In 2017, OTT published a set of documents under the OTT Best Practice Series. Each document dealt with a different topic and produced a best practice statement, based on the experiences of different think tanks. Each post also dealt with the issue of credibility in one way or another, and the key message that came out was this: use of best practice in management, communications and governance helps to increase respect for think tanks and improve their effectiveness and efficiency.
But what is a ‘best practice’? Simply put, it is a demonstrably effective way of executing a task, as identified from the way that several think tanks that are perceived as well-managed, carry out such task. The best practice documents distill the actual policy and procedures of these multiple think tanks on a specific issue along with the author’s wider experience to produce the best possible practice statement. Naturally, the practice may need to be adjusted to the specific environments of those who adopt it.
Think tanks who use best practice tend to be respected both inside their organisation – by staff, senior managers and board members – and outside, by other think tanks, policymakers and the broader policy community (including donors).
Consider the effects of a staff appraisal system that uses best practice – one that puts a strong focus on producing a concrete ‘staff development plan’ containing goals and commitments for staff and their manager. The staffer could commit to taking on technically more demanding tasks or responsibility for managing a couple of junior researchers. The manager could commit to adjusting her work mix in order to provide the essential mentoring during the early stages of the transition to the new work. The staffer may also commit to taking an outside course and the manager to supporting strongly her application for course financing to HR. Such a system, if implemented consistently and including each and every staff member, would contribute to boosting staff morale and productivity, and may even extend how long staff stay at the organisation. It would also strengthen the think tank’s reputation as a great place to work, thereby enhancing the quality of its applicant pool.
Using best practice principles to build a strong external communications operation provides another example. There is general agreement within think tanks that identifying and targeting a few high-priority audience groups is important when it comes to the uptake of evidence. But in practice this does not happen consistently. Best practice suggests that a commitment to regular audience mapping exercises is key, as is the involvement of senior management staff. One best practice is for the director of communications, the executive director, or the research director to participate in planning communications strategies for different projects. After all, if targeting is not rigorous, then a great deal of the communications effort is wasted.
A more controversial best practice for think tanks has to do with time management systems – specifically, the implementation of a timesheet system. Though this sort of initiative often receives a lot of push back, there are many benefits to it. For example, it helps individual researchers or analysts understand how much time it really takes them to complete a task. It also allows project managers to monitor the expenditure of funds on their projects and make early adjustments where it is clear that too many resources are being used for specific tasks. Senior management can, in turn, use this at a more macro level to monitor spending across projects and support functions. For external stakeholders, especially donors, time management systems can contribute to the overall credibility of the organisation. With labour accounting for about 70% of think tanks’ cost, this is critical.
So far, there have only been a handful of articles under the Best Practice Series. More are needed, especially ones that provide best practice on a specific issue relevant to the operation of think tanks. As far as I know, no other organisation is featuring this kind of advice.
My sense is that the most effective contributions are those that address a comparatively narrow topic and develop a statement from a combination of the actual practices of strong think tanks and a careful review of the published and grey literature. The resulting best practices are more detailed (and probably better informed) than the treatment that can be given to each topic in general-purpose books on think tank management or governance. While these books are useful, OTT would like to build something much more practical and relevant as the series matures.