The digital think tank hub
by Enrique Mendizabal
Support the formation of new think tanks by reducing some of the start-up costs involved and speeding up the idea-to-public debate cycle. New think tanks can help to break intellectual entrenchment, promote a more public policy debate, and provide funders with more options –thus improving the labour market for experts. Besides the obvious positive effects this can have on the promotion of ideas, it can also help keep the cost of doing research in developing countries at bay.
The digital think tank hub focuses on digital tools as a means to facilitate the setting up process. By relying on freely available tools the hub will provide its members with the opportunity to choose and follow their own development paths leading, potentially, to a more formal and physical structure.
The hub model also creates a community of think tankers who may or may not have experience in working in or this kind of organisation and can therefore benefit from the support it will enable. It is, in essence, a mentoring initiative that nurtures the creative and entrepreneurial nature of young leaders.
A key assumption made here is that there are many young and competent researchers and policy entrepreneurs who want to join the think tank community but are not inspired by the traditional and closed way of doing things of existing think tanks and policy research centres. They are motivated and willing to invest their own time in developing new institutions.
It also assumes that only these new and creative think tank initiatives will generate interest among potential new philanthropists in developing countries. The traditional approach (long reports, old style websites, limited public engagement, etc.) that existing think tanks tend to prefer does not match the expectations that modern entrepreneurs (and future philanthropists) have of them.
Finally, the approach assumes that, at the very least, the initiative will show existing think tanks what is possible to do with limited funds and how new technologies can be used to achieve maximum public exposure.
The think tank hub is primarily designed to support young entrepreneurial and competent researchers and policy entrepreneurs who find that existing think tanks in their countries do not offer them the space to advance evidence informed policy ideas in ways that take full advantage of the opportunities provided by new digital technologies.
Some of these young entrepreneurs could be researchers at existing think tanks or research centres who are considering developing competing centres, recent graduates from local or foreign universities who would like to join the think tank community in their countries but do not necessarily the existing organisations, or even retired or retiring policymakers who are keen to explore new forms of public engagement.
The idealised process is as follows:
Think tank teams interested in working around a policy issue or idea apply to join the digital hub. They are selected based on their commitment and knowledge base; after all, this is still an effort to promote the role that research based evidence plays in policymaking.
Once they are part of the process they receive a set of basic tools and services:
- An online space linked to a set of digital tools for management, research and communications
- Mentoring from a senior researcher to develop an appropriate research agenda; from a senior communicator to develop an appropriate communication and outreach strategy; and from an experienced manager to develop a management structure and a development pathway for the organisation.
- Depending on their progress, and at a later stage, they may also receive seed funding to develop their ideas further or leverage additional funds from institutional funders.
Each think tank would join the hub’s programme for between 1 and 3 years. They would join as temporary members during the expression of interest or application phase. During this period, the hub team would monitor the think tanks and assess their commitment while they work on their strategy and plans. This period could last up to a year. During this period, it is expected that the think tank will operate at least as a filter and amplifier of relevant information building a reputation and audience.
Then the think tanks would officially join the programme and may be entitled to seed funding to implement their strategy and plans. Over this second period, the think tanks would be expected to produce and communicate innovative research and ideas. During this period, too, the hub team will work with the think tank to consider its future including setting up an independent organisation.
If successful, the think tanks will graduate into a final independent phase in which the hub could continue to provide mentoring and support as the think tank consolidates is governance, agenda, strategy, and funding.
Key components of the hub
- All think tanks will start with a blog-based site and then, if necessary, build a static page.
- They will develop a strategy to take advantage of public spaces and then, if necessary, rent its own space.
Think tanks will be given training and guides on how to use a range of digital tools. They will be expected to use them as part of the conditions for support from the think tank hub. These tools will cover:
- For research
- For managing
- For communicating and engaging
Over the course of the programme think tanks will be provided support on developing the right governance structure, roles and responsibilities of each current and future member of the team, and help in finding them:
- Executive Directors
- Heads of communication
Think tanks will be given training and guides on how to develop research agendas, take advantage of existing research, and develop the right research outputs for their policy needs.
Think tanks will be supported throughout the process:
- In kind: including all the support described above, including support in fundraising
- In cash: potentially including seed funding as well as rewards for excellent performance and innovation.
The hub’s team
The hub model can work at four levels: global, regional, national, and local. The main difference relates to the face-to-face time that the hubs team would be able to have with the hub members. In any case, it would be possible to link up the hubs into a network (horizontally and vertically).
At each hub, the team would involve the following roles (the number of ‘specialists’ would depend on the number of think tanks supported –but a good estimate is that 1 communications specialist can support up to 10 three person think tanks; albeit not all starting at the same time):
- An Executive Director: to manage the hub and provide general oversight as well as support to the think tanks directors on governance and strategy.
- A Head of Research (if more researchers are needed or if a nested hub model is developed then they would be line-managed or supported by the head of research): to mentor and advice the think tanks in the development and implementation of their research agendas. The head of research will also design and deliver the necessary trainings and guides for the think tanks
- A Head of Communications: to mentor and advice the think tanks on the development and implementation of their communication and policy outreach strategies. The head of communications will also design and deliver the necessary trainings and guides for the think tanks
- A project manager: to provide administrative, accounting, and logistical support to the hub.
The hub will work virtually by making use of public spaces (e.g. coffee shops, universities, museums, etc.) or sub-letting free space in offices in the cities where it operates. This approach will help keep costs down as well lead by example.