Olga Lvova, think twice UA director and former Prague Civil Society Centre Fellow, asked Wojciech Bialozyt, Managing Director of WiseEuropa Institute about the main aspects of the organization, crucial components for think tanks’ work and his view of expert’s development in Poland.
Wojciech Bialozyt is a Managing Director of WiseEuropa. Previously served as Executive Director of Warsaw’s Jan Karski Educational Foundation and worked in Open Government project at Centrum Cyfrowe think tank fostering digital agenda. His field of expertise includes European politics, with a particular focus on Poland and France, as well as impact of digitization on public administration and decision-making. PhD candidate at the Faculty of Economic Sciences at the University of Warsaw with his research focusing on digital era governance.
WiseEuropa is an independent think tank based in Warsaw, undertaking a strategic reflection on European politics, foreign policy and economy. The institute was created in March 2016 as a result of a merger between demosEUROPA-Centre for European Strategy and WISE Institute. WiseEuropa intends to stimulate and inspire the public debate on the future of Poland and Europe. The organization offers a wide range of analytical, research, consulting and communication services.
Olga Lvova: First of all, I would like to ask about your organization: the history of the organization, when it was created, who was the founder and which ideas and resources you started with?
WiseEuropa was founded in 2013 by our chairman Maciej Bukowski who has been advising for many years numerous Polish governments on economic issues. He was in the strategic advisory group to the prime-minister Tusk, deputy prime-minister Hausner and worked in public administration and private business. At the time, the foundation’s name was WISE, the acronym for Warsaw Institute for Economic Studies.
In the very beginning WISE was purely economic and social affairs think tank focusing on labor market, macroeconomics, climate energy and evaluating effects of the EU intervention in certain aspects of Polish society and economy. However, in 2016, we merged with the European affairs-oriented demosEUROPA think tank, and then re-branded the name from WISE to WiseEuropa. The pool of competences of the organization was broadened by adding foreign policy and European integration competences. From that perspective, I think that we are the most versatile think tank in Poland in terms of competences, and absolutely independent. By saying versatile, I mean that WiseEuropa covers complex macro-economic analysis and at the same time foreign policy, social policies, etc. This is what distinguishes us within the think-tank industry in Poland. Maciej Bukowski has founded the organization with only three other people, and today we have expanded to 15 permanent staff members.
O. L. You mentioned that you are independent. What does it mean? How do you fund? Do you apply for different grants from international projects?
WiseEuropa gainsall the projects in competitive procedures – it takes part in public procurement in Poland, submits proposals and respond to calls being announced by the public institutions in Poland. This is the first source.
On many instances, tenders being announced by the public institutions in Poland are funded by the European Union, e.g. so-called ex-ante or ex-post evaluations of public policies.
Second source are directly European Union research funds “Horizon 2020”, so which we build consortia and then apply for funds in a competitive procedure. We also get funding from other European Union funds, such as “Europe for Citizens”, “Erasmus+”.
In all these financial schemes we take part in competitive procedures without having any endowment, any structural grant from anyone, neither public nor private institution. From time to time, we conduct research for private organizations. For example, we have been working with the Finnish energy company “Fortum” and Polish Wind Energy Association, but it is a minor part of our budget. When signing agreements we always indicate who has the right to submit remarks to our research, to comment on thatbut in the end, this is our research team to decide on the final outcome of this research. We do not accept tasks and projects in which results are defined from the very beginning.
We receive grants also from the European Climate Foundation, EIT+ Climate-KIC and various Polish foundations. On the basis of these diversified sources, we sustain our financial standing.
How do you think what is the most important component to organize the work of a think tank?
I think there are two major challenges. The first one is fundraising, applying for funds. The second one is staff, our research team. The critical component is who actually works here, what competences the whole team bring, and how this team can contribute to the development of the organization. Therefore, I think money and people are two major components.
What about values and principles? Is it important in the work of a think tank to have values or principles?
Yes,it is. We talk a lot about values in the mission statement: we believe in the values of democratic and Europe-oriented Poland, we believe that public decisions should be taken on the basis of verifiable evidence. We are definitely pro-European, pro-free market and pro-rule of law. These are the values we base our work on.
Could you please tell me about your main projects or just specify what you think was the most important? You can tell about the ones that you are running right now, maybe some already had impact on policy-making or policy agenda?
Definitely, our main competence is energy and climate. We are currently running two research energy and climate projects funded within the framework of the “Horizon 2020”, and we are modeling the outcomes of the European climate policy by 2050. We have also received grants from the European Union Climate Initiative(financial framework run by the Environmental Ministry of Germany): CEE Climate Policy Frontier and The Landscape of Climate Finance
One project is concentrated on climate finance: how the financial sector’s operations will be changing following the climate changes. We make the most here of WiseEuropa chairman M. Bukowski work as a member of the European Commission Expert Group on Sustainable Finance to The second project is about examining within four major Visegrad countries, which of these countries are particularly strong in which aspects of the climate and energy policies.
The second competence I have mentioned is foreign policy and European affairs – we analyse here various aspects of Polish foreign policy in European and transatlantic contexts.
The foreign policy team conducts “Horizon 2020” project focused on European Union economic, social and cultural relations with Central Asia, led by the University of Duisburg and Institut für Europäische Politik in Berlin.
We are also running several projects within the framework of “Europe for Citizens”. One project is focused on the European values and remembrance, how the nation-state building process looked like after World War I, which means 100 years ago, and what consequences for current EU identity it may have. The second one within the “Europe for Citizens” is related to the upcoming European elections. In the days to come we will hold the workshops and conference focused on the Eastern dimension of the European Union policies.
Digitisation is another important competence we have. We have published two research papers on the impact of digital single market on Poland and Polish economy, and on how companies in Poland need to get prepared to meet the requirements of the digital single market. The ranking on how EU countries are prepared to adopt the digital single market was prepared within this project. Poland and other CEE countries are positioned low there, as you may imagine.
We have recently been finalizing a major project on migration where we have been actually examining the effects of Ukrainian migration to Poland and how Polish employers have been implementing formal aspects of absorbing big numbers of Ukrainians.
The second project was focused on foster care. Actually, it was an implementation project, not only a classical think tank project in which we publish a paper and organize a conference. The Ministry of Labor has commissioned us a project aimed to produce an IT tool to track how local authorities in Poland deal with foster care. Foster care is aimed at all the kids that are for various reasons without parents.
First, we have conducted quantitative and qualitative research, and then with the help of IT company, an IT tool was designed and set up. It was implemented in all powiats, the middle level of local government in Poland that are in charge of dealing with foster care. The idea was that in every powiat in Poland a dedicated person can sit and look how other powiats in the country deal with the same issue. They could compare, benchmark it to assess the effectiveness of their own local foster policies in comparative perspective.
Very broad, it is difficult to combine energy and foreign policy…
We always need to adapt to timelines of when European and Polish institutions are organizing in call for tenders.. Last year I think in our case was marked by climate, digitalization and labor market. Previous years were definitely different. I remember that we were heavily focused on labor market policies back in 2015. Key element of these competences is that we are versatile, so we are able to, depending on different projects, focus more on energy or less on energy, more digitalization or less, etc. If you have a look at the poster behind you, there was a major research we conducted in 2017 in which we we focused on capital market reform in Poland.
Do you have a strategy that you are trying to follow? Regarding long-term or short-term context, do you have any ambitions and goals?
Yes, our major goal is to be active and recognizable part of the think tank society in Europe. Definitely, our goal is to provide top-notch evidence-based research supporting public policies. There is a lot of organizations in Poland which say that they are think tanks, but in fact they compile results of what other organizations do. We are the think tank that actually works on row data and numbers, and out of these numbers we produce original results.
Could you please talk a little bit more about communication? How do you target your main stakeholders?
We work with all of them, because we target different groups. Mostly we communicate with various stakeholders: government stakeholders, opinion media, trade organisations and broader opinion circles, I mean other think tanks, other NGOs working on things that interest us. Probably we target these groups through all kinds of opinion media, TV, opinion dailies and Twitter to the increasing extent. We use all kinds of communication like newsletters, etc.
However, there is no doubt that the focus of the communication shifted from traditional printed media to social media. As you know, we have an organization’s Twitter account, but most of researchers have also their own Twitter accounts.. Definitely, Maciej is the most popular Twitter user among us, and he has much more followers than the organization itself.
Do you have advisory board or supervisory board? If you have it, what role does it play in the organization?
No, but we do have a team of fellows, I mean the associated experts that might be either former employees or people in whose competences we have confidence. This is a group of people that we engage from time to time to various projects that we run, but they are not members of our permanent staff. We have actually been thinking of sort of advisory board.
…but you do not need it?
That would be probably useful to have one. On the other hand, we are solely project-based, we are sometimes short of time to reach out, to organize networking events and things like that, because we are too busy. Each month we have project meetings in London, Berlin, Paris, so the team travels a lot, and sometimes it is hard to organize in between networking activities. That would be probably very nice to have, but what we focus on are our core research tasks.
Speaking about, you have a lot of publications based on your research. How this process looks like when you are doing a research? Do you have special methodology? Do you use peer reviews? How do you check the quality?
The nature of our research is that we mostly respond to calls being announced by the European Commission, Polish public institutions etc. In most cases they define what the research framework is, so we fill the framework that has already been outlined. For example, while submitting an offer within the “Horizon 2020” we define the methodology, and what we would like to achieve ourselves on the basis of the call for proposals’ content The outcomes of our research are verified by the European Commission, by the institutions that are the ordering parties. When we deliver the research to public institutions in Poland, they always comment on this. We are sometimes in heated discussions with our ordering parties whether to accept the comments they made or not, sometimes we decline, if it exceeds the reasonable scope of the review process.
What about think tank sector in Poland? Do you have competition on resources or ideas? What are strengths or weaknesses of think tanks? Do they influence policy agenda? Do you have competition between different think tanks on ideas, on funds?
We definitely compete with other organizations although there is not that many think-tanks in Poland. I think that the major weakness of the think tank market in Poland is something that actually has been the case for decades in Poland – funds and the limited sources of funding. The major battle that think tanks across Europe have in a day-to-day operation is that they seek funds, submit new grant proposals, deliver reports on past projects – everything at the same time. It is the feature of the whole sector as such.
When you see how the think tanks in Western Europe operate and compare them with us, you can see that many think tanks in the West have structural funds or endowements. I mean they have a major donor delivering structural funding. In some countries, the state delivers this funding. Sometimes there are financial schemes of the European Commission for the structural funding.
Therefore, the think tank market in Poland is weak because the philanthropy is weak. There is no tradition of supporting the third parties in actually contributing to the democracy quality of decision-making. What we have in this organization is based on our effort and on projects that we have won. I have seen recently that the governmental agency in Poland in charge of non-governmental organizations was thinking of a financial scheme to deliver structural funding to think tanks. So maybe it will change, and there will be a call for structural funding.
Do you cooperate with governmental agencies? How would you describe this cooperation? Are they interested in your work?
Mostly it is a demand from public institutions, and this is rather often that ministries dealing with social and economic affairs request external expertise.
Public institutions know that they need to evaluate effects of selected public policies, so they announce tenders, and organizations like ours submit offers. Sometimes these analyses need it because the European Union imposes the obligations for the public institutions to track the effects of public policies. So either they want or no, they must be delivered external evaluations of public policies.
I have also very often seen state officials being genuinely interested in what we provide. On the other hand, our research is delivered under very rigid formal frameworks of public procurement process that sometimes limits the quality of results we might deliver.
We seek compromise between research excellence and formalities and we try to combine expectations of both sides. On the one hand, I think that there is a lot of genuine interest from the public institutions. On the other hand, we see a lot of formal constraints and that many instances do not use the delivered research to build or to change the public policy. They need it, they want to see and read it, they appreciate it, but there is no further step forward. This is the limitation in our work and in general a major weakness of public administration in Poland.
We have often seen the results of our research in what the public policy-makers said in the media, or even in various governmental documents. However if you think that once WiseEurope produced a big paper, then this or that ministry would say “Wonderful! We will implement everything”, you are wrong, they will not. They sometimes use certain elements of our research, but it is rather very rare to see the government really following the entire set of policy recommendations. This is a permanent frustration of think-tankers in Poland, but I am also sure it goes beyond Poland, too.
How do you see the future of think tanks in your country and in the world, taken into account any trends like populism, fast-reading?
I think that in Poland it will be a permanent struggle because policy makers are not used to implement our recommendations in policy-making. When you see the portfolio of our projects, 80% of funding comes through various forms of European Union funds, there are like 7 or 8 different funding schemes we use. We are dependent on the European Union, if there is any government in Poland that tries to weaken the ties of Poland with the European Union, all think tanks will be very affected and damaged by that.
Is it possible in the near future that the European Union will stop supporting think tanks?
No, but now we see that it is not the European Union that stops anything, it is Poland that refrains from being an active player within the European Union. I do not see the bright future for think tanks in Poland. A reasonable wish for the think tank industry in Poland would be that it keeps as it is for the years to come.
Think tanks obviously, with the culture of fake news and alternative facts, are being seriously challenged in many countries, including not only Poland but major European countries and the United States as well. See the United Kingdom, the country where the civil society and think tank sectors are strong, and with the alternative facts campaign and emotions, the majority of Brits have decided to leave the European Union, despite facts. Facts did not matter, what mattered were emotions and alternative facts proliferated through social media. This is a major challenge not only for think tanks but also for democracies across Europe.
This is one more thing what think tanks are suffering from in Poland: we deliver evidence based research, and then politicians pronounce alternative facts, untrue picture of society, of economy.. How can you respond to that? The significant problem in Poland is also that politicians do not express the need to see evidence based policies, they are focused on symbols, slogans, twitts. When I said previously that policy-makers express interest in what we do, I meant the civil servants. We have had difficulties with engaging politicians to various forms of our activities.
So in my opinion, think tanks are very much related to the “old model of democracy” in which there is evidence, facts, where people are trying to take decisions based on verifiable data, and that is obviously the type of democracy that is shrinking, not flourishing.
Do you have talks or any ideas to make something like what they have in Germany or in Czech Republic recently, for example, political think tanks?
That is a very good question, because the political parties in Poland are financed from the state budget. 7-8 years ago there was an amendment to the bill on the financing of political parties, which required that political parties spent a certain number of its state subsidies on evidence research. I am afraid, in practice it turned out to be unsuccessful: political parties have created units that theoretically are to deal with evidence base issues and policies, but in practice publish articles based on general knowledge, with no added value. Maybe they conduct some research but it seems to me that they do not use this money in a way that was meant to be.
Previous government actually tried to set up some financial mechanisms to spread Polish political and economic transition expertise. Poland has been very active following the uprising in Tunisia, and there were many delegations from Poland to Tunisia to share our expertise in transition and state-building. We have been also very active in Ukraine with regards to the local government`s reform. The author of Polish economic reforms Leszek Balcerowicz was advisor to president Poroshenko for a number of years. However, the whole process was rather an ad-hoc one.
I am afraid there are no Polish political foundations Having an impact abroad. Poles, on the one hand, want to be highly recognizable nation in the world but on the other hand, in terms of applying professional tools to achieve these goals, we are strikingly unsuccessful. This is a conceptual gap and deficit of policy-making and politics in Poland. What we need is more “doing things’ approach.