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How do think tanks create change?

What is a think tank? asks Julia Slay, formerly at the New Economics Foundation and now a Clore Social Fellow. It’s probably uncontroversial that they are perceived to be organisations that do “research, policy analysis and policy development”. But think tanks are also seen to focus on government or political parties, to be generally forward-looking, and for profit. In her view, think tank practice is shifting “towards a combination of policy, practice and campaigning or activism. They are undertaking activities that a more traditional think tank might do, but combining them with campaigning techniques, or political organising, to mobilise the public behind their work.”

So how do they have an impact today?

  1. The ideas game. Besides promoting politically-relevant policy concepts, more think tanks are now creating a safe space for leaders to engage with new ones, and they are increasingly advocating new methodologies, like design thinking.
  2. Framing. Consider the Centre for Social Justice’s reinterpretation of human trafficking as modern slavery. The focus shifts from immigration - the victims - to criminality, and the perpetrators.
  3. Capitalising on policy opportunities. A civil servant “described waiting for a policy ‘window’ by having a list of ideas that were ready to be presented at the right time”. Don’t say: ‘Big Society’.
  4. Accessing political power. This comes with risks if the political party you’re aligned with is in opposition - or you pick the wrong candidate. However, Slay argues that “the shifting boundaries of control and decision making created by devolution, and latterly Brexit, will bring new opportunities for think tanks” in this area.
  5. “Key people, key networks”. People cycling in, out of and around the machinery of government create the “proximity and trust” that get ideas into policy.
  6. Holding government to account. You might think of the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ renowned Budget commentary. But you could also refer to the effect of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s annual calculation of a minimum income standard on the formulation of minimum wages.
  7. Giving a voice to a coalition.
This typology suggests that the impact of think tank research is often indirect, dependent on the winds of political change, and more long term than is amenable to most available funding. So what could think tanks do? Slay has two suggestions:
  1. “Develop stronger relationships with civil society, activists and campaigners, so that policy work can better reflect the everyday experiences and challenges of citizens. This might mean more participatory research, engaging the groups that many describe as ‘hard to reach’ in policy research; it might involve civil society having a stronger voice in shaping the work that think tanks pick up and promote to government; and it could enable think tanks to complement their policy work with campaigns that speak to the public and engage them in the big issues of the day.”
  2. “Think tanks should consider partnerships and coalitions as a central part of their strategy for change. Time, funding streams and short term projects often act against collaboration, but most of the examples of impact in this research came from long term, strategic work that engaged a range of organisations, from policy, academia, and front line practice. For think tanks that do want to have a sustained impact, this is one successful, but underutilised tactic.”
Do you agree? How are you achieving impact today?

Quick Reads

Stay out of the weeds. Anthony Seldon’s advice to prime ministers. Institute for Government

Unicorns for good. The club of $1bn companies keeps growing - what if they all agreed to hand over a slice of equity to a citizens’ trust? Nesta

Gunboat diplomacy. What does China plan to do with 500 ships? RUSI

Old boys in blue. Police officers are ageing. Do forces have a plan? Police Foundation

That was fun. Did the referendum increase support for proportional representation? Democratic Audit

No new money. The UK Department for International Development has a new strategy, but should it focus on what developing economies do now, or will do in the future? Overseas Development Institute

Squeaky bum time”. We really need new homes. Is it time to set rules on how many homes must get built when planning permission is granted? Civitas

The Brexit White Paper

It’s finally here - even if it seemed to have been finished at four o’clock in the morning on Thursday. Think tanks didn’t necessarily go wild for it, but here are some angles:

Trust the minister. Where’s the detail on customs arrangements, and more importantly, the assessments that will guide our single big negotiation with the EU? Institute for Government

Left behind. There’s “no mention of either regional rebalancing of the economy or tackling inequality”. Centre for Labour and Social Studies

Info please. If MPs really want to scrutinise the deal, they need to meet up with peers and British MEPs - and reach out to European colleagues. Centre for European Research


“Devolution has stalled”. A lack of centrally-imposed structure was supposed to accommodate local action, but actually clearly-defined stages are needed. IPPR North

Let’s talk shop. Retail didn’t get a mention when the government outlined its industrial strategy. But 1 million jobs are at stake if it doesn’t adapt. Fabian Society

Mind over matter? There’s no strong evidence that mindfulness will help you quit smoking. RAND

£23bn. The hidden subsidy that “seigniorage” - the power to create money through lending - represents to the UK’s banks, or 73 per cent of their net profits. New Economics Foundation

Tough choices. Growing up in poverty has a psychological, social and cultural effect that can make long-term planning harder. Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Capital gains. London needs devolution - including control over council tax, stamp duty, and business rates, plus a “modest percentage” of income tax. London Finance Commission

City deal. UK cities need a good deal with the EU - 46 per cent of their exports go across the Channel. Centre for Cities

See also

Glass ceiling. Women are mediating violent conflict everywhere - except at the top of the UN. Why? Women are Boring

Think Tanks

Rinse, repeat. How policymakers could employ “a general reusable solution” when applying data to problems. Open Data Institute

Unintended consequences. Use whatever tools you like - values will ultimately shape public policy. Centre for Public Impact


Head of Communications (maternity cover). Development Initiatives, Bristol. £38-40k. Apply by 10 February

Researchers (Urban Age Programme). LSE Cities. £18.35 – £21.24 p.h. Apply by 13 February

Research Fellow, Economics and Social Policy. Policy Exchange. £30k+ depending on experience. Apply by 17 February

Policy Development Officer. The Labour Party. £36k. Apply by 19 February

Economist/Senior Economist. New Economics Foundation. £29-42k. Apply by 23 February

Director. TASC, Dublin. Competitive salary. Apply by 24 February

Senior Policy Adviser to the Chief Executive. The King’s Fund. £50-60k. Apply by 27 February.

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Compiled by Tom Jeffery
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