Research is increasingly being used to inform policy making in Ghana. Since its establishment 25 years ago as Ghana’s first independent public policy think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) has achieved a strong record of shaping several national policies and legislation through its research recommendations. The IEA aims to consolidate its reputation as a premier centre for evidence-based research that informs policy making.

[Editor’s Note: This is the sixth post in a series on think tanks and organizational capacity building, edited by Katy Stockton and Shannon Sutton. The book, ‘Action Research and Organisational Capacity Building: Journeys of change in southern think tanks’, that this series is based on can be accessed here. This post was written by Dr. Michael Ofori-Mensah, a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA-Ghana). Michael works on governance issues with a focus on institutional reforms and public sector accountability.]

Research is increasingly being used to inform policy making in Ghana. Since its establishment 25 years ago as Ghana’s first independent public policy think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) has achieved a strong record of shaping several national policies and legislation through its research recommendations. The IEA aims to consolidate its reputation as a premier centre for evidence-based research that informs policy making.

In this regard, research quality is a critical area where the Institute continuously seeks to strengthen its capacity. The IEA defines quality research as “robust, evidenced-based and timely research activity that responds to and addresses a particular policy gap”. The Institute’s definition takes into account issues of originality and methodological rigour. Overall, quality research must be fit for purpose.

Hence, when we were selected by the Think Tank Initiative (TTI) to join a study using action research for organizational capacity building (OCB), we saw it as an opportunity to engage in a process of strengthening the quality of our research. In fact, we settled on ‘strengthening research quality’ as the focus of our OCB process after critically assessing our internal and external context. Internally, junior researchers at the IEA only provided research support – undertaking data collection and fieldwork with limited capacity to produce their own research papers.  Externally, the increasing demand for evidence-based research by policy makers and the need to respond in a timely manner to emerging policy challenges was considered.


The IEA’s strategy for strengthening research quality was to address gaps in human and institutional capacity in conducting research, and we primarily approached this through a focus on individual capacity building and peer review. The IEA’s OCB action research process began with the identification of a core group of researchers to participate in and lead the process. Fortnightly meetings were held and guiding documents to enable focused reflection by staff were developed. A procedure for documenting staff reflections on the action research process was also introduced. This included collating and discussing the responses to questions in the reflection documents. As a result of the discussions, specific areas of the Institute’s research processes which required strengthening, and the methods or activities to adopt, were identified and assigned to a group of researchers to address. A framework for monitoring and performance evaluation was also put in place.

Strengthening capacity: Building and retaining knowledge

The Institute initially focused its human resource capacity building at the level of junior researchers. The objective was to build their competence to undertake independent research and publish articles. Research supervisors worked with junior researchers to identify their training needs. Based on the needs assessment, senior researchers were assigned specific capacity-building roles and functions, which included offering in-house training to junior researchers. Researchers also received external training where capacity gaps could not be addressed internally. Providing public recognition for junior researchers through publication of their research work in national newspapers and IEA policy briefs was also instituted.

In terms of institutional capacity building, the IEA focused on strengthening its Survey Unit. As the unit is relatively new, it was identified as an area that could benefit from the OCB process. Strengthening the unit was intended to ensure that all lessons relating to the conduct of surveys (methodologies, processes and experiences) were documented as a manual to build institutional knowledge and experience. Both junior and senior researchers received training on how to conduct surveys. The challenge for the IEA was in ensuring that the manual to guide researchers in the development, analysis and reporting of surveys was coherent.

Improving standards: Peer review

Through the OCB process, the IEA introduced a peer review system. This involves researchers initially presenting an outline of their research, having earlier developed an abstract. The outline is discussed at a research-in-progress meeting after which researchers produce a first draft. The draft paper is discussed at a second meeting, with input from external resource persons. The paper is subsequently fine-tuned and presented at a roundtable discussion where relevant experts, academics and policy makers are invited. The roundtable is another stage of quality assessment to test the evidence and rigour of the research. The process also provides an opportunity to question and understand specific findings of the IEA’s research in greater detail. Feedback from the roundtable is incorporated after which the paper undergoes another round of editing before publication.


The impact of capacity building and peer review, instituted as part of the OCB process, has been significant. First, the IEA has developed in-house capacity in conducting surveys. As a result, the entire process of data collection, coding, analysis and presentation of findings for two major surveys, undertaken since the OCB process, were carried out by IEA staff. This was an improvement from previous years when data analysis had to be out-sourced at considerable cost.

Second, the capacity of junior researchers in conducting research and writing has improved, resulting in an increase in publications. Prior to the OCB process, the Institute produced about 18 publications a year; the IEA now produces an average of 25 publications a year written by both senior and junior researchers. The Institute has also been able to provide a timely response to emerging policy issues, as junior researchers now have a better capacity to work independently.

Third, the introduction of joint research by senior and junior researchers has yielded results in terms of high levels of motivation and stronger retention of junior researchers. Currently, their work has been published in national newspapers and IEA policy briefs.

Fourth, as a result of regular research-in-progress meetings, and the peer review process, the quality of research output has improved. Research questions, for example, are better formulated. Overall, the above results reflect the expected outcomes of the OCB process.

Collective commitment

The demands of the policy environment meant that unplanned activities required rescheduling of some research-in-progress meetings. This proved challenging as OCB team members had to realign their diaries for alternative meetings. Mobilising resources to undertake the internal documentation processes was also demanding. Further, carrying out the OCB process, while maintaining the broad range of programs the Institute undertakes, placed time demands on staff. Nonetheless, effective coordination and team commitment helped address the above challenges.

Participating in the OCB process has been significant in enhancing the quality of research output at the IEA. The collective commitment, buy-in and high level of ownership by the Institute’s staff, due to the fact that all processes were led and initiated by the IEA has been crucial for its success. On the whole, the OCB process has helped the Institute to reflect on its internal processes and develop systems to build its human and institutional capacity. The process has also introduced the Institute to the practice and value of regular internal reflection processes. This has been an immensely useful practice and the challenge now is for the Institute to continue with the reflection process.

Overall, the OCB process has been instrumental in strengthening the quality of the IEA’s research outputs. Through continuous capacity building to enhance research quality, we hope to further sharpen the impact of the IEA’s work.