Catalyst | The eight-fold path to good public engagement

I was asked to speak at a panel titled “Engaging Policymakers, Journalists and the Public” last week at a conference of think tanks in New Delhi. I primarily spoke about how Takshashila engages the public, especially via blogs, op-eds and social media.

Here are those thoughts distilled into an ‘Eight-fold-path’ on good public engagement for think tanks.


Original image: Dhamma Wheel by Viniciuscb, Wikimedia Commons.

1. The right freedom: Institutional views and opinions are important, but can come rarely. If your researchers and staff are free to opine for themselves, then as a think tank you are a lot more dynamic and faster. And often it isn’t about the ultimate best opinion, but about fostering a good debate.

2. The right narrative: All people think in terms of stories. And all politics is about narrative dominance. As a policy wonk, it’s important not just to get the analysis right, but also the narrative right. At Takshashila, we believe that influencing public opinion, especially elite opinion is the way to change public policies. A powerful narrative is one that makes your policy prescription superfluous.

4. The right medium: It isn’t enough to do good research, but one also needs to get it out to as many people as possible. People are busy and policymakers doubly so – and may not be able to spare more than 30 minutes or an hour a day reading. Therefore you have to engage by using the right mediums and the right brevity when required. A blog post, op-ed or a two-page summary may be read by thousands of more people than a detailed report, so the policy research needs to be re-crafted in all those formats – including tweets!

4. The right format: People are busy. Don’t spin long yarns and provide an answer at the end. Reverse the bollywood story, start with the punchline & and the solution and then back it up with facts, reasoning and the back-story.

5. The right timing: You have to be fast and on the ball. News and policy decisions don’t wait for research cycles. Learn to match your rigour and nuance with swiftness. Get the quickest output first and follow up. It also means that think tanks have to prospective in the policy areas that they take up. It is good to work towards challenges that might hit a policymaker’s table or engage the public 6 months to 2 years from when you start.

6. The right metaphor: It is the job of a good think-tanker to simplify complex policy topics and make them accessible to a wide range of people. A good metaphor goes a long way in doing so. Whether you are saying that space exploration is a marathon and not a race; or

7. The right mindspace: A good policy wonk occupies a certain mindspace among people. Say if you care about the defence spending, you have to be out there having the definitive word on defence expenditures every time there is news. People may not think of the topic all the time, but they should think of you when they do.

8. The right wonk: Your ideal policy wonk is a scholar-warrior. You don’t want pure scholars who are often removed from the world, and you don’t want pure polemicists who are always trying to bring the other side down. A scholar-warrior does good analysis and houses it in a powerful narrative and gets the word out.