Crowdsourcing the next think tank

The way we’re currently thinking about our new project is as a crowdsourced approach to policy and research. So what does this mean?

Crowdsourcing takes an open, collaborative approach to solving problems and producing new things. Just as businesses increasingly recognise that the  expertise and intelligence they need to develop better products and services exists way beyond their employees (including but not limited to their customers), so we’re considering how think tanks could be far more effective and efficient by crowdsourcing their work.

In the way people use the term, ‘crowdsourcing’ actually covers a variety of different, distinct activities – from ‘crowd creation’ (as in Wikipedia), ‘crowd voting’ (which is surely something of a pleonasm), and ‘crowd wisdom‘ to ‘crowd funding‘. Our focus at the moment is on the first and last of these activities:

  • crowd creation – because the sum of the expertise we need to develop better social policy isn’t limited (as in the traditional think tank model) to 20 or so people sitting in a pokey office near Westminster;
  • crowd funding – because moving away from a reliance of wealthy donors to a greater diversity of funders could also mean a greater diversity of issues and perspectives policy work, which is both necessary and a good thing.

Further, the two could reinforce each other nicely, because what we’re learning about crowdsourcing/crowd funding is that when people support a project they often also like to be involved in it in some way, and vice versa.

For the moment, let’s focus on crowd creation and consider more specifically how it could be applied to the work of think tanks. From our experience in discussing the idea with potential partners, it seems relatively easy for them to see how a crowdsourced approach could help with generating lots of new ideas and canvassing the opinions of their customers and stakeholders (see our previous post), and also with dissemination and campaigning. But what’s less immediately obvious is how we could take a distributed but collaborative approach to many if not all aspects of the research work conducted by think tanks. So here’s our initial thoughts:

  • developing (or at the very least validating) research approaches – including research/evaluation questions, methodologies, data capture frameworks and other tools, and reviewing research ethics (for example where researchers are working with vulnerable groups);
  • conducting primary research – and there’s a tradition of peer-led and ‘action research’ in some fields such as education and medicine;
  • data analysis – e.g. dividing up the task of analysing a large data set (an example of ‘microtasking’);
  • shared problem analysis – e.g. of a large or complex issue according to participants’ varied expertise (an example of ‘macrotasking’);
  • developing, evaluating and modelling policy options – as per shared problem analysis;
  • drafting reports – similar to how Wikipedia’s pages are written;
  • fact-checking and quality assurance – also as in the Wikipedia model.

It’s important to note that what we’re suggesting here is not the same as the InnoCentive approach of having one ‘winner’ of a challenge (which rather replicates the weaknesses with the current traditional think tank approach); in our model the point is that no single person or group has the ‘solution’ and that it’s only through an approach that harnesses distributed expertise that complex issues in social policy can be approached sensibly.

In definitional terms, ‘crowdsourcing’ denotes when one organisation puts a question or challenge out to many other people or organisations. Taking this one step further, if we can also find a way open-up the commissioning of research and policy analysis to the community (for example via crowd funding) then we’re getting into open source territory – but that’s something for a subsequent post.

Whatever we call it, to some commentators the business implication of mass collaboration (or ‘wikinomics’) is clear: firms that fail to change their current structures will perish, and companies who utilize mass collaboration will dominate their respective markets. Could this apply to think tanks as well?

Doing what think tanks do – only better?

In a previous post I discussed one of the problems with calling what we’re doing a ‘new think tank’ – that it sets us up in competition to traditional think tanks (at least in theory). But there are other advantages and disadvantages to using the think tank analogy. It might help to suggest the kind of work we intend to do, but then again it might also limit our and other’s thinking about the possibilities created by opening-up social policy to mass participation, including by using the internet and social media.

But let’s start with what think tanks traditionally do and how we might be able to deliver the same types of work only better (there wouldn’t be any point in doing this if we thought it would be worse, after all).

In the workshops we’ve been holding with charities to gather initial reactions to the project, we’ve said that we could see new think tank delivering the same types of work as other ‘full-spectrum’ think tanks, that’s to say:

  • generating new ideas and visions – and publishing these in essays, provocations, manifestos etc;
  • conducting research – both primary and secondary research, policy analysis and recommendation development;
  • responses – such as consultation submissions, ad hoc policy statements etc, including quick opinion surveys where appropriate.

(We’ll leave aside advocacy work for the moment. It’s certainly something that we could see new think tank doing, and through a very different, viral-based approach, but it’s not the focus here).

We can consider the first and last types of work together, since it’s relatively easy to see how they could benefit from an open, online, crowd sourced approach: if you want a lot of ideas, ask a lot of people. There are also plenty of online platforms that have demonstrated how effective this can be, from long-established examples such as InnoCentive to new initiatives such as OpenIDEO, as long as the question or challenge is sufficiently clear and important. These types of work also tend to be conducted over quite short timescales – from a few weeks to a few months – which can be an advantage in motivating engagement since it creates a sense of energy and momentum. Although it’s not research or policy work of the type we envisage for new think tank, online campaign platforms such as 38 Degrees also demonstrate the effectiveness of using urgency and timeliness as part of their calls to action.

Without much explanation, the participants in our workshops can see how our approach could be a better, more cost-effective way to do this type of work, compared to commissioning a traditional think tank or doing this work in-house in the conventional way. For example, it could enable many charities to engage with their service users and stakeholders in a more open and transparent but also low-cost way than they often do.

But it’s the second type of work that seems to have more question marks against it. Can research really be conducted by non-experts? We think it can as part of a structured and moderated process, but this obviously needs much more thinking to develop into a convincing proposition. However, one idea is has begun to emerge in our workshops is that of conducting ‘commissions’ using our approach.

By commissions we mean longer timescale investigations (say up to one year) that are intended to engage with an issue in a deeper way than the typical 3-9 month research project (which anyway might be somewhat ‘pre-determined’, at least in thinktankland). Commissions seem to fit well with the idea of (mostly online) collaboration; they often invite submissions of evidence from a wide range of interested parties, they have more time to gather momentum and reflect on a range of views, they can be divided-up into discrete research tasks, and so on. (I was a minor participant in the 2020 Public Services Commission, which produced a lot of good work but perhaps could have been stronger if it had adopted a much more open, online approach than it did). So, thinking aloud, it would have been great to have conducted a ‘commission’ on last year’s disorder in English towns and cities, equivalent to the Reading the Riots project, but inviting members of the police to provide their perspectives on what happened and how it could be avoided in the future.

A pretty good organisational example here is ProPublica, the US investigative journalism outfit that conducts ongoing investigations into otherwise neglected news stories. ProPublica is semi- crowd sourced and crowd funded (at least you can suggest stories and donate to them) – and the more we think about it, the more excited we are by the possibility of crowd sourced, crowd funded research. More on this soon.

Q and (some) A

It’s just under a month since we started this blog, so it might be helpful to provide a re-cap on our project. Some of these are questions we’ve been asked over the last few weeks, others reflect our thinking as it has developed (included are links to some posts you might have missed).

What is ‘new think tank’?

New think tank is a project to develop a radically different approach to conducting policy and research work. In contrast to traditional think tanks, we want to develop a way for public service practitioners and service users to conduct research and policy analysis. These groups are at the frontline of public services and social issues, and as a result they have practical expertise and experience that could be used to improve social policy, especially to make policy more credible and pragmatic. We don’t think this has been done before (at least not on an ongoing, sustainable basis), but tell us if you think there are examples we should know about.

We’re particularly interested in using the internet to achieve this. We’re inspired by sites such as Wikipedia, Innocentive, 38 Degrees and Mumsnet, which by building online communities have demonstrated the value of mass participation in areas previously regarded as the preserve of experts.

Why does this matter?

Our mission is to improve social policy and research work by working with frontline practitioners and service users. But it’s also a broader question of democracy and accountability; we think that the people who experience the effects of social policy should have the opportunity to help shape it. Another way of putting this is that policymaking – inside and outside government – should be much more about listening than it currently is.

Can practitioners and the public really conduct research and analyse policy?

While there are certainly specialist skills that some think tank experts have, we also think that with the right processes and support anyone can be involved in research and policy work. There’s a long history of practitioners leading research for example, and policy analysis is more of an informed art than it is a science.

Is new think tank actually a think tank?

That’s how we’re thinking about the project at the moment, but it might not end up being called a ‘think tank’. We’ve worked in and around think tanks so that’s how we tend to view the world, but as the project develops we might end up calling it something else, especially because few people know much about think tanks or what they do. Alternatively, our approach to conducting policy and research work could be something we offer to other organisations – even other think tanks – rather than a separate organisation.

Who is behind the project?

New think tank is led by Dr Michael Harris, a Senior Associate at the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) and the new economics foundation (nef). Michael is a leading social policy researcher who has worked in academia, central government, local government and education. His focus has been on improvement and innovation in public services, especially through the participation of frontline workers and the public. We’re also talking to a range of partners about their involvement in the project.

What issues will we focus on?

We think that our approach could be used across social policy – from health to education, youth services to care for older people. Within these areas, it might be more appropriate for some issues and questions than others, but we’ll only really learn this by doing it.

We’re also different from many think tanks in that we don’t have a particular agenda or political position of our own that we want to promote. Our only ‘philosophy’ is that the people who experience the effects of social policy should have the opportunity to help shape it.

Who is new think tank aimed at?

One of the benefits of our approach is that it could provide a platform for many more charities and community groups to conduct credible and cost-effective research, which could serve to increase their impact, inform better policy and so improve lives. We think that if we can lower the cost of commissioning policy and research work, and make it more accessible to organisations and individuals that haven’t done it before, then we can create a much bigger market for this work, and so increase and diversify the range of voices in policy.

Have you got funding?

We’re looking for seed funding from a number of sources. But we also want our new think tank to be financially sustainable rather than dependent on a small number of wealthy funders. To this end, we need to ensure that it meets the real needs of the organisations that we hope will commission it. In other words, we want to develop a product that a lot of people will actually want to buy. We’re also investigating a range of other possible business models and sources of revenue – including crowd funding.

When is new think tank launching?

We’re launching on 1st June 2012. We’re taking a different approach to launching a think tank. We’re deliberately launching before we’re ready, because we think that the best thing to do is to get the idea out there and invite others to help us improve and refine it. It also hopefully means that the values behind the project – openness, transparency and accessibility – are reflected in how we go about developing it.

What do you want people to do?

We’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions, so please do:

We’d also welcome your participation and support, especially if you’re a frontline professional (whether in the public, voluntary or private sector), a service user, a charity or a funder. Contact us via the feedback form.

And thanks for your interest in our project.


One challenge I’ve had a few times is whether this project is actually a think tank or something else. I guess sometimes this just reflects some people’s doubts that it’ll actually happen. After all, raising money is difficult, especially at the moment. We don’t have a wealthy donor behind us (yet). Personally, as new think tank’s founder, I’m a researcher not an entrepreneur, and we’re not claiming to have the ‘next big idea’ – or if we are, it’s in how policy and research work is done rather than just promoting a fixed political or philosophical position.

But at other times it’s a more thought-provoking question (it could simultaneously be both pessimistic and profound I suppose). For example, is what we’re developing actually a method instead? Why call it a ‘think tank’ – which inevitably positions what we’re doing as potential competition to the rest of thinktankland – when we could present it as just another way of doing policy and research? Wouldn’t this allow us to sell the approach to other think tanks or to partner with them on projects? We could even develop new think tank as a ‘white label’ product, for example as a web platform or a process that other think tanks could incorporate into their projects (‘powered by new think tank’ etc).

We’re always open to ideas (we hope), and the mission here is to improve policy and research work by involving frontline practitioners and service users, so anything that helps to achieve this is worth considering. But personally I’m also doubtful that thinktankland would buy the purchase/partner approach (at least not yet) – first because think tanks are highly reluctant to buy or sub-contract from anyone else (given their typically hand-to-mouth finances), and second because I’m not sure that the approach we’re developing can be seen as anything other than a challenge to the traditional way that think tanks work – indeed to what a think tank is in the 21st century (something I’ll return to in later posts).

That’s not to say that, alongside critiquing how traditional think tanks operate, we don’t also have to establish how our approach would be better. But it’s just to recognise that, whatever we might say, no-one really likes to be challenged.

Experts and amateurs

It was one word that inspired us to develop our new think tank: ‘amateurs’. Let me explain.

A couple of years’ ago I hosted a discussion on co-production in public services. One of the speakers was Mark Johnson. Mark is an ex-offender who set up the charity User Voice. This is an organisation run by people who’ve experienced the problem it is seeking to solve, in this case offending behaviour. Offenders want to talk to people who have ‘walked in their shoes’, which is why all of User Voice’s frontline staff are ex-offenders. This means it can gain the trust of people within the criminal justice system and so access their insights. These insights are crucial to its services, but also its policy and advocacy work to address the problems and failings of the criminal justice system. This is why, as Mark says, only offenders can stop re-offending.

Mark made a characteristically pointed and persuasive speech at the event. Then he said that when it came to offending, because of their experience it is offenders who are the experts, while policymakers and others are amateurs. If you take this simple point seriously then it surely questions the self-appointed authority of much of thinktankland.

There might be a range of talents that fresh-out-of-Cambridge graduates can bring to policy and research work, but experience-based insight isn’t typically among them. This isn’t to dismiss the other things that are required for good policy and research work: the research and project management skills, critical and analytical thinking, the ability to write and speak well, to spot policy opportunities and set the agenda. But there’s still a critical difference between what you claim to know because you think, and what you think because you can claim to know – something I’ll be returning to regularly in this blog and which forms the foundation of our project to build a better think tank.

Policy inside out

The world of public service bloggers hit the headlines last week when it was revealed to the Leveson inquiry that the anonymous police blogger NightJack was hacked by The Times. Lancashire detective Richard Horton was ‘outed’ by the newspaper in June 2009. Horton’s blog, which won the Orwell Prize for its description of life as a PC, was deleted and he was reprimanded by his bosses (only a partial NightJack archive still exists online).

I love public service bloggers. Whether I share their particular political and social views or not, I’d almost always rather read a blog written from the frontline than from a Westminster-centric commentator. Frontline blogs are often highly informative, contentious, challenging – and sometimes as dull as real life. But that’s the point: they’re authentic (usually), which is why they matter to our new think tank.

At their best, these bloggers capture the day-to-day reality of public services in a way that no-one else can. This includes the dirty, difficult, and sometimes dangerous experiences that form the basis of real expertise – and so the insights we need to improve social policy. These bloggers don’t shy away from policy issues, but they often have a practical, pragmatic, ‘why-it-won’t-work-here’ perspective that could surely be usefully incorporated into policymaking before, rather than after, we’ve wasted millions of pounds introducing a new policy that’s effectively designed to fail.

Guardian Professional Networks has a great roster of frontline commentators (I’d point particularly to Mark Johnson and The Patient from Hell). But such voices are usually shut out of policy debate, at least in the think tank-Westminster bubble, because it’s a bit embarrassing in polite society when too much reality intrudes into otherwise safely abstract policy discussions. I’ve sat in a number of meetings in thinktankland where – presumably because they couldn’t reasonably be barred – a real life practitioner (or god forbid, a service user) has been present, and witnessed for myself the often uncomfortable reactions of policy insiders at their presence: an odd mix of condescending ‘respect’ (exaggerated listening and nodding) and please-go-away-now shuffling.

Which makes me think: what ‘insider view’ do we choose to care about, and why? The conventional wisdom in policy circles, or the practical wisdom that’s earned at the frontline? Or to put it another way, how did ‘insider’ come to mean positioned as far away as possible from reality?

Building a better business model

A new type of think tank needs a new business model – starting with better customer service.

Traditional think tanks have high fixed core costs (the in-house experts, the office as close to Westminster as possible etc). This means they have to raise funds continuously, by winning project commissions and the favour of wealthy donors. This can distract think tanks from the work they should be doing – as many commissioners of work (especially on smaller projects) have experienced for themselves.

Better research and policy work requires two things: a lower cost way of conducting research; and more diverse, sustainable sources of revenue.

So for our new think tank we’re exploring both of these things. I’ll return to the potential for conducting research online in future posts. But here I want to note some of our thinking on developing other sources of revenue.

Our think tank will undertake research commissions, but we want to try to avoid the constant (and costly) bidding cycle that traditional think tanks go through. Instead, if we can develop a large, lively, diverse community online (as InnoCentive has succeeded in doing), then this creates the possibility of becoming a ‘go-to’ organisation rather than endlessly chasing work (well, eventually).

We’re also interested in the  potential of crowd funding. If the community can participate in research and policy work (as we intend), why can’t it also propose – and help to fund – projects as well? While it’s not a perfect guide, the number of people willing to support a project out of their own pocket is also a fair indication of how many people care about it – and so a test of its timeliness and relevance. So there’s an interesting notion here that the future of think tanks is as a platform for others to conduct research (again, akin to InnoCentive), instead of the old top-down, ‘we set the agenda’ approach.

We’re also talking to potential customers about a membership model, or as we’d prefer it, a genuine partnership offer. Many think tanks advertise what they describe as ‘membership’ to organisations (typically corporates), but it’s difficult to see what value this provides (a newsletter a few times a year, the ‘opportunity’ to spend more money on sponsoring a party conference event, and so on). Instead, we want to build real partnerships that grow over time. This means being driven far less by our own agenda and far more by what our customers actually want (and their view of what represents good value from a membership offer, for example).

Then there are various forms of consultancy – but we’re not there yet.

The underlying point is that, despite (or rather because of) their need to chase money, many traditional think tanks have a rather poor customer focus. It’s not because think tanks don’t care about their customers – it’s because their expensive business model compels them to chase the next customer rather than properly serve the ones they already have. This explains why publicity-hungry think tanks often value advocacy over analysis. Now if only those customers had a real alternative…

Open to ideas

You might have noticed the box on the right of this page. We launch our new think tank in just over four months’ time.

We probably won’t have the funding we need, or our full status established, or… well, lots of things won’t be in place. But there’s a couple of advantages to launching before we’re ‘ready’.

First, it certainly focuses the mind. Less prevarication, more ‘what’s the most important thing to do today?’

Second, we hope it makes for a better ‘product’. This sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s increasingly well-established as an approach. If you’re familiar with the idea of ‘lean start-up‘ (developed by Eric Ries) and ‘launch first, fix later’ you’ll appreciate why. I anticipate I’ll be returning regularly to concepts like ‘Minimum Viable Product’ in this blog.

This week I had a typically valuable discussion about the project with a former colleague, David Simoes-Brown, who with Roland Harwood founded the innovation consultancy 100% Open. They do great work – and attract great clients – in open innovation, the approach to developing new products and services that starts with the recognition that ‘not all the smart people work for you’. As David and Roland define it, open innovation means innovating in partnership with those outside your company by sharing the risks and rewards of both the outcome and the process. (‘Open Innovation’ was first coined by UC Berkeley academic Henry Chesbrough in 2003).

As well as talking about collaborative technologies and the personal experience of setting-up a new venture, talking to David I was also reminded of how our new think tank has been influenced by open innovation (something I’ve researched in the past). After all, it’s based on the idea that ‘not all the policy experts work for you’. How could they? The services, systems and issues that social policy deals with are incredibly complex; are 20 or so people sitting in a cramped office somewhere near Whitehall really supposed to know all that needs to be known in order to make a better ‘product’, in this case better policy?

But our project is also open innovation in the sense that we’re developing it publicly, and because people like David and (we hope) many others will contribute the thoughts and ideas that help build a better think tank.

In our hands

The Government is refusing to release the risk assessment for its NHS reforms. So why don’t we do our own?

Assessing risk is a crucial part of policymaking. The Department of Health has published impact assessments alongside the Health and Social Care Bill, but has so far refused to make public its ‘transition risk register’ and has failed to comply with the order of the Information Commissioner to do so. (The latest ‘combined impact assessment’ from September 2011 includes just a single, carefully drafted page on ‘Issues and risks’ for the main reform).

The DoH says that officials must be free to record all of the potential risks frankly and with the confidence that information will not be disclosed. It also says that the assessment could create alarm – though it has admitted that the assessment includes analysis of how the reforms might impact on the quality of NHS services, accountability and finances (including plans to save money).

Ironically, the ‘secret’ assessment also includes thinking on how stakeholders should be engaged in developing and implementing the reforms (and this, remember, for a reform that the Government says is about giving doctors and patients more control).

While most people would accept that some advice to ministers should remain private, surely we all have an interest in knowing the possible consequences of a reform as important as the Health Bill. And if, as the Government has said, the risk assessment informs what mitigating actions it is taking to avoid the negative impacts, shouldn’t we also have a right to judge its progress?

Good policy – and good policy implementation – depends crucially on this type of analysis, but there’s no reason it has to be done in private. First, we all know  the main risks anyway, since they’ve been debated publicly for months. Second, and more importantly, it’s likely that the quality of the analysis would be greatly improved if it was conducted publicly – by openly inviting medical professionals, managers, patients and other interested parties to use their experience and expertise to identify potential problems and propose solutions.

So if the Government continues to refuse to release its own assessment regarding the risks of its most important reform to public services, why not conduct our own assessment? It’ll probably be a lot more accurate – and we’ll make sure it’s publicly available as well.

Speak up

The flip side to think tanks listening to people on the frontline is people on the frontline speaking up.

Public service practitioners and the public aren’t used to their experience and expertise being recognised, let alone being used to inform policy. The natural reaction to being ignored (and even casually dismissed) is anger, passivity, covert non-compliance (sabotage), and sometimes overt resistance. However understandable, this also represents a fundamental failure in how we develop policy in public services, and a disastrous starting-point for implementing new policy.

Some people seem to relish politics as conflict. Indeed, they define politics as conflict. But if we’re going to develop a new way to improve social policy, one that harnesses the experience and expertise of those at the frontline, then we need to do two things that borrow more from non-defensive communication.

First, as previously posted, we need to find a better way to listen – to recognise, record and amplify voices from the frontline, to ask open questions and to hear the answers honestly.

Second, we need to support the frontline to speak up – authentically and without fear. We might be skeptical about the willingness of those in power to listen to voices other than their own. The experience of disabled campaigners over the past week against the Government’s welfare reforms might reinforce such cynicism. Nonetheless, we need to be consciously naive about the potential of positive, pragmatic engagement with policymaking – as well as continuing to rattle the powerful when required.

As anyone who’s ever been in an argument knows, we lose our capacity for complex problem solving when we become defensive. Our new think tank is not intended to be a discussion forum, although we want it to be open, accessible and lively. It’s also not a platform for campaigning, but we do want it to be a highly effective way of promoting better policy and research work. That’s our hope.