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Communication off the map: three principles for policy influence in emerging democracies

[Editor’s note: This post originally appeared at Research to Action. It was written by Nicholas Benequista, a researcher with an interest in media, social movements and how to build better connections between theory and action. He is currently working on a PhD thesis about Kenyan journalism with the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He tweets about media and international development at @benequista.] 

When working on policy influence in Africa, it is easy to encounter situations for which there is no guidebook available.

The ODI-Rapid programme has never published a research communication manual for government-controlled think tanks, for example; the World Bank has never released a handbook for research organizations working in oppressive environments.

The mentors hired by the Think Tank Initiative to strengthen the capacity of research institutions in developing countries to influence policy, confronted this stark reality. When we came together in April to share our experiences, we made the mutual discovery that there are no best practices for the real-world challenges faced by think tanks in the contexts where we work. Much of what we know about research communication does not apply in an organization making its first tentative steps toward playing a more visible role in public policy.

In Kenya, where I work, the Kenyan Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis became the country’s leading economic Think Tank because it was the government’s economic think-tank. Its research findings had a fast-track to policy influence. That is not the case any more in a country where many new voices are joining policy debates; KIPPRA’s research stands the risk of being drowned out.

To be heard above the cacophony of opinions, KIPPRA will have to communicate much more strategically, which requires big changes to how it works and changes even to its organizational culture – no easy task.

Think tanks working in African countries with a less tolerant political environment than Kenya have an even greater challenge. How should a think tank communicate its research when the findings contradict the government? When the research is at the centre of tension between federal and regional governments? When allies in closed-door meetings feel the need to be your adversary in public?

There are no easy answers to such questions, but the work of the Think Tank Initiative’s mentors has highlighted at least three principles that think tanks should consider when trying to find their own solution.

1)    Stay true to the evidence. Let us admit that even in the most advanced think tanks, formulating policy recommendations from research findings can be more art than science. When researchers, who have little experience formulating recommendations, are pushed to do so by funders seeking to create a Brookings of the South, this can be disastrous. Research institutions new to the policy influence game must remain vigilant about maintaining the thread between research and recommendations, even if that means making more modest policy proposals. This is especially true in high-stakes environments.

2)    Engage early, and discretely, with the government on controversial issues. For the interest of the institution as well as its researchers, some topics need simply to be avoided. This is the unfortunate reality for many think thanks. But in circumstances when a think tank has chosen to conduct research on a controversial or politicized issue, there is a way to be a “critical friend” to the government. Many of the institutions participating in the Think Tank Initiative agree that engaging the government discreetly and from the very start of the research is the best approach. More often than not, this approach will eventually win over one or two sympathetic allies to the value of doing independent, methodologically sound research on the topic. But early and honest engagement does carry its own risks: it can make the research vulnerable to political pressure and it can create demand for findings before they are ready. However, on balance, these are arguably better than the alternative – to surprise the government with a big-splash media event that presents findings critical of government and its policies.

3)    Internal transparency is paramount: One of the most interesting issues to arise from the experience of mentors is how a move toward more policy involvement by a think tank can kindle internal divisions, mistrust and strife within an organization. Management in difficult environments will ultimately have to make politically sensitive decisions about whether a research project should be given more or less exposure, but they cannot appear to be doing so for the wrong reasons – and nothing breeds speculation more than silence. Even saying “this topic is too hot to go public” is better than saying nothing at all. How this transition phase is managed internally is a topic worthy of a guidebook all to itself.

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