sanfeliu, from FUSADES, discussed how the think tank retains reputational integrity in the face of opposition and accusation.]
FUSADES is an independent Think Tank in El Salvador, founded in 1983 during the civil war, a violent time of negative economic growth and increasing poverty levels, and within an uncertain legal and institutional environment which was significantly reducing individual and economic liberties. It was founded by a group of independent entrepreneurs and professionals with the purpose of changing the direction the country was taking, with the ultimate goal of improving the living conditions of all Salvadorans.
By The Open University (OU) at flickr.com under CC
Its mission is “to be a high credibility research think tank that promotes social and economic progress among Salvadorans, through sustainable development, under a system of democracy and individual liberties, promoting dialogue as a means to create national accords”. Along with the mission, its values, core and operative principles that guide all activities, are public and clearly displayed throughout the building, its website and communications material.
FUSADES has built a solid reputation and credibility throughout its 31 years of existence. Public policy analysis and applied research is consistently based on rigorous methodologies, with clear guidelines for ethical data collection and management. Results reported and recommendations provided are based on analyses and evidence rather than on ideological positions. By zealously guarding its independence and objectivity from internal and external pressures, FUSADES has been able to attract and retain high quality researchers and other professional staff and has earned great respect and a strong reputation amongst decision makers and influential stakeholders. Local and international organisations and the media have turned to FUSADES time and again for evidence based expertise on development issues.
This is a big responsibility which requires keeping a careful eye on the rigour of research methods and documentation of analysis, as well as institutional positions and opinions. All these help in managing the independence of the organisation from individual views, ideological positions and any reputational risks that would otherwise inhibit the credibility of the reputation that FUSADES enjoys.
CREATING A STRONG, CREDIBLE, INDEPENDENT VOICE: THE FUSADES EXPERIENCE
The political environment in El Salvador remains polarised between two opposing ideologies, represented by the major parties. This creates a climate of uncertainty and often leaves little room to find even a minimal consensus on issues of national development. Ideological positions and views often prevail over the use of technical analysis to inform policy choices; this makes it very challenging for a think tank like FUSADES to influence and guide public policy debates and decisions. In this polarised scenario, as FUSADES can find itself constantly in the “eye of the storm” and as criticism is expected, it remains critical for the institution to be vigilant on the soundness of the quality of its research and analysis in compliance with the institutions main objectives.
Given its visibility nationally and internationally on public policy issues, the Foundation is at times subject to ideological attacks from the President, Congressmen, Ministers and other government officials. This is because analysis produced by FUSADES can be at odds with political decision making. Because of its high quality of work and associated credibility, attacks are usually “ad hominem”, that is, these are not directed to the actual research or analysis results, but rather towards the Board of Directors, senior management or staff. When this is the case, FUSADES does not answer such questions directly, rather the Foundation responds by implementing its reputation safekeeping communications strategy.
However, on occasions, attacks and criticisms are directed towards the research or analysis. In this case, the institution follows a two-step strategy. First, all methods and findings are reviewed to ensure there are no errors; and second, when disagreements arise, this analysis is used as a means to defend the quality of methods and independence of judgments in accordance with the communication strategy.
OUR TOOLS: THE FOUR Cs AND REPUTATION SAFEKEEPING STRATEGY
FUSADES has established a reputation safekeeping strategy, in order to strengthen the organisation’s communications and influence, as well as to prevent or minimize any adverse situation regarding reputation management. Both the reputation safekeeping communication strategy, and following what we call the four Cs, allows FUSADES’ voice to remain credible and independent, in line with its core mission, values and principles:
1) Consistency: Research and communications must stay within the framework set by the mission, principles and values. The organisation’s position must always be consistent with what it stands for, to the point of predictability.
2) Coherence: FUSADES’ contributions must make sense to the needs of society as a whole, not a specific sector or interest group; studies and recommendations, even when they are short term solutions, must relate to long term development goals.
3) Courage: FUSADES must always say what needs to be said, in order to influence change, even if it upsets government or even other allied institutions.
4) Communications: there must be a strong communications strategy, Communications efforts cannot be treated as secondary, but as necessary and of the highest priority; influence on public policy decisions, relationships with key stakeholders and groups must be created and maintained, through constant, clear, two way communication.
The Reputation Safekeeping Strategy involves:
a) Media and social media monitoring and analysis: This enables the organisation to stay one step ahead of any possible image risk, both in mainstream media and social media circles;
b) Spokespersons training and clear and strict communication policies: This helps spokespersons to stay within the boundaries of institutional positions and not sway towards personal opinion; researchers do not talk with media about anything that has not been studied or published and can only accept interviews or questions about their area of expertise;
c) Message construction: The communications department specialists work together with researchers to design key messages, practice message delivery (form and content) and timing; research topics undergo a strategic review for optimal impact, including audience identification, appropriate type of publication and communication channels to use, etc.
d) Communications Committee: This committee meets weekly to discuss current events, stakeholders’ public positions (for or against) on key issues, and FUSADES’ latest publications and their impact.
THE CASE OF THE “UNCOMFORTABLE TRUTH”
Since 1988, FUSADES has published a quarterly Economic Situation Report, which is highly anticipated by the press and policy stakeholders. It normally gets front-page coverage and invitations to appear on the news, media talk shows and TV interviews. For several years now, the Central Bank has scheduled its own Economic Situation Report press conference one day before FUSADES releases its publication.
In 2013, the third quarter Report, released to the public within the usual schedule, detonated a public debate on poverty. Resultsbased on official data were perceived as politically unfavourable to government party’s electoral objectives. On this occasion, in his weekly radio program, the Salvadoran President questioned FUSADES’ objectivity and technical methodology, alleging that FUSADES had “lied and maliciously manipulated data for unclear purposes”. He sent Ministers and other high level officials to media outlets, looking to publicly demonstrate that FUSADES’ data was wrong and the institution had manipulated its findings.
FUSADES´ communications committee task force convened, and after carefully considering the best course of action, decided upon the following response. In a press conference organised by the Foundation, the head researcher responsible for the analysis explained to the press, step by step, how results were achieved and how, after a simple examination of data, which in fact came from official and available government sources, FUSADES’ conclusion was correct. Based on this evidence, the arguments Ministers had used to attack FUSADES were shown to be, simply, false. The researcher’s methods and findings were publicly supported by senior, well-established researchers at the same press conference. FUSADES also published a press release in major newspapers with a summary explaining the main results from the Quarterly Report.
By standing its ground, backed by rigorous research, FUSADES had a big impact in fostering and shaping the poverty debate in the country, as other actors participated in the discussion for several days after, many citing FUSADES work.
Solid research quality and ethics, with an adequate communications strategy, give think tanks a “strong voice”.
When trying to influence policy changes, truth can sometimes be uncomfortable and in a polarised environment, criticism is to be expected. A response can only be effective if this is based on rigorous analysis and can be communicated well.
Sticking to core values and principles, including assuring research quality and ethics, is the best “shield of defence”. This results in an “even stronger voice” for the think tank.
Ensuring research quality, including in engaging with stakeholders and in communicating findings, allows Think Tanks to stand their ground and reputations to be protected.
It is important to remember the 4 C’s: Consistency, Coherence, Courage and Communications. Just a footnote: FUSADES has worked and continues to work with all governments, with ideologies similar or different to its own, but relies on rigorous research and effective communication in line with its mission and values.
The presentation used in session 3.b, ‘From Evidence to Policy: The Role of Ethics’, is available below.