Starting again

What is a ‘think tank’? Why do we need them? Do we need them at all?

This project is about reinventing the think tank. It’s about considering what think tanks look like if you start again with a blank sheet of paper (or a blank blog), then try to put this into practice.

To answer the last question first, let’s start not with think tanks but with politics and policy, which in the UK and many other countries is dominated by two main phenomena: cuts to public spending (and so public services), and the disconnect between policymakers and the public.

Whatever your view on them, the cuts mean that there’s never been a more important time for effective social policy. The disconnect between policymaking and the public, however abstract it might sound, is equally real; it’s not just about participation rates in general elections but political economy and the fundamental legitimacy we grant to (or withhold from) political, economic and social institutions. When it erodes beyond a certain point, we experience this.

Another phenomenon is the way in which networked technologies can enable new connections and collaborations between people. Technology can’t resolve fundamental questions of legitimacy, indeed it can exacerbate them, but we can use it to respond more effectively to both the cuts and the disconnect – not to placate through online petitions, but to ameliorate through better social policy.

Do we need think tanks? If they can be part of the answer to improving social policy, then yes. And if they can be one way in which stronger connections are forged between policy and the public, especially so. Think tanks have traditionally seen themselves as a way in which policy can be improved, albeit often only from a particular point of view, but they haven’t typically been regarded as a positive response to the disconnect. They should be both.

Rather than reinforcing elitism by claiming ownership over some special ‘expertise’, in a social media age think tanks could be one way in which (to use the patronising phrase) ‘ordinary people’ can engage and be engaged in developing better policy. And this is now imperative, because we need to recognise that effective social policy can’t be developed without the participation and (broadly) the support of those responsible for its delivery at all levels of public services – including the users of services (i.e. us).

To the first question of what a think tank is, then, the answer should be that it is an open, accessible, inclusive and transparent social institution which works in partnership with others to improve policy – rather than, as at present, closed, competitive, largely unknown and little understood.

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