“I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.” ― John Cage
The world needs good ideas. The world of politics needs as many as it can get.
Governments are grappling with questions that have no simple answer. How do you meet spiralling demand for public services when there’s less money to pay for them? How do you respond when new technologies create, destroy and reshape entire industries and change the very nature of work? How can you ensure energy is affordable while also protecting the environment? What can you do when ageing populations place ever greater pressure on pension funds and health and social care services? How do you build enough houses when developable land is scarce and green belts are protected? And how do you run schools when you don’t know what skills the labour market will need in five years, let alone in twenty?
In almost every policy area, politicians – and the special advisers and civil servants who support them – face a constant battle to design solutions that can reconcile competing and often mutually exclusive demands.
Too bad they have so little time to think about them.
Twenty-four hours is said to be a long time in politics. But few are available for thoughtful consideration of big issues. In his biography, A Journey, former Prime Minister Tony Blair highlights one reason why this is the case when he describes the pressure created by the advent of 24 hour news channels. He recalls the difficulty of having to respond to journalists’ demands for statements around the clock – not least concerning events taking place over 3,000 miles away in Iraq – often before all facts were known.
Today he must count himself lucky TV was his biggest problem. The pressure has grown exponentially greater with the rise of social media. In the Twittersphere events are relayed in real-time. Responses from government are expected to keep up. In such an environment, it’s inevitable the political system struggles with long-term, strategic thinking. Instead, it’s forced into a constant state of reaction. Politics is increasingly the art of managing the now.
That’s one good reason why we need think tanks.
Think tanks have the time, resources and expertise to think about big policy issues, carry out research and analysis, and come up with recommendations for government action. The UK boasts more than 120 of them (see the A-Z list), a number second only to the USA. They vary in their structure and size, their political leaning, the policy areas they research, their geographic reach and the goals they aim to achieve. As in any industry, there are good ones and bad ones. They rise and fall in influence with changing political tides.
To my mind, their very number and diversity should be seen as a net positive. Together they supply the political world with a constant stream of ideas for improving policy. In theory, at least, it’s a competitive market in which the best ideas can rise to the top. (The reality of who carries most influence, as we’ll later see, is rather more complicated.)
The most effective think tanks can have considerable impact. In the USA, the Manhattan Institute’s famous broken windows theory led to a new and highly effective approach to policing in New York City, focusing on minor crimes to prevent more serious ones. In the UK, Policy Exchange’s reports on Police and Crime Commissioners, and Free Schools led to changes in government policy to introduce both things. Whether or not you approve of these initiatives, they demonstrate that the policy pipeline from think tank recommendation to government programme is alive and well.
I speak from personal experience in saying it’s a privilege to be a “think tanker” or “policy wonk”, as those who work in the field are commonly known. In what other role do you have so much time and freedom to think about complex problems in your chosen specialism? Where else can you follow your curiosity and be so creative in designing solutions to society’s biggest challenges? And how many lines of work offer the opportunity for your ideas and arguments to positively affect thousands – potentially millions – of lives? Think tanks offer all these opportunities and much more besides.
Perhaps it’s a world you’d like to try.
If so, you may wonder what life in a think tank is really like. How do you get to work for one? How do you decide what to think about and how to think about it? And how do you move from defining ideas on paper to actually influencing government policy?
You’ll find answers to all these questions in this book. Some of what I share is based on my own experience of working on technology policy at two, very different, UK think tanks. The rest, on my observations of what makes some of the best in the industry so influential. My hope is that by the end of the book you’ll have a much clearer idea of whether think tank life is for you. And if it is, you’ll know how to maximise your chances of getting a role and succeeding as a professional policymaker.
How this book is organised
Chapter 1 explores the current landscape of UK think tanks, what they do and how they differ. Chapter 2 provides an insight into day-to-day think tank life. Chapter 3 dives into the core challenge for policy wonks: how to come up with ideas and insights that haven’t occurred to people who work at the coalface of a particular policy area. In Chapter 4, I share my observations about what makes any given think tank or think tanker particularly effective. And in Chapter 5, I lay out the steps you can take to secure your own job working as a policymaker. You can also find a page of useful links, including a list of more than 120 UK think tanks, including their descriptions and details of where to find their job vacancies.
But for now, let’s start at the very beginning and ask: what exactly is a think tank anyway?