Day one of TTIX 2018 provided plenty of ideas to fuel further discussion over the coming days. From establishing how think tanks can engage effectively with funders to considerations of the more existential roles of knowledge producer and curator in an era of fake news, the day produced energetic, honest and thought-provoking debate.
The power of this exchange is its community and facilitators, Nick Ishmael and Valerie Traore, ensured that all attendees felt invested in the discussions throughout, coordinating co-create group sessions in the afternoon and fielding questions from the floor and via the app.
Challenges and Collaboration
In the opening plenary, Donica Pottie, from the Canadian Embassy in Thailand, noted that in an era of fake news, collaboration is critical. This was further underlined by Simon Keogh from the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), who referred to a world “marked by uncertainty”. Both emphasised the vital role of think tanks, working collectively, in combating this uncertainty.
This instability was further explored in the following panel discussion. However, while acknowledging the negative impacts of increasing democratic retreat and stagnation in some regions, and a rise in political polarisation globally, it was noted that we should not overlook existing and ongoing challenges, such as decolonisation. The challenges faced by think tanks are not all new, but the strategies to combat them should be constantly appraised in a collaborative manner to ensure lessons are shared and utilised across the think tank community.
Subrat Das, from CBGA India, highlighted the need to create diversity among think tanks in terms of research agendas. There was growing consensus around the need to shift the focus when constructing research agendas, moving away from identifying problems in the present towards identifying opportunities in the future. This was underlined later in the “Ask a funder” session where panellists agreed that to increase buy in, we have to clearly demonstrate the positive outcomes which can be achieved.
In the second plenary, evaluators of the TTI programme shared their learning after looking back across ten years of the project. Ian Christoplos, NIRAS, noted key strategies, such as building staff capacity, which had had a cumulative impact on the success of think tanks within the consortium. A key element of the learning however, related to the relationships formed both between the think tanks themselves and in their regions. Ian highlighted the central role that the regional officers had played in this program, enabling more open dialogue between think tanks and local policy makers and civil societies.
The value of the evaluation process was stressed by Dan Peters, from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He highlighted the need to disseminate these findings beyond the TTI community in order to effect real change and enable think tanks to continue to grow and collaborate effectively beyond the life of the project. The value of a regional coordinator, for example, could become part of all effective think tank communities, fostering open and transparent dialogue between research organisations, the private sector, policy actors and civil societies.
Strengthening relationships was a pertinent lesson to bring to the final plenary of the day which gave the platform over to the funders. Whether it was understanding the diverse drivers of domestic funding, as discussed by Yamini Aiyar from CPR India, or increasing the flexibility of think tanks to work in collaboration with non-research organisations, the value of trust and open dialogue was made evident.
Sara Lucas from the Hewlett foundation spoke passionately on the need for think tanks to place the end goals in plain view when engaging with funders. She called for a shift away from requesting core funding to support sustainable institutions and to structure communication which clearly illustrates the broader impact of the organisation, looking beyond traditional processes of research and engagement and moving towards more integrated and collaborative approaches. This was reiterated by Peter Taylor who noted the importance of opening dialogues which relate to the interests of the funder, as he put it “start where they are coming from.”
As well as the plenaries and panel sessions, attendees were asked to co-create ambitious agendas for sustainable think tanks which responded to the evaluation findings. The notes captured during this session will be further explored tomorrow.
It is unsurprising that as TTI nears its end the conversation tended toward issues surrounding continued collaboration: strengthening networks; working collectively; increasing the scope of individual think tanks to effect change through broader more systemic methods; side-stepping the risks posed by agendas such as the SDGs which can narrow the vision of think tanks and thus their ability to anticipate impact more widely.
The first day of the exchange helped articulate the real challenges facing think tanks, not just those within the initiative but more widely. It was apparent that there is a real desire to harness the momentum of the TTI program and enable the think tanks to move forward together from this ten-year program and to share good practice with think tanks beyond the consortium.
The lessons shared from the evaluation, the perspectives of the funders, all helped establish key questions on how to move towards a sustainable future and over the following two days we, as a community, will try to answer them.