Monday, 29 August 2016

Article - Leandro

 Think tanks working together: some factors to keep in mind

Leandro Echt
Member of Politics & Ideas and On Think Tanks


It is very common in the development sector to see different organisations gathering to conduct projects or implement other activities. Reasons are many: from the need to combine different expertise, to the objective of increasing their potential to influence policy, or access big grants that would not be accessible by single organisations.

Think tanks are not strangers to these partnerships, alliances, and consortia. How many times do think tanks want to work on a certain issue, but do not have the required expertise among their current staff? How often do think tanks need to establish alliances to increase the possibilities of promoting a real change in policy? Which think tank has not sought a partner to apply for important funds?

While working together can come with many benefits, it is not always an easy task. Each organisation has its own interests, motivations, “hidden” goals, culture, other responsibilities to fulfil, etc.; in addition, there might be differences between their capacities.

So before embarking on a collaborative project, it is important to consider some factors that can determine whether or not the collaboration would work, what could be the main challenges through the process, and think about strategies to mitigate them.

These factors affecting collaboration between think tanks can be internal and external.

External Factors

Context (political, social, and economic). National context has a direct impact on think tanks’ work, and it also affects collaboration. Structural factors such as academic freedom could foster or prevent collaboration with other research organisations. Moreover, circumstantial factors also shape the opportunities for collaboration. For instance, social or military crises have a direct impact on the organisations’ work and might make collaboration difficult at least until things are partially solved. On the other hand, elections are an interesting milestone for think tanks to gather and try to influence the debate with their policy recommendations. 

“Paraguay Debate” (Paraguay), “Agenda Presidencial 2011-2015” (Argentina), “Centrando el debate electoral” (Peru) are examples of collaborative actions within the civil society, led by think tanks, aimed at influencing presidential electoral debates and strengthening the programmatic features of the debate. Networks are not easy to manage and they require patience and strategic leaderships: think tanks can play that role if they can convince others of their value of their research and management capacity.

Polarised societies or scenarios also create room for think tanks to get together. Plural alliances or associations combine different ideas from diverse organisations, and within them, from different persons with particular approaches to specific policy issues. Plural networks can encourage equilibrium among polarised positions or, at least, are mechanisms to avoid one-way thoughts.

Availability of funds. Collaboration is sometimes challenged by the fact that the resources available for think tanks or research are usually scarce. Moreover, international calls for proposals usually do not encourage collaboration between organisations. Indeed, the gradual withdrawal of donors from Latin America during the past years is one of the reasons that led 12 think tanks to gather and create the Iniciativa Latinoamericana de Investigación para las Políticas Públicas (ILAIPP; **the English translation is Latin American Research Initiative for Public Policies). In this case, working together is not only a decision about the focus of the think tanks, but also a sustainability strategy.

Official regulations (legal, administrative, taxes). Countries’ rules regarding donations or contracts with foreign partners can challenge collaborations to the point that working with others becomes increasingly bureaucratic at the administrative level. Many think tanks try to sort out these challenges by opening new offices in countries with more favourable and flexible administrative environment for NGOs. 

Policy problem in question. This factor is partially external, but also involves internal decisions from think tanks. Indeed, think tanks can decide to work on different types of policy problems, and can form different types of partnerships. For instance, moderately unstructured problems, in which there is a general confidence about the technical aspect of the problem, but no agreement on the values involved in the problem, might favour alliances with a small number of stakeholders that share common values. On the same lines, if working on a highly structured problem, alliances with other stakeholders might be less necessary if a think tank already has access to policymakers, and so the think tank seems to work more individually.

Internal Factors

Organisational culture. Culture might refer to a broad set of features: openness to other institutions, competition versus cooperation, the degree of cooperation and collaboration between different individuals and groups within the think tank, etc. This culture (at the individual, team and organisational levels of any institution) creates the daily context for practice, thus enabling or hindering collaboration with others. Organisational and individual motivations, interests, values, and openness to collaboration should be considered before partnering with peer organisations. 

Top-level support. As it happens with every effort in the development sector, its success is affected by the extent to which it is supported by the leaders in the organisations. Involving top-level support in collaborative projects can promote more commitment from different stakeholders, which can also be established as a formal contractual commitment that could be claimed by any of the parties.  

Size of the organisation.  The scale and structure of the organisation are important factors that can affect the success of collaborations. Not all think tanks have clear management and organisational processes to deal with collaborations; larger think tanks can commit more people to a certain project with different responsibilities, whereas smaller ones assign less people more responsibilities; the latter can also apply to the availability of financial resources (larger think tanks may be able to commit more funds than smaller ones). These differences among think tanks can create difficulties if the responsibilities and the real contribution of each party are not clarified at the beginning of the collaboration. 

Besides external and internal factors, there are features related to the type of collaborative initiative and the relationship between the parties that should also be considered: 

Trust. Confidence between organisations may have to do with the history of the relationship between the parties (whether or not they have worked together in the past, and what were the results of that experience), the reputation of the parties, or the organisational cultures. Trust is very important, especially when collaboration implies sharing contacts, information regarding donors, or know-how. Building together guidelines for procedures and operations might be a good investment before starting a collaborative project.  

Objective of collaboration and mission/vision of the partners. Collaboration may have many different objectives: undertaking research, influencing policy, learning from each other or together, among others. Let’s focus on collaborative influence campaigns. In these cases, barriers to collaboration are related to the organisations’ influence strategies. Typically, advocacy organisations are radical in their actions, and do not consider potential relational costs with policy agencies. On the contrary, policy research organisations, which usually seek to build more collaborative links with the political system, are not willing to challenge their reputation in an advocacy campaign. 

Term and size of the collaboration. Long-term collaborations are favourable to build trust between parties. However, they can become very transactional both in terms of decision-making and administrative and budgetary issues. On another note, whether the collaboration is taking place between two organisations or a consortium of think tanks will affect the process. For instance, global consortia usually imply complex governance structures. Regular virtual meetings and the need to validate almost each decision with the whole consortium make this kind of projects very costly at the transactional level.

To sum up, collaboration among think tanks is desirable, but they entail many challenges, which come from external and internal factors. Taking into account these factors when planning collaborative projects will help organisations understand the potential success of the relationship or identify key challenges of it.

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