How will you ensure its credibility?
To inform policy and practice think tanks need to be perceived as credible sources of information and advice. Credibility qualifies think tanks to be consulted on and invited to participate in policy processes. It makes them attractive to funders. It promotes engagement with the media as experts in their field and facilitates access to reputable networks. Without credibility, none of this can occur, so it is a good idea to work on it from the moment your organisation is set up +This section draws from Baertl, A. (2018b), De-constructing credibility: Factors that affect a think tank’s credibility. On Think Tanks Working Paper 4. Learn more.
But how to do this? And more importantly, what is credibility?
‘Credibility is relational and it entails trust and believability. To be credible, an organisation or person needs someone to trust and believe in them … A credible person or organisation is trusted to have relevant expertise, and believed to be able and willing to provide information that is correct and true’ (Baertl, 2018a).
The paper De-constructing credibility (Baertl, 2018b) identifies 10 factors that individuals draw from and focus on (in various degrees) to assess the credibility of a think tank. These are:
- Networks. Connections, alliances, and affiliations that an organisation and its staff and board have.
- Impact. Any effect that a policy research centre has had on policy, practice, media, or academia.
- Intellectual independence. Independence in deciding their research agenda, methods, and the actions an organisation undertakes.
- Transparency. Publicly disclosing funding sources, agenda, affiliations, partnerships, and conflicts of interests.
- Credentials and expertise. Collected expertise and qualifications that a think tank and its staff have.
- Communications and visibility. How and how often the think tank communicates with its stakeholders.
- Research quality. Following research guidelines to produce policy-relevant research in which the quality is assured.
- Ideology and values. Ideology and values are the set of ideas that guide an individual or organisation.
- Current context. The current setting in which a think tank and its stakeholders are immersed.
To ensure and safeguard your credibility, the public needs to know that your organisation is transparent and intellectually independent. You could use your partnerships, affiliations, and board members to increase your credibility (drawing from the reputation of these organisations). You can also work on establishing and communicating your quality assurance processes. Don’t forget that the key asset in all of this is the people that belong to an organisation – they are the ones who impact whether credibility is maintained or not.
You can read more about think tank credibility in this annotated reading list that reviews academic and non-academic resources and offers an overview of the subject.
Box. Tool for Transparify integrity check
This tool provides scenarios as part of an integrity check in order to build the credibility of the think tank sector
- Transparify integrity check: A downloadable tool.
Box. CGD’s approach
Based on Mendizabal, E. (2014 d), A few initiatives, not many projects, may be the secret to success.
CGD has an interesting approach. Researchers do not have a list of topics but instead focus on one or two key initiatives over a relatively long period of time. These initiatives allow them to organise and allocate cross-organisation resources in ways that other think tanks can’t. They bring together people, research, communications, networking, management, and other ‘assets’ think tanks have to carry out their missions (Mendizabal, 2014d). They describe initiatives as:
… practical proposals to improve the policies and practices of rich countries, international bodies, and others of means and influence to reduce global poverty and inequality. Initiatives draw upon the Center’s rigorous research and utilize innovative communications and direct engagement with decision-makers to change the world. (CGD)
In the essay Building a think-and-do tank: A dozen lessons from the first dozen years of the Center for Global Development (MacDonald and Moss, 2014) (the updated version of 12 steps on policy change, Levine and MacDonald, 2014) the authors present lessons, based on their own experience, on how think tanks can organise themselves, how they can seek to bring about change, and how they measure success.
We present them here arranged into the three groups mentioned above (although there are clear overlaps):
- Start with flexible money, but not too much: use small amounts of flexible money as venture capital. This will depend on the type of organisation you are trying to create, but ideally aim for an ample and diversified portfolio of financial support. CGD found that a good mix for them was 3/4 programmatic funds for specific work and 1/4 unrestricted funding to be used for new programmes and ideas.
- Hire great people and give them plenty of freedom and responsibility: at all levels, senior and junior, full-time staff and associates. An interesting mission, worth fighting for, as well as a nice work environment will help to attract great people. This requires a good work environment.
- Share leadership: give staff, at all levels (don‘t forget juniors as well), responsibility for running the think tank (or at least their bit of the think tank).
- Don’t plan, experiment: because this lesson seemingly goes against much of what you will read it is worth quoting the authors on this one: ‘Our strategy, so to speak, is to be ready to react to the sudden appearance of a policy window by having a good stock of well-researched ideas and providing our fellows with space to respond’.
- Partner with people, not organisations: it is easier to align interests between people than between organisations. Again, a quote on this lesson: ‘We’ve found that the best partnerships are those with very clear, narrowly defined objectives. We partner with a specific purpose in mind, not just to be part of a broad coalition’
- Resist the growth inertia: there may be lots of important issues and policy processes but they may not all be right for you. Identify the organisational size you are comfortable with. In CGD’s case maintaining a family-like culture was key.
- Make it fun: a good sense of humour should be a key ‘competence’ in any job description. And beyond fun, CGD strives to be a collegial place.
On bringing about change:
- Start fresh to stay fresh: be careful of becoming set in your ways. Encourage new ideas and ways to carry out your work and organise your think tank’s operations.
- Articulate an inspiring mission and aim for results: don’t just aim to know more – what will you do with this knowledge? Your mission should help guide your work, and keep you focused on a goal.
- Share ideas early and often: think out loud and benefit from feedback and growing support and expectation for your future results; don’t wait until you’ve crossed all the ‘t’s and dotted all the ‘i’s: it will be too late by then.
On assessing success:
- Celebrate and try to measure success: although measuring success in the evidence to policy environment is difficult, it is much easier when you have a clear sense of why you are doing what you do. What is that new world you want to see? CGD have also tried different (and tailor-made) trackers to understand and measure their impact.
- Keep asking tough questions: don’t be afraid to rock the boat, both your own metaphorical boat and other people’s. You don’t need to know the answers to all the questions, just keep on asking them.
Box. IRADe’s case in India: What makes the think tank credible
Dr. Jyoti Parkih is a founding member and director of IRADe, a think tank in India. He was interviewed by Annapoorna Ravichander and shared what he believes makes IRADe credible and how they achieved this credibility. Read the full interview here.
According to Dr. Parkih the following reasons make IRADE credible:
- Strong focus on multidisciplinary research and analysis
- Evidence based scientific research and sound policy advice/measures
- Working simultaneously at local, national, regional and global levels and trying to converge in thinking and approach, thereby shaping policymaking at all levels
- Consensus building approach by involving all stakeholders and groups of interest
- Strong linkages with policymaking communities
- Extensive assignments with government, ministries and other governmental departments
- Cross-sectoral analysis and generating holistic insights/understanding
- Mix of research and action related work
Establishing credibility is a continuous process. IRADe built its credibility by:
- Being competent and becoming an expert in our field in the areas of modelling and driving regional energy co-operation, gender aspects, etc
- Having the ability to analyse an issue/situation and develop several potential solutions/options and tailor-made recommendations
- Doing rigorous work, and by publishing in journals and other publications
- Being people-centric and consistent in the approach.
- Continuing focus on multidisciplinary research and analysis
- Thinking globally and acting locally