Lessons on policy impact from the Adam Smith Institute
For its first thirty years, the Adam Smith Institute consisted of “two directors supported by gap-year kids, recent graduates and interns, and with everyone doing everything,” writes Madsen Pirie, who back then was one of those directors and today is the organisation’s president. His book, Think Tank: The Story of the Adam Smith Institute, provides a fascinating insight into how two young libertarian academics gradually built up a low budget, high efficiency outfit that created national headlines and on several occasions significantly influenced policy formulation. Here are five things Till Bruckner learned from it.
Lesson 1: Focus on efficiency, efficiency, efficiency
In the early days, the founders of the Adam Smith Institute (ASI) had little financial backing, forcing them to become super-efficient:
“We held [weekly] lunches for eighteen to twenty people… [Thanks to a strict timetable] we were able to squeeze what was effectively a half-day conference with four speakers into a single lunchtime.”
The ASI would then collate written transcripts of the speeches into books.
Lesson 2: Systematically build credibility
Setting up an academic advisory board with prominent names on it and publishing a book was a good step.
Lesson 3: Get clear about who matters in what ways
The ASI consciously tried to broaden the Overton Window to turn radical ideas into politically feasible policy options.
“[I]deas could be discussed in public and become familiar and understood. That in turn made it easier for them to be taken up by politicians as policy initiatives, and it also meant the proposals could be improved by commentators who discussed them…”
ASI staff wrote features in newspapers and magazines, giving the think tank an extra source of income as well as free publicity.
Lesson 4: Informal alliances can easily outperform formal coalitions
ASI staff participated in regular Saturday lunch meetings with like-minded think tankers, journalists, and staff from the prime minister’s policy research unit.
“Typically we would decide how we could focus the policy agenda onto specific subjects during the coming weeks and try to coordinate our activities to make us more effective collectively than we would have been individually. One or more of the think tanks might arrange a publication; another would organize a seminar; the journalists would endeavour to have the subject covered in leader columns; while the research staff would ensure it was drawn to the attention of the appropriate members of the Shadow cabinet.”
Lesson 5: Ask the government to test your big idea on a small scale first
“We discovered that the general public is sufficiently fair-minded to go along with the notion of testing new ideas on a limited basis, and we often thereafter called for many of our proposals to be introduced on an experimental trial basis in a few trial areas…”