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.

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