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  • Writer's pictureClara Richards

Learning from and with others: an experience with the Think Tank Initiative

By Denise Krebs under CC license

By Denise Krebs under CC license

In June 2014 the Think Tank Initiative (TTI) commissioned Politics&Ideas to undertake a ‘light touch review’ of capacity development (CD) within TTI Phase 1 in order to inform the TTI CD approach in Phase 2.  Their team found that –before designing the new CD strategy- it would be very valuable to step back from the program and review what they had done in Phase 1. They also were interested in scanning across the ecosystem of support to policy research institutions to determine if there are other approaches, modalities, or CD areas that would strengthen TTI’s CD offerings in Phase 2.

For that purpose, at P&I we interviewed several experts working with think tanks on the capacity development field or managing similar programmes who have kindly shared a set of reflections and experiences that can inspire both TTI and others working in this field.

The most relevant ideas and recommendations are the following:

Designing a relevant approach:

  1. There is no cookie cutter approach to work on issues that think tanks identify as relevant for CD. Most of the experts acknowledge the challenge of diversity when trying to support these organisations in a collective manner: it is very difficult to help them with a common approach; tailor made approaches seem to be more effective.

  2. Demand driven approaches are mostly appreciated by many experts. Sometimes, demand happens as a consequence of a certain degree of exposure to how others deal with similar challenges (both belonging to different and similar contexts in terms of development of countries, availability of resources, etc.)

  3. Exposure has its limitations as well and many agree that think tanks have already had enough opportunities to learn from others as participants of workshops or observers. Activities targeted to raise awareness on capacity gaps work well for the beginning of the process. However, some experts like Raymond Struyk from R4D (Research for Development) and Fred Carden from KSI (Knowledge Sector Indonesia) highlighted the fact that these institutions have a limited absorptive capacity so there needs to be some balance between providing them with tools, knowledge, assistance, etc. and allowing space for them to develop their own processes, including respecting their timing and pace. Therefore, it is very important that they are provided with enough time to digest the information they received and then use their own experience and assessment of the costs of intended changes to devise their own plans.

Responding to the demand:

  1. There are different ways to responding to demand. Some experts, like Enrique Mendizabal from onthinktanks believe that when it comes to developing their organisation’s development plans and finding mentors or experts to help them along this way, directors and other think tank leaders can and should be able do it themselves.  Ownership should be delegated to think tanks with its consequent responsibilities.

However, there are some experts that are doubtful about how ready some think tanks are to be the only ones at the driver´s seat. As Fred Carden pointed out, several think tanks, especially in largely funded environments where they do not need to compete, don´t have strong organizational strategies nor business plans, nor strong boards, etc. to ensure an integral and sound CD plan.

  1. Others, like Goran Buldioski from TTF (the Think Tank Fund), warn about some risks of this “voucher system” by which think tanks receive the financial support and go and select how to invest it by themselves. As said before, this approach assumes that think tanks are well prepared to identify all their problems, and informed enough to detect and select their trainers (quality, value for money) and design a strategy that is fair for all the involved human resources, which is frequently not the case. Also, there is the question on whether they will be able to move out of their comfort zones and select mentors/trainers that will help them make critical questions, become more strategic, etc.

  2. The KSI follows a balanced approach in terms of responding to demand but also bringing on the funders´ expertise and views to build a joint agenda: there is consultation and discussion about what is needed, and who could provide it, and also some agreement on the quality of resources to be provided.

  3. Finally, Bakary Kone from ACBF (The African Capacity Building Foundation) shared that this organisation followed for the past 20 years a demand-driven approach (country representatives expressed their needs). Now they have decided to take a more proactive role: they conduct a capacity need assessment that helps to identify the issues and then involve actors interested in those issues.

Using diverse methodologies:

  1. Besides peer to peer activities among TTI´s grantees and with other Southern non-TTI institutions, external experiences reveal that there are also opportunities to support grantees to reach out to their peers in better resourced think tank communities. This is something that was done in a partnership between Brookings AGI and six Sub-Saharan think tanks.  For example, Brookings organized study tours where African think tanks got to see and learn from their model, and in consequence, required specific support in areas where they thought they could apply similar methods or tools, such as policy briefs and blogs). Furthermore, TTF has successfully supported peer to peer events where think tanks interacted with other types of organisations such as advocacy NGOs because the latter communicate differently and are more experienced on this, so they can inspire them to think differently and move from their comfort zone. The same could be applied to bringing political consultants, public opinion firms, etc. to think tanks´ events.

  2. Katie Bryant, a trainer with extensive experience providing support to African researchers to strengthen their writing skills for different audiences, brought a very interesting perspective.  She emphasised the need to build trustful relationships with those being trained, including understanding better the personal challenges trainees face when facing change. For example, her approach takes into account researchers’ subjective experiences such as the different transitions they usually need to undergo without the adequate support in terms of developing new capacities (i.e. to write a policy brief). When dealing with genre differences: producing a doctoral dissertation differs largely from writing a journal article; a book chapter differs from a work report, but they are not supported to effectively transition to one type of outputs to others. This “transitions” approach could also be applied to researchers becoming policy advisors, traditional communicators becoming effective in the online world, fundraising coordinators stepping from scanning funding opportunities and writing proposals to designing a strategic fundraising plan. In this context the potential (and still frequently unrealized) role of senior researchers in mentoring their younger colleagues for these transitions could be revisited.

  3. Interesting experiences that could be included within offer-based activities are action-learning projects, similar to TTI´s upcoming book with a systematisation of capacity building performed by some think tanks to strengthen their research quality. For example, ACET (African Center for Economic Transformation) convened other think tanks to jointly produce the African Report 2014, through country case studies. To do so, instead of taking the traditional approach of sending TORs for the production of the studies, they conducted a preliminary workshop to engage potential candidates in a discussion, share views and knowledge, etc. Then they asked them if they wanted to be part of the report and those who ended up being involved received indirect capacity building support to enhance the quality of their research. They learned as they were producing the case studies, by receiving support from peer reviewers (they were able to meet with them, interact with them, etc.) as well as reviewing each other’s’ work. Similarly, Brookings AGI also collaborated with think tanks producing joint research in five areas of common interested considered by them as critical for growth.  To this purpose, they combined peer review with communications support as shared already above.

  4. The combination of ad hoc workshops (offline and/or online) with subsequent support (mostly by mentoring) was acknowledged as many experts as a very powerful capacity development mechanism. There is consensus on the importance of face to face interaction to build trust and teamwork but a lot can be done after that through virtual interaction. However, in some regions/countries problems with Internet connectivity should be considered for any CD activity that requires simultaneous presence of participants.

For monitoring, evaluation and learning:

  1. Regarding how to assess the results of the CD support, Jon Harle from INASP (International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications) shared that for them one of the main challenges is that one can develop skills of individuals to a certain extent, but it is more difficult to develop sustainable skills that can be embedded in an organization. It is important that the organization or the environment is conductive and supportive to allow individuals to apply and improve those skills. Some try to sort this out by training a number of people in the same organisation, but they can move, retire, etc.

  2. There was significant agreement on the need and interest among donors like INASP, TTF and ACBF to produce more lessons learned, systematize experiences and enable cross-learning among the different initiatives.

We are thankful to Yaw Ansu, Katie Bryant, Goran Buldioski, Fred Carden, Caroline Cassidy, Jon Harle, Mwangi Kimenyi,  Bakary Kone, Enrique Mendizabal, Andrea Ordoñez, Ricardo Ramirez, Raymond Struyk and Andrew Westbury for sharing their experiences and insights.

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