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How to think like a think tanker

“The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.” ― Christopher Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian

I found one thought particularly intimidating when I started out as a think tanker. How was I meant to come up with something new and interesting to say about issues other people worked on every day?

In my role as Head of Technology Policy at the think tank Policy Exchange, I was responsible for designing recommendations for how central and local government could make smarter use of technology and data. Yet clearly there were already thousands of people throughout government and the wider public sector who looked after technology projects, IT procurement and data. What could I possibly tell them that they didn’t already know? Why would they listen to me – or indeed any think tanker? If you have any humility at all, the same questions are likely to strike you no matter what area of policy you choose to work in.

Over time, I realised there are three reasonable responses.

First, it helps if you do actually have some professional background in the policy area you research. In education policy it might be beneficial to have been a teacher or a school governor. If you work in crime and justice policy, a previous life working with the prison service or supporting probation officers might help. In my own case, I’d previously worked for a global technology consulting firm and also started my own (albeit ill-fated) open data start-up. Those experiences were fundamental to my being able to say anything sensible about technology in government and gave me a degree of credibility with officials. I must caveat this by acknowledging that there are some outstanding policy wonks who haven’t worked directly in their field. But you can bet your life they’ve gone out of their way to spend a lot of time speaking to those who have. The policy world has little room for armchair philosophers.

Second, not being at the coalface of an issue can actually be an advantage. Just as politicians have little time for big picture thinking, front line workers and public service managers tend to be so focused on their specific task that they struggle to take a step back and ask if they’re working on the right things, in the right way, and with the right results. Think tanks are able to dispassionately look at a whole field. It may be that the best solution to a particular problem is not in the interests of the people currently responsible for it. Think tanks’ detachment means they can propose Christmas even when turkeys won’t vote for it.

Third and finally, think tanks have the time and skills to conduct detailed research. On occasion, a solution to a problem can only be found by running the numbers or examining the data to spot an insight that’s not obvious to the casual observer. At other times, the truth emerges only by interviewing dozens of people to get multiple perspectives on the same topic. Think tanks are able to analyse where others practice.

Inside the tank thinking outside the box

Despite knowing all these things, I still found myself wanting a more structured way of thinking through policy problems to come up with new ideas. For my own benefit, I started jotting down some mental prompts that could help. Here are fifteen techniques I found effective.

1. Apply the approach or philosophy of another organisation or individual. How would Google, Amazon, Richard Branson (or any other organisation or individual you can think of) solve this problem if they were running the government for a day? Would they tackle it with technology? Create a new marketplace? Design a new business model? Would they adapt what was already there, or start from scratch? Forcing yourself to view the world through someone else’s eyes can help reveal new paths, opportunities and risks.

2. Copy the solution given to a completely separate problem. Sometimes you can gain insight into how to solve an issue in your policy area by looking at how a problem has been addressed in a completely different domain. Several examples of this idea in action could be given. Recent prison reforms that give full autonomy to prison governors are based on the academies movement in schools. Another would be the Institute for Government’s work curating and sharing best practice between various public sector regulators on the grounds that regulating quasi markets in sectors such as prisons, hospitals and schools is broadly similar.

3. Find another country that’s solved the issue in a way that could be adapted for the UK. This is arguably one of the most powerful ways of devising policy suggestions. Instead of just stating that an idea is good in theory, you can actually point to a living example of it working somewhere else in the world. The value a think tank adds is to show how a model or technique can be adapted for a domestic context. The differences in political systems mean few will be a simple case of copy and paste. In my research on how the UK public sector could make better use of data, I noticed New York City already had a highly effective model called the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics. I investigated the model and outlined how it could be adapted for London in a report called Big Data in the Big Apple. Similarly, many of the ideas around free schools in the UK were inspired by looking at the success of charter schools in the USA.

4. Point to existing best practice. It can help to review practice across a wide range of organisations in a particular sector and calculate the benefits (cost savings, number of people supported, etc.) that would be achieved if all operated as effectively as the best. You could investigate how different organisations – say, local authorities or NHS trusts – perform relative to each other, and outline a path to raise levels of performance across the entire sector. (Even trying to do this but failing because of a lack of information or data can be a useful exercise as it can lead to policy recommendations around how data can be collected differently.)

5. Consider how the area will be different 50 years from now. If you want to think big and bold, project yourself forward far beyond the current political cycle. If a trend seems inevitable in the long-term, what steps to accelerate – or mitigate against – that future environment could be taken now?

6. Take the idea to its logical extreme. Sometimes looking at extreme scenarios can help narrow down the core issue or highlight what’s really important. For example, in the current context of austerity, instead of imagining how a department or public sector body would respond to a 20% budget cut, imagine it was 80%. How could they adapt and cope under those conditions? The truth has a tendency to reveal itself in a crisis, even if only manufactured.

7. Describe the ideal outcome you’d like to see, then explore the best routes to get there. If the primary solution to, say, childhood obesity is doing more exercise, what are the most effective avenues to increase activity in youngsters? Is it about targeted communications to certain families? Is it about behaviour change, in which case can principles from the world of behavioural economics be brought to bear? Should schools be involved in the solution? Or should incentives be given to encourage more pupils to walk or cycle to school? Start with the end in mind and plot the most viable path to achieving impact.

8. Consider the reverse. It’s not only misery that likes company, conventional wisdom does too. What happens if you deliberately assume the reverse of what the mainstream thinks? If everyone else thinks the problem with the education system is that there are too many exams, consider that there are too few. Does everyone think alcohol is too cheap? Maybe it’s not cheap enough. To emphasise, in most cases this will simply be a thought experiment – it may not lead to the actual policy recommendation. But it can help you think about issues differently. And sometimes those counterintuitive ideas gain ground. A current example would be the rising interest in the idea of a universal basic income when the dominant political narrative has been that too many people receive benefits for doing little in return.

9. Think in geographic levels. At what level is the issue in question currently being handled? If it’s done locally, would there be any advantage to doing it at a wider scale? If conducted nationally, what would happen if it was devolved to the regions? Applying the so-called principle of subsidiarity (addressing issues at the most local level feasible) can open up opportunities for making communities feel more empowered. Working across larger geographies can achieve economies of scale.

10. Review the incentives. If a certain area of policy is not delivering the desired results, ask yourself this: who benefits from the current system? Are the incentives leading to the suboptimal outcomes? If so, how could they be adjusted? Who could change them? A classic case might be the debate around whether Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) measuring whether A&E patients are seen within four hours create greater pressure on NHS services further down the line. Those KPIs create an incentive to treat patients quickly, rather than to prevent them needing to return again for further medical treatment.

11. Show the problem doesn’t exist. One of the most impactful contributions a think tank can make to a policy area is to blow apart the assumption that there’s a problem at all. A potential example would be how the perception of certain crimes is higher than the actual number of cases. Rising crime statistics may be the result of better reporting of the issue – and more victims coming forward – rather than an absolute increase in criminal activity.

12. Spot and connect mutual needs. Sometimes a solution to a problem can be found by matching supply and demand in unusual ways. A former Policy Exchange colleague noticed space was becoming available in Tube stations after Transport for London ticket offices were closed down under Mayor Boris Johnson. At the same time, police stations were struggling to pay for premises in central London locations. The solution? Place police stations in the space left vacant by ticket offices.

13. Tackle the cause, not the symptoms. Does the issue you’re trying to tackle have its origins upstream? Resolving some problems can require identifying what causes them in the first place. In education, rather than looking at how to better support NEETs (young people not in education, employment or training) could an intervention be designed to support them before they fall out of mainstream education or employment? In healthcare, rather than just improving the quality of care for patients with type 2 diabetes, are there measures that could be taken to reduce the number of people who get the disease in the first place? Predicting and preventing problems from happening, or intervening earlier, can often provide a cheaper solution and combat issues before they become difficult to resolve.

14. Spot potential for collaboration. Are there existing groups who would be more effective if they worked together to tackle a problem? If so, who and how? Should the police work more closely with ex-offenders to redesign the prison system? Could doctors work with schools to encourage better levels of health and wellbeing in children? Should local authorities collaborate more with each other to get economies of scale on services? Think hard about which partnerships could provide the most mutual benefit.

15. Draw the problem. Many people find their thoughts clarify when they write them down. But try writing them down in different ways. The brain has a funny habit of spotting different connections and patterns between ideas when you draw them out, for example on a flip chart or white board. Can you convey the current way a given policy works as a diagram instead of in words? Are there steps in the process that look unnecessary or duplicative? Viewing an issue pictorially can help you spot anomalies and see ways to simplify.

Many more heuristics could be added to this list. Different approaches will resonate with different people and the way they like to think. But what about where, when and with whom to think? Ask yourself the following three questions:

Where do you do your best and most creative work? If you’re like most people, I suspect the answer is not in the middle of a busy, open plan office. My advice: get outside and take a walk. It’s scientifically proven your brain works better after exercise. I used to head out of the office mid-afternoon to stroll around a nearby park to think through whatever issue I was working on that day. Without fail, the change of scenery and extra activity ensured I came back with a different perspective than when I left.

When do you think best? Some people are morning people; others are night owls. My brain seems to be most creative first thing in the morning and last thing at night; afternoons are no good for idea generation. As result, I shape my day to do creative work in the mornings, and organise meetings or admin activities for the afternoons. Set aside time for thinking when you know you’ll be at your imaginative best.

Who can you think with? Once you’ve thought through an issue, take time to bounce ideas off other people. Discuss the problem with experts in the field. Speak with someone who has a completely different point of view. Ask someone who has no knowledge of the subject matter but whose intelligence you respect. All will help prompt your thinking to move in new directions.

Evidently, there’s no one way of thinking about an issue. The important thing is to recognise that there are tools out there that can help focus your creativity onto promising lines of enquiry. Explore those different methods until you identify the ones that help you come up with your best recommendations.

But what happens once you’ve designed your perfect policy proposal? After all, simply coming up with recommendations is just the first step. How do you encourage anyone, and especially the government, to adopt them?

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