Postcard from Sarajevo: Reflections on the New Era for Think Tanks

I was fortunate recently to attend the International Workshop for Managers of Research Organisations in the Western Balkans and the EU in Sarajevo, hosted by Analitika, the Regional Research Promotion Program (RRPP) in the Western Balkans, and the Think Tank Fund of the Open Society Foundations.

The conference was held against a backdrop of change and uncertainty: 20 years on from the Bosnian War, a collective of fragile states with ambitions for European Union ascension – well aware of the challenges the EU itself faces in balancing increasingly imbalanced social and economic circumstances in the face of continued financial woes, growing civic unrest and a right-wing populism, and the ongoing pressures wrought by the migration crisis.

Walking down the pock-marked, unstable footpaths past shelled out soviet apartment buildings, now plastered with advertisements for cars, and watching streams of teenagers gathering to smoke and socialise in visually incongruous, towering malls of consumption, it’s clear that there’s still an enormous way to go for the post-War regeneration project – and that capitalism has been much more successful in bringing development to Bosnia over recent years than the Government itself.

This seems to be true in many places across the region and in parts of central and Eastern Europe, with their delegates describing how corruption, nepotism and propaganda continue to stymie progress towards transparency, long-term, strategic public policy-making and developing the resilient institutions democracies need to endure.

In Sarajevo, we came together to hear from some of the individuals and organisations looking to transform this political landscape by leading a new wave of research and policy excellence through a cohort of local think tanks – often in the wake of considerable challenges. The conference was partly a therapy group for airing frustrations, and partly a constructive dialogue to share experiences and best practice from across the EU.

Local attendees spoke of being driven by an enormous sense of responsibility and ambition towards improving the state of governance in their countries and in the region more broadly – whether through providing the economic analysis missing from public policy-making, monitoring the democratic credentials of elections, or building cross-country networks where politicians are unwilling or unable to connect. And yet, aside from the obvious issues around funding and the closed doors of government, they also face struggles in attracting and retaining staff, long-term planning, and finding avenues of influence.

The overwhelming message from the conference was around the need to do more with less – a concept that resonated universally with all attendees, to the surprise of some of the local organisations. There are some areas, however, in which the challenges faced by nascent think tanks or think tanks in nascent democracies vary enormously from those experienced by think tanks in more established public policy environments. For one, in the US, UK and Europe, competition from established and emerging new players, including academia, pressure groups and individual campaigners, is cultivating an extremely crowded market for ideas, which compels think tanks more than ever before to define their own unique contribution.

Other external risks, such as the profound changes that have taken place to the media environment over the past decade, will undoubtedly continue to evolve over coming years, as the market further fragments, shrinks and centralises. So too is it likely that regulatory imposts, such as the controversial Lobbying Act 2014, will continue to bring operational uncertainties for charities and think tanks alike ahead of the next General Election unless further clarity is achieved.

Maintaining traditions and standards of scholarship in this environment requires a resilient, enduring ethos – matched with a level of agility and willingness to adapt that will undoubtedly see some weather the storm while others fall behind.

Communicators in think tanks (or, ‘wonkcomms’ types) must be on the frontline in responding to these changes – and indeed, as I discussed at the conference, in finding ways to leverage them as opportunities. For one, this shifting balance of power relationships between society’s core institutions can create new, more cost-effective platforms for campaigning and agenda-setting that were traditionally out of reach of many grassroots organisations.

That said, it was certainly eye-opening to discover just how many of these organisations are currently making do without any dedicated communications staff or expertise. It goes without saying that think tanks must be built on the back of the quality of their research, but so too is it difficult to achieve the impact needed to be shaping policy externally or even shoring up internal financial security without the capacity to promote, explain and share work effectively.

These organisations are doing some outstanding work, despite so many odds being stacked against them – but there is still a long way to go before they feel more confident about their ability to bring real about real and lasting improvements to the health of their respective political spheres. We should be doing more as a community of global think tanks to share our experiences in finding best practice for internal management with those having to battle against such profound external challenges.

Through this, we may well help to transform the impressive ingenuity, drive and sense of purpose palpable at the conference into ensuring these organisations become an ingrained and indispensible part of the policy landscape in the Balkans and beyond.