By Zhang Hanqi
On March 23, Mr. Jan Techau, Director of Carnegie Europe came to our class and shared his valuable insights on the operation of a think tank. His own experience in directing the European center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, as well as his well-organized and enlightening speech, together provided the audience with a new understanding on the operation of a successful think tank and offered practical guidance that will prove useful in the operation of any think tank, including the NexGen Global Forum.
Mr. Techau first presented the class with a diagram showing two phases, the conceptual phase and the operational phase of thank tank management. The first piece of advice: When you start a think tank, do not start with the operational side. Instead, think about why you are doing this. In other words, the conceptual phase comes first.
This process involves three steps: 1. Developing the philosophical core of the organization 2. Setting strategic goals that serve the philosophical core 3. Determining operational goals to practically achieve the strategic goals. Take Carnegie Europe for example, its philosophical core is to promote world peace. On a more practical level, the goal is to make Europe a better foreign policy player. This strategic goal specifies how world peace is to be achieved but is still somewhat abstract. Therefore, on the operational level, Carnegie Europe sets a goal of improving the relationship between the EU and China, for instance. Of course a think tank can always create more detailed sub-goals, but it is helpful to remember to follow the route from the philosophical core and the strategic goal to the more practical ones.
Now think tankers can enter the operational side of the diagram. When a think tank organizes an event, it should go through the following list: 1. What messages to deliver through the event 2. What drivers or methods to mediate the messages 3. Who is the target audience? These are the very first issues to think about before organizing an event. Drivers could be a webpage, a press release, giveaway flies, blogs, tweet, testimonials from famous people, etc. What drivers to use sometimes depends on the target audience. If the target audience is the press, then press releases or simply a conversation with journalists would be effective drivers.
Next, a team or some specific staff should be assigned with specific tasks. After a plan is created, a timeline needs to be developed in order to check the progress and have something to refer to throughout the whole operation of the plan. After a plan is completed, it is time to measure impact. This is an integral part of the operational diagram and regarded as especially important by the donors and the communications team. However, Mr. Techau believes it is not productive to be too obsessed about ex post impact measurement and that learning from the problems from one event to improve the next one is the actually the right attitude. This also constitutes the last step of the operational diagram and makes the whole process a feedback loop.
Mr. Techau took several questions after the lecture. Regarding how to evaluate impact, Mr. Techau believes the best way is to get into the target audience because their perceptions constitute the most accurate indicator of the think tank’s public impact. Go to lunch with the major papers or wire services that attend the events regularly and ask them for their assessment. But to some degree, a think tank never fully knows its influence because the feedbacks it receives are “perceptions” collected from the audience. The feedbacks are merely indicators of the real impact, and when the think tank analyzes the feedbacks, it reinterprets them and might fail to recreate the true perceptions of the audience.
Another question frequently asked is what affects a think tank’s objectivity. Mr. Techau’s replied thought-provokingly that the three factors are: 1. Internal factors—researchers should be honest with themselves and write what they believe to be true 2. Mainstream thinking—it is hard not to be affected by mainstream views on an issue 3. Donors—A think tank has to decide whether to be the mouthpiece of its donors or to be purely knowledge-based. Being the former will make the think tank popular among some groups but it will suffer low access and research quality. Being the latter is even harder because telling the truth will displease some peers in the field. Think tanks will always have to deal with split loyalties and the director has to make hard decisions.
Objectivity and independence is the biggest difference between think tanks and advocacy groups. The Carnegie Centers for example, receives 4 stars out of 5 (because some donors wish to stay anonymous) in terms of independence. Advocacy groups, on the other hand, are more predictable in how they organize and what they advocate because of their specific missions.