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The dangerous quest for visibility


Since James McGann’s Global go-to Think Tanks list came out in late 2008, the think tank world has been busy talking about how to get on, and stay on, the list. ODI, as it happens, is ranked as the number four think tank outside the US. This is seen as good news – recognition cannot hurt, right?

Well, that depends, as researchers would say. It would be great to be the number one go-to think tank if this meant more contracts, more interest  from policy-makers, more resources, more media attention, more influence, etc. But the think tank that is top of the list – Brookings – could argue that it already has all these things, and more. Brookings is unlikely to be have more influence on its key audiences as a result of being top of a list.

However, for small think tanks struggling to survive in the highly competitive market of policy ideas, landing the top spot would be a fantastic coup – an opportunity to be like Brookings.

This, however, is not the same as being Brookings. The list itself is modelled on the kind of think tank that is most likely to come out on top – in other words, a think tank that prioritises visibility. It is, to some extent, self-perpetuating.  

A few years ago, think tanks worried about how to communicate the research they already had. Then, they worried about how to communicate the research they were doing. Now, they worry about how to communicate. Research is implied – but I worry that it may sometimes be overlooked.

In other words, communications is slowly becoming the only means to influence (and in some cases the objective itself), rather than one strategy among many. And the preferred indicators focus on visibility: web-hits, number of downloads or our key documents, comments on blogs, media appearances, and the Index ranking.

The small, unknown think tank may have to make some very hard choices in order to compete. Precisely because it is unknown and small, and it does not have access to sufficient funds to develop its capacities across the board, it is likely to have to choose between investing in its research or communication competencies to achieve visibility.

Why is visibility so important? There are four reasons. First, think tanks are, by definition, focused on policy influence and this means they must be noticed. Second, few think tanks are blessed with large endowments and most need to attract funding, which again requires visibility. Third, competition among think tanks is increasing, and will continue to do so if private and public spending contracts as a result of the financial crisis. Finally, there are external demands on think tanks, in particular from their funders, and even from the public, to be visible. In combination, these pressures may create strong incentives for think tanks to invest their limited resources in developing the tools that will give them visibility – even if this is at the expense of their capacity to command the highest quality research.

Here lies the dilemma. The problem with visibility is that it does not necessarily lead to the achievement of the core mission of all think tanks: to have substantive influence on policies. Substantive influence is most likely to be the result of being able to command the best evidence when opportunity knocks. But without visibility, small and unknown think tanks are unlikely to find the resources that they need to invest on the capacity to command such evidence.

Andrew Rich, in his study of US think tanks, found that the context beyond their control determined the scale of their influence: such as long policy processes with many opportunities to engage policy makers; highly technical issues requiring their expert evidence; and the limited involvement of interest groups who might otherwise crowd think tanks out. In Rich’s analysis, think tanks can increase their chances by producing high quality research, making their experts available to the process, and using both to contribute to the definition of the problem, proposing and promoting policy options, and estimating the costs and benefits of particular courses of action.

This is no surprise. Substantive impact requires substance. And substance needs to be delivered by experts – knowledgeable and experienced people – who can engage in a nuanced discussion of options, costs and benefits, and participate actively in the complexities of policy processes.

Other types of influence are discursive, rhetorical, and superficial (commentary, like this blog).  And these can be easily captured by politicians and the media for their own interests.  

I am not suggesting that investing in the capacity to communicate is not important. It is crucial. Without it, even experts from the most experienced think tanks might find it difficult to reach their audiences. But let us not forget that visibility is not the same as influence. The fact is that you can have substance without visibility. An example from Latin America, the region I know best, illustrates this point.

The Research Centre of the Universidad del Pacífico (CIUP) is not among the chosen think tanks in McGann’s list, however, it would be difficult to find a more influential centre in Peruvian policies today: the current government includes a minister, vice ministers, the president of the central bank, advisors, and other high level policymakers from CIUP. Many others are missing, GRADE among one of them. Their absence, however, is not surprising. Unlike the UPC , which  is on the list and has invested significantly in high profile events, including a recent Bill Clinton conference, GRADE and CIUP have a very academic and low profile approach.

ODI has learned that substantive influence involves developing the capacity of its researchers to: target their work and key audiences more effectively, use a range of reserach tools, identify and develop various communication channels and outputs, and learn from experience.
If think tanks focus exclusively on research, with only marginal changes in our capacity to communicate and influence, we will find it harder and harder to reach our audiences in an increasingly competitive market. But if we focus too much on communication, we may find ourselves with little to contribute to the policy process and have messages that are nothing more than empty advocacy statements.

It is important that communication and visibility lead to securing the funding and the policy spaces think tanks need to contribute to long term substantive influence. Communication should not, however, undermine our capacity to provide research-based evidence. That is, after all, why we exist.