Represent yourself

When we propose a new think tank where the research is conducted by frontline practitioners in public services and the public who use services or experience particular problems – and especially when we suggest that an online platform could be a major part of this – then it obviously raises all sorts of questions about inclusion. We don’t want to duck these, because the whole point of the project is to increase the diversity of voices in social policy and so, we hope, improve it.

Many people aren’t online or aren’t comfortable using social media. Virtual communities might not be representative of a population or service user group. We’re not into breathless internet hype; networked technologies don’t automatically dismantle barriers to participation, they can widen social inequalities and (further) amplify some voices at the expense of others.

We often point to Mumsnet to suggest what’s possible – a huge online community that’s achieved significant media and political profile – and to prompt discussion about how new think tank could be based on such a community instead of the traditional closed, elite approach to policy and research. Is Mumsnet representative? Well, you have to ask: representative of whom, and for what purpose? Mumsnet would be a great forum in which to conduct social research and develop policy recommendations with and for Mumsnet users; no-one would claim (at least we wouldn’t) that this work could speak for all mums or even necessarily the whole of the Mumsnet community.

But the answer isn’t be to retreat back to a vastly smaller circle of views and expertise; it has to be to consider ways by which we could make any community underpinning new think tank more open, more inclusive, more accessible and more attractive to more people. Maybe it’s more like Facebook, maybe it’s more mobile, maybe it’s a mix of online and off, maybe there are incentives to participate, and so on.

One thing is more important than any of this, and it’s in what we think we’re trying to achieve. Instead of trying to be more ‘representative’ of other people, we should find ways they can represent themselves. The problem with think tanks isn’t so much that most of the people who work in them all went to the same universities or come from the same social circle, because they could still strive to be diverse in their thinking and to reflect with integrity the experience of others. The problem is that even if they did this they would still be representing them – it would be still be a mediated model, not a direct one.

This doesn’t only raise difficult questions for our new think tank, it raises difficult questions for any organisation or institution that wants to represent people. Because the fundamental point about Mumsnet, social media etc, which echoes new social movements from racial and sexual equality to gay and disabled rights, is not actually that they’re new ways of asking existing institutions to be more representative of you, it’s that they’re new ways of being able to represent yourself directly and authentically. Now what would think tanks look like if they were based around that idea?

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