The second conference of the Iniciativa Latinoamericana de Investigación para las Políticas Públicas (ILAIPP) – in English, the Latin American Initiative for Public Policy - just wrapped up here in Lima and it was, by all accounts, a successful event. In addition to representatives from the 11 TTI member institutions in the region, there were other researchers and academics, representatives from civil society organizations, and a number of policy makers from various levels, including two Ministers of Education (from Peru and Guatemala).  In total, there were 180 participants who came to Lima, while another 640 individuals tuned in to the livestream online. Pretty good for a network that started just three years ago.  

Editor’s Note: Andrew Hurst is the Program Leader for the Think Tank Initiative.

The Latin American experience

Beyond the event itself, my presence here allowed me to reflect on the value of think tank networks. The emergence of networks like ILAIPP, Southern Voice and more recently, the West African Think Tank Network (WATTNet) was not necessarily something that TTI envisaged at the outset. They emerged organically and their evolution has been driven by their membership. Although we were aware of some of the limitations of networks, we also recognized their potential. In the case of ILAIPP, it has shown its value in a number of ways:

Ability to tackle research challenges
Networks offer opportunities for researchers from different organizations to come together and collaborate on a research issue that would be more difficult to study on their own. ILAIPP researchers have already worked together on a number of comparative studies of common issues faced by countries in the region; for example, the conference saw presentations on collaborative studies in the area of education. ILAIPP is working on a research strategy that will identify priority topics for comparative studies, as they recognize the value collaboration offers in such research. This is not unique to ILAIPP. Beyond TTI, networked research collaboration has demonstrated impressive results in tackling urgent issues.

Amplifying the voice of research and facilitating policy engagement
Several think tank representatives told me that they feel better positioned to bring forward their research when it is part and parcel of a collective effort. It adds, on top of research quality, an extra layer of credibility - a constant concern for think tanks - through association with other well regarded think tanks from the region. This may help depoliticize evidence in some contexts. Some ILAIPP members told me that evidence in a report published by the network is more likely to be seen as credible in their countries and will reduce potential mistrust of single organizations. ILAIPP has also created a good point of entry for regional organizations or institutions that might not know of, or know how to consult, individual think tanks; some regional and global organizations are now beginning to take notice of think tanks, and networks can help. The African Development Bank and Economic Community of West African States are supportive of WATTNet because it will be able to speak to their regional policy concerns.

Sharing lessons and building capacities
The members of ILAIPP are diverse, in size, history, range of expertise and the contexts they work in. But this diversity can also be a strength, which ILAIPP members are recognizing both through the structured process of setting a research agenda and through the informal connections of staff in the organizations. This in turn can facilitate experimentation and innovation by offering a “safe space” to fail and learn. The network is helping TTI improve needs assessment for capacity building and will help deliver support across the members. Some ILAIPP members are very advanced in their use of social media, for instance. Others have expertise in particular research methodologies.

Financial Sustainability
ILAIPP members believe that, if the network can demonstrate its effectiveness in producing comparative research and helping build organizational capacities, this may eventually contribute to the sustainability of individual think tanks by offering another avenue to either raise funds or reduce costs. Whether by being able to undertake regional research projects of interest to regional organizations (a new “market” for their research) or in building capabilities to deliver capacity building to other organizations outside the networks, the scope for reducing costs or raising funds seems a good, if yet unconfirmed, potential value to collaborating through a network. 

Several think tank representatives told me that they feel better positioned to bring forward their research when it is part and parcel of a collective effort.

A number of questions remain

Early indications from ILAIPP’s experience are positive and provide a good touchstone for other, newer think tank networks. Nevertheless, I came away keen to learn more about several challenges ILAIPP is facing.

The first challenge consists in balancing diversity and commonality amongst network members. All ILAIPP think tanks operate in countries that have been grappling with democratic consolidation. Contextual similarities help but are not a sufficient basis for building trust, as the member organizations vary greatly in size, history, focus and ideological orientation. Identifying common interests and working through a set of shared objectives has helped build trust amongst ILAIPP members. A sensible governance structure is helping to ground fair and transparent ways of working together. Sharing the burden of organizing conferences and meetings helps further still. Diversity amongst ILAIPP network members is not ignored, but nor is it dwelled upon excessively. There are similar parallels with Southern Voice and WATTNet. These networks are trying to build on what unites the member organizations and so far, it appears to be working; however, challenges remain.

At the same time, this points to a second challenge: how much structure and formality does collaboration require? Network governance, including all the rules and procedures, is important to building and maintaining trust amongst network members. However, there are transaction costs to all of this “soft” infrastructure.  It takes real commitment to bear these costs when think tank leaders are already overstretched. Once in place, they will not necessarily solve all the challenges of collaboration.  It appears that ongoing and frank dialogue between members is as important to maintaining trust as the formal structures. How much formality and structure is necessary for effective collaboration remains an open question for me.  

The sustainability of the network itself is a separate question to how the network can help individual think tanks become more sustainable. I mentioned the transaction costs above that are associated with any collaborative effort, but with a formal network there are also coordinating costs. ILAIPP has a secretariat, and has hired a person to perform this function. Costs are so far modest but, if resources become scarce, how will the members of the network share these costs in an equitable way? The issue of financial sustainability is by no means something that ILAIPP has solved, although they are well aware that it exists and they are working hard to address it.

We at TTI will continue to watch closely – and provide whatever modest help we can (through, for example, capacity development and financial support) – to networks like ILAIPP, Southern Voice and WATTNet. What is clear is that they are exploring and enabling an innovative approach in linking research to public policy processes across the world. Those interested in the health of policy-focused research ecosystems should be able to learn a lot from these networks. We’ll do our best to communicate stories of success and failure in the coming months and remaining years of TTI.