In October 2007, my organisation (the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum at the SSRC) paid for two British consultants to go to Dili to help the UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT) plan its security sector review. This was part of a project designed to help UN peacekeepers access ideas and people to produce better policy. In their first presentation, they put up an anonymous quote defining the desired end state for security:
A safer society where the citizens' rights and public tranquillity are preserved constitutes the primacy of democratic life.
The assembled UN mission officials were asked: did anyone recognise it? No hands were raised. Another paragraph was projected and once again nobody could even guess its origin, though everyone agreed it was a good definition of what Timor-Leste should be doing. With one more click, the source was revealed: Government of Timor-Leste IV Constitutional Government Programme 2007-2012. No one had read it even though it was released in English and Portuguese months beforehand as the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction's (CNRT's) party manifesto.
It was available as a PDF, the ubiquitous format used for publishing documents online.
I recalled this workshop while reading coverage of Which World Bank Reports are Widely Read?, a study that found that nearly one-third of the PDFs on the Bank's website were never accessed. (The Bank's bestseller was Vietnam Development Report 2009: Capital Matters, with 2955 downloads). In era of overcrowded inboxes, getting busy people to do professional background reading is difficult. One of the two consultants mentioned earlier, Gordon Peake (a regular contributor to The Interpreter and author of Beloved Land) co-wrote an academic journal article called Their Reports are not Read and their Recommendations are Resisted: The Challenge for the Global Police Policy Community. (No need to pay US$39 for a PDF, it's free if you Google the title.)
After five years with an organisation that has published hundreds of PDF policy reports, I know first-hand the challenge of getting decision-makers to read detailed research papers with complex arguments, often in a language that is not their native tongue.
Writing the report is only the first step. The second, in a long process of advocating policy change, is making the report available as an online PDF. At some point, armed with a PDF printout, an advocate will try to make a case face-to-face.
In July 2010, Crisis Group published a landmark report on the political crisis in Bangkok. Bridging Thailand's Deep Divide was the first comprehensive international report on the violence of that year. When then Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's spin doctors traveled to Washington DC, they found the report had got there first, framing the understanding of this conflict in the US. This is when the PM's office called and we were asked to come to the Purple Room in Bangkok's Government House.
Arrayed against my Thai colleague and me that day was an intimidating debating team led by the Oxford-educated prime minister, supported by a cabinet minister, his spokesman, and a few director-generals — sixteen staff in all. The crowd put us on the defensive, until we realised that the criticisms the PM was making were not of our analysis but of foreign media dispatches. The prime minister's points became easier to rebut as it became clear that he had not read our carefully edited PDF and neither, apparently, had the person who wrote his talking points.
In March 2012, I made the case on The Interpreter for a new role for Australia in Myanmar to incoming Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr. By that time, Crisis Group had been writing reports on the country for a decade, emailing them and posting them online. Aware that bureaucracy had long made the case for change, we thought we were adding weight to an existing argument; one Crisis Group had made around the world for some years. A few months later, Australia's policy did change to one of engagement along the lines we had been urging.
Did we have influence or make a contribution? We had no idea and no way to evaluate our impact. If Bob Carr's Diary of a Foreign Minister had a mention of Crisis Group's work on Myanmar, which Australia now calls Burma again, I missed it. But last year I serendipitously sat down for lunch at a function in an Asian capital next to an Australian diplomat. We had not met previously, but this official knew our work on Myanmar. I was told that before making the decision to re-engage, front office staffers had been asked to download and print all the Crisis Group PDFs on Myanmar (among other documents) for the minister to read.
In almost five years overseeing the publication of more than seventy PDFs as well as dozens of opinion pieces and blog posts, this is the only proof I have that someone of ministerial rank might have ever read one. He was only one reader, but a high value one. Proof, perhaps, that a PDF in the right hands can make a difference.