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A brief overview of UK think tanks

“Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason so few engage in it.” ― Henry Ford

Definitions of think tanks are invariably vague. “A body of experts providing advice and ideas on specific political or economic problems,” is a typical attempt. They provide little indication as to what think tanks actually are or do. And when you consider the incredible diversity of these organisations, the picture becomes even more confusing.

The UK’s think tanks come in many shapes and sizes. The larger ones, like the Overseas Development Institute, can have more than 200 staff. The smallest, like the local government think tank Localis, just a handful of researchers. Some have a long heritage, like the Bow Group (a conservative think tank founded in 1951 to counter socialism); others are much more recently formed. Some, like Demos, cover many different policy areas. Others have a specific niche, such as the Centre for Social Justice with its focus on social breakdown and poverty.

Some try to influence international bodies such as the European Union (e.g. the Centre for European Reform), others national or local government. Some have a regional focus (e.g. Centre for London, IPPR North). Others, like Chatham House, cover global issues. Some are ideologically left wing (e.g. the Fabian Society), others right wing (e.g. the Centre for Policy Studies).

The majority focus on research with the aim of influencing other organisations – mostly government – to act. A few, like Nesta, the RSA, the Resolution Foundation and Institute for Fiscal Studies are ‘do’ as well as ‘think’ tanks – able not only to come up with ideas but also to apply them in the real world.

About 80% of the UK’s think tanks are based in London, but there are think tanks situated all the way from Edinburgh to Southampton. Explore the map below to see their locations.

View the data.

Given all this diversity, what do they actually have in common?

One way to understand think tanks is to consider the various functions they perform. To adapt a list compiled by Dr James G. McGann, Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Pennsylvania, think tanks:

> Serve as an informed and independent voice in policy debates. Think tanks are expected to provide evidence and impartial, reasoned arguments to back up their recommendations. In contrast to the lobbying industry (which advocates for measures beneficial to certain companies or sectors), think tanks are able to speak without a vested interest in the outcome of any policy measure, beyond the recognition of being associated with the idea. As a result, governments frequently rely on think tanks to lend weight and give independent evidence to inform policy decisions. (Critics might claim politicians only reference think tank reports that confirm what they already want to say, a not entirely unfounded point.) Think tanks may also challenge and analyse government policy as it’s announced, for example the Post Budget analysis provided by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS).

> Identify, articulate and evaluate current policy issues, proposals and programmes. Think tanks distil and highlight key policy challenges, and turn loosely defined ideas into detailed proposals. Around election times, many also publish their own manifestos, outlining entire programmes they wish the next government to consider for implementation. In addition to coming up with new policy recommendations, think tanks like the Institute for Government (IfG) have particular expertise in assessing the government’s existing performance in specific functional areas. The IfG’s report, Show Your Workings is one such example, and focuses on how government departments use evidence to inform decision making.

> Transform ideas and emerging problems into policy issues. Understanding the policy implications of new developments and trends is important in most policy areas. (Consider the amount of effort that will be required to think through all the implications of Brexit.) This kind of analysis was particularly significant for my own work in technology policy. Much of my time was spent considering questions such as: how will the Internet of Things influence healthcare? What will the rise of sharing economy companies like Uber and Airbnb mean for regulation of the taxi and hotel industries? How can government make best use of big data analytics? Think tanks consider the likely consequences of new developments and make recommendations on the measures that could be taken in the short- to medium-term to maximise the positives and minimise the negatives of the change.

> Interpret research, issues, events and policies for the media to facilitate public understanding of domestic and international policy issues. The media are always hungry for new ideas and points of view – especially well articulated ones. They appreciate think tanks’ political acumen, insider knowledge and expertise in particular subject areas in order to source expert opinion for their programmes and articles. Policy wonks who can clearly communicate complicated ideas will find themselves regularly asked to comment on the stories of the day. Sometimes that will be for mainstream media. At other times, for more specialised publications related to a particular policy area, such as trade press.

> Provide a constructive forum for the exchange of ideas and information between key stakeholders in the policy formulation process. Think tanks are regarded as safe places for politicians and other policymakers to explore issues with experts in private roundtable discussions, or to make major policy announcements at public events. Private roundtables can be held under the Chatham House rule where all participants agree not to share publicly anything discussed. This provides a valuable opportunity for politicians and officials to think creatively – or think “the unthinkable” – without fear of being reported or misquoted.

> Provide a supply of personnel for government. Arguably not always a good thing, think tanks offer a natural supply of personnel for positions in government departments and the No. 10 Policy Unit (the Prime Minister’s in-house group of special advisers – see Box 1). The downside is that the same people can end up being recycled around the “Westminster bubble”, narrowing the range of experience and perspectives that are brought into the policy process. The upside is that think tankers tend to have deep knowledge of their subject area and substantial networks of useful contacts that put them in a strong position to get things done.

> Challenge the conventional wisdom, standard operating procedures and business as usual of bureaucrats and elected officials. Perhaps the most vital function of all, think tanks offer new perspectives and reframe challenges. One of the most important pieces of advice I was ever given about working for a think tank was offered on my first day by a more experienced colleague. “Your role here isn’t to come up with new recommendations,” he told me, “It’s to make people think about the problem differently.” Looking back, those were wise words. In Chapter 3 we explore some of the techniques you can use to think like a think tanker.

Box 1: The No. 10 Policy Unit

The Number 10 Policy Unit is a group of policymakers in 10 Downing Street who provide advice, policy suggestions and speech writing assistance to the Prime Minister. Originally set up to support Howard Wilson in 1974, the Unit has gone through a series of guises to suit the needs of successive Prime Ministers, staffed variously by political advisers, civil servants or a combination of both.

Source: abridged from Wikipedia

Box 2: Special Advisers

Special advisers (spads) work in a supporting role to the government. With media, political and/or policy expertise, their duty is to assist and advise government ministers. Being a special adviser has become a frequent career stage for young politicians, before becoming elected Members of Parliament; a connection that has attracted criticism in recent years.

Special advisers are paid by central government and are styled as so-called “temporary civil servants” appointed under Article 3 of the Civil Service Order in Council 1995. They contrast with “permanent” civil servants in the respect that they’re political appointees whose loyalties are claimed by the governing party and often particular ministers with whom they have a close relationship. For this reason, advisers may resign when a general election is called, to campaign on behalf of their party. Special advisers have sometimes been criticised for engaging in advocacy while still on the government payroll or switching directly between lobbying roles and the special adviser role.

Source: abridged from Wikipedia

Think tanks tend to deliver these functions through research, reports, articles, lectures and events. All of which may sound very similar to the work of university academics. So what’s the difference? While there are notable exceptions, five broad distinctions with the world of academia help to clarify the role think tanks play. (Incidentally, all make me prefer think tank life.)

For a start, think tanks explicitly aim to change policy. Universities conduct a great deal of applied research, but also explore subjects for pure intellectual interest. By contrast, think tanks tend to focus more narrowly on specific public policy problems. They judge their success not by the number of citations their reports receive but by whether their ideas are taken up and implemented – normally by a political party or the government. The advantage of working for a think tank is that your ideas are directly steered towards having real world impact, and often in the short-term, rather than lengthy university research cycles. The downside is that the subjects you can write about may be more restricted based on the policy priorities of the day.

A second key difference is that think tanks can have an explicit partisan or ideological bias. Academics aim to be objective in their analysis, evidence and recommendations. By contrast, many think tanks overtly shape their message based on an ideology, philosophy or worldview. The Adam Smith Institute has an explicitly pro-free market approach (based on the views of their founder and namesake). Policy Exchange is explicitly right of centre; IPPR explicitly left-leaning, and so on. Partisan linkages can also be evident from who establishes each organisation. Some have connections with specific politicians or parties. The Centre for Social Justice was founded by former Conservative leader, Iain Duncan Smith. Policy Exchange was founded by former government ministers, Francis Maude and Michael Gove.

Third, think tanks publish their work freely and openly. I’ve always found it baffling how so many academics pour their heart and soul into a piece of research, only to hide it behind the paywall of a journal. (Moreover, many argue it’s unethical given how much research funding comes from the taxpayer.) Think tanks want their research to be read as widely as possible. Most think tank reports are therefore freely available on each organisation’s website.

A fourth point of difference is that think tanks aim to write in plain English. It’s a well-known occupational hazard for academics to write in mysteriously impenetrable academise. “Discourses” and “-sisms” abound. Good think tanks understand the power of clear communication and use plain English. The best ones write brief reports that match the time available to those they seek to influence.

Fifth and finally, there are no students. “I’d earn a lot more money and have a lot more time for my research if I’d been a plumber,” one of my university tutors once lamented to me. “Students take up so much time!” Looking back I realise he was wrong. He should have worked for a think tank.

But while there may not be teaching of students involved, working for a think tank is not just about research and writing. Indeed, as the next chapter shows, there are many more activities that make up a think tanker’s life.

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