Talking Think Tanks and Beyond

What think tanks across the world do is analyse, discuss and inform policy. At the same time, they face many, in some respects increasing, challenges to their core activities. So how should think tanks adapt to a changing world? In which areas is improvement indispensable? And why are think tank directors usually male?

An Interview with Enrique Mendizabal and Sonja Schiffers

 

Think tanks produce not just policy research. They have to communicate well, evaluate their activities, learn from success and failure, and most think tanks have to secure their own funding. In times of populist and illiberal backlash, they also face increasing political challenges. Last week, Polis180 Co-President Sonja Schiffers participated in the Winterschool for Thinktankers organised by On Think Tanks and foraus – Forum Außenpolitik, where many of these issues were addressed. In this interview, she speaks to Enrique Mendizabal, founder and director of On Think Tanks, about concrete external and internal challenges of the think tank ecosystem.

 

Enrique, what can grassroots think tanks like Polis180, foraus, Argo & Agora learn from On Think Tanks?

The grassroots business model is rather interesting, but it is not as unique as it might sound at first. The origin of modern American think tanks lies in grassroots associations of the late 1800s at the city level. The Chicago Civic Association, for instance, brought together researchers, policymakers, philanthropists, business leaders and others interested in addressing urgent social problems. And they developed solutions for these problems. Over time, research, policymaking and funding functions professionalised and the model for think tanks changed.

Grassroots think tanks like Polis180 can learn a lot from the history of how modern think tanks have developed. They cannot escape questions of governance, funding and financial management, developing policy relevant research agendas, communicating research effectively and the challenge of monitoring, evaluating and learning from its efforts. The On Think Tanks School and the Winterschool offer thinktankers a chance to explore these issues in greater depth and join a global community of peers.

 

What makes a think tank well-governed?

I cannot identify a single issue. I would refer to the categories above: governance and management, funding and finance, research, communication and learning. Each of these demand a certain degree of competence. Everyone needs to work together for the think tank to deliver its mission and to continue working towards its vision. I’m convinced that a think tank is well governed when the entire organisation is aligned to its objectives. This is harder than it sounds.

 

What advice do you have for young experts who want to influence public discourse and shape foreign policy?

Know your stuff. Know your audience. Know how your audience prefers to be informed and what are the most effective channels or windows of opportunities to influence them. All are equally important but often do not receive the attention they demand. Most would focus on the first: knowing stuff. Of course this is important. You should have a good understanding of the policy issues you are attempting to inform or influence. But you should also know who is it that you want to inform and influence. Policies are the consequence of the action of people. You have to know these people: the public, politicians, policymakers, journalists. And you need to know how to reach them – and how not to.

 

In what way has the work of think tanks changed since the early 20th Century?

It has changed in many ways. The type of work in think tanks has changed. The relationship with policy and politics has changed. The balance between research and communication has changed. We have also seen progress in the kind of people that work for think tanks. But it is hard to review global changes, because each country has gone through its own wave of think tank formation. Decade after decade, new think tanks emerged with new qualities. The old ones are probably still there and the ensuing community of think tanks, or what Prof. Diane Stone calls “traditions“, is often impossible to define within clear boundaries. Across the world, though, we see that thinktankers have to master more skills: research, communication, management, fundraising, networking, public engagement and so on.

 

How should think tanks operate in the age of globalisation, digitalisation, re-autocratisation?

These are threes different ‘ages’ to address. What I would say is that we should not think that we are facing a new and unprecedented era. Think tanks emerged in Chile during the dictatorship of Pinochet. They emerged and evolved when the web appeared – for many out of nowhere – in the 1990s. And globalisation is nothing new. Maybe the question which ought to be asked is how can think tanks best address sudden changes in their environment, whatever that is. I reckon that think tanks, even the best ones, are not very good at thinking about what they do and why they do it. This is a gap On Think Tanks tries to fill. 

Think tanks will be prepared to face challenges if they dedicate some time to reflect on their strategy, on their context, on their objectives and tactics, and ask themselves: Is it working? Why? Why not? How can we improve ourselves? It’s a mistake to think that Brookings has nothing to worry about or that its director has nothing to learn about managing think tanks. The larger (and the older) a think tank grows, the larger and more complex are the challenges.

 

During the Winterschool, you said that there are more similarities than differences in the challenges think tanks face in different countries? Why?

They all have the same objectives (mainly to inform policy) and fulfil the same functions (to generate ideas, develop capacity, change the discourse). They all use the same tools: research and analysis, communication, capacity development, engagement. And they all face similar challenges: mobilising the necessary funding, sustaining their governance, ensuring research quality, finding the right researchers, communicating effectively. But these similarities should not be an invitation to compare or rank them like-for-like across countries and regions. Think tanks need to be understood within their own political contexts.

 

We have recently seen a surge in discussions on challenges for women in the workplace. According to the Think Tank Initiative, only 6 out of 43 think tanks have female executive directors. What inhibits women from pursuing careers in think tanks?

Many things. Let me suggest a few. For more, I invite you to read our series on women in think tanks. First, think tanks in general have business models that work against women. Take a think tank that works on international affairs, development or sub-national policy issues. There is a demand for researchers to travel a lot. This is work that would normally take place overnight and even on weekends. In someone’s free time. But women often have to take care of their household, children, family members who are ill. In other words, women carry a higher burden of care for their family than men do. Young women with more time in their hands might join a think tank that expects its researchers to travel for work. But over time, their capacity to keep up with this kind of commitment will be reduced.

Other think tanks opt for business models which keep the responsibilities of the think tank towards their staff at a minimum level. For instance, they will only hire a few core staff. Researchers are hired as associates on a project-by-project basis. This kind of think tank is unlikely to offer maternity leave for its researchers.

A second element is that many think tanks have an ‘idealised thinktanker’ in mind who informs their business models. These idealised thinktankers have qualities associated with men: being aggressive, manage 24-hour workdays, favour quantitative over qualitative research, identify as machiavellian networkers. Then there are other more perverse reasons. There is harassment in fieldwork which female researchers face disproportionately more than men. But there is harassment in offices too.

 

Why would it be beneficial to have more female thinktankers in senior positions?

Having more women in senior positions is not a guarantee for change, but it can help. They will be a role model for young thinktankers to look up to. They may usher in changes in organisational policy. And they may draw the line on unacceptable behaviour. Men can do this too. But let’s face it, we tend to be rather oblivious at what’s going on.

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Enrique Mendizabal is the founder and director of On Think Tanks. Until December 2010 he worked for the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) where he headed the Research and Policy in Development (RAPID) programme. Amongst others, Enrique is the co-founder of Politics & Ideas and the Peruvian Alliance for the Use of Evidence.

The Polis Blog serves as a platform at the disposal of Polis180’s members. Published comments express solely the authors’ opinions and shall not be confounded with the opinions of the editors or of Polis180.

Image source: “Airport”, Jirka Matousek, http://bit.ly/2EA1iOv, licensed under Creative Commons license 2.0.: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/.

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Sonja Schiffers

Sonja is one of two co-presidents of Polis180 and co-head of the programme area “Women and International Politics”. At Freie Universität Berlin, she is working on a PhD dealing with Russian and Turkish foreign policy. As a Visiting Fellow, Sonja is based at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Research Division “Eastern Europe and Eurasia”.

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