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Jakarta Post

How to harness the power of think tanks

  • Raymond Struyk

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Fri, June 5, 2015   /  06:28 am

Indonesia'€™s knowledge sector is blossoming. Its think tanks are producing a stream of incisive research that helps to ground policy-making in rigorous analysis and empirical data '€” and ensure government programs actually achieve their aims. As the country grapples with tough policy challenges at home and abroad, it'€™s critical to tap into these resources to stoke healthy debate and set the right course for sustainable development.

Currently, the country is home to 27 think tanks. That'€™s a strong total relative to regional neighbors, but it'€™s actually not commensurate with the size of Indonesia'€™s economy. After all, Zimbabwe, which has a Gross Dosmetic Product (GDP) that'€™s just a small fraction of Indonesia'€™s, has 24.

Nonetheless, the think tank community is rapidly growing. Just earlier this year, a well-regarded American researcher opened up a new one in Jakarta called the Center for Indonesian Policy Studies, which is specifically focused on fostering free markets and protecting individual liberty. And Indonesia'€™s oldest and most influential think tank, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, continues to produce work of the highest caliber.

As the Indonesian think tank community continues to grow and improve, the government needs to make an active effort to incorporate its research. Fortunately, President Joko '€œJokowi'€ Widodo has already started doing just that. He'€™s even recruited several think tank officials to fill top posts in his administration. The powerful Coordinating Ministry for Economic Affairs is sponsoring its own think tank that will become operational in September.

Of course, this is not a one-way relationship. For their part, Indonesia'€™s think tank community must continually cultivate excellence. Their work must be rigorous, accessible, and keyed into the most important issues of the day. This effort starts with strong leadership. Managing a think tank can be a whirlwind of constant activity over a broader variety of fields, including personnel management, donor outreach and media and government relationships.

There needs to be a strong personality at the center of the operation to keep everyone focused on the organization'€™s long term goals. Without that, the quality of the research can suffer, leading to bad policy recommendations.

Equally important is that think tank management must aggressively cultivate a high quality workforce. For the average organization, staff salaries and benefits constitute between 60-70 percent of its total annual expenditures. Those dollars need to be spent wisely.

Organizational leaders should always be looking to hire new talent. They should also create clear, transparent compensation structures to ensure everyone '€” from the junior research associate to the president '€“ feels treated with respect. And think tanks need to be vigilant about making positions appealing by offering unique non-monetary compensation, such as mentoring, continued education and the chance to secure a byline in a major publication.

Next, think tanks need to establish a solid reputation for producing high quality, non-partisan work. Every study must adhere to rigorous standards of logic and substantiation. As Pak Asep Suryahadi, the director of the Jakarta-based SMERU Research Institute, has noted, it'€™s '€œenormously important for a think tank to invest in building up its credibility by consistently maintaining the quality of its outputs.'€

Finally, there needs to be an institutional commitment to effectively communicating new research to elected officials. Even world-class analysis is effectively useless unless it gets into the hands of the people shaping public policy.

This is easier said than done. Indeed, a couple years ago managers at the Bandung Institute for Governance Studies discovered that many of the presentations its analysts were making to policymakers suffered from a lack of focus and insensitivity to public opinion. The institute was doing excellent work. But it wasn'€™t communicating that work in a way that the government would find compelling.

Management responded by implementing a preparation protocol requiring all policy presentations to be vetted by senior researchers. This new system has not only improved the organization'€™s outreach efforts, but has provided presenters with more confidence.

Indonesia is emerging as one of the most important economies in the world. Think tanks can help with that evolution. Their work provides the intellectual foundations for sound policymaking that can unleash the full potential of this great country and its citizens.

The writer is a senior fellow at the non-profit Results for Development Institute and author of the newly published Improving Think Tank Management: A practical guide for Think Tanks, Research Advocacy NGOs and Their Funders.

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