The bad idea business

Small groups of smart people thinking alike can make stupid mistakes. In policy this can cost lives.

A good piece by Stephen Walt in Foreign Policy last year suggested that bad ideas come from closed minds and closed societies. Openness, accountability, transparency, feedback – these allow us to challenge bad thinking and improve decision-making.

The same applies to social policy. And yet many think tanks are organised in a way that almost guarantees bad thinking: a small group of people with a shared set of orthodoxies, little transparency, the imperative to reflect sponsors’ interests, few opportunities for other experts to participate in their work, an emphasis on behind-the-scenes influence, and a concern about maintaining access to power.

Think tanks aren’t the only source of bad policy, but the bad policy they produce is bad for many of the same reasons as the policy that derives from other sources, especially that assumptions are insufficiently challenged.

Thinking that only you have the answer – and that there is only one answer – will always characterise some of those who live in ‘thinktankland’. But we don’t have to hope that policy wonks develop a bit more humility and reflectiveness. Instead, developing a stronger marketplace of ideas depends on finding a new organisational and business model for think tanks – one that embodies openness and accountability and so offers the possibility of avoiding some of the mistakes of the past.

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