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.

Let us know what you think

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