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.

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