Access all areas

The world is run by the people who show up, so the (variously attributed) saying goes. It helps if you’ve received an invite though. Which organisations were and were not invited to attend today’s ‘summit meeting’ on the NHS reforms is indicative of how most governments try to use their power to grant access in the service of their political goals. It was a PR own goal of course. It’s also bad news for better policymaking.

Health minister Simon Burns insisted that the selective guest list was not “odd at all”, and that the summit was (only) for organisations who are “constructively engaged in implementing the [NHS] modernisation.” Leaving aside the obvious joke that if this was the criteria then they could have held the meeting in a phone box, the less amusing implication is probably entirely deliberate: get in line or get lost.

In my experience, many organisations – from public sector organisations to charities – are keenly aware of this dilemma, especially in relation to incoming or popular administrations. You could feel the power draining away from the previous Government in the way that organisations began to turn their attention to David Cameron’s Conservative Party. Everyone suddenly developed a strategy to engage the Tories. Pretty much everything that could be badged as a contribution to the ‘Big Society’ had the label slapped on it, in contrast to public and media scepticism.

This dilemma – whether to emphasise your ‘resonance’ to the government’s agenda or risk being left out – also applies to think tanks, even those with longstanding and consistent ideological positions. The greatest fear in thinktankland is not so much being wrong as much as appearing irrelevant. Even some of those think tanks that claim to ‘think the unthinkable’ can appear to trade on a notion of ‘access’, that they can ‘help get you in’ – whether to the minister’s office or the newspapers.

Do think tanks have the access they suggest? Examining which think tanks are lobbying which ministers makes interesting reading. In the majority of cases think tanks are just participants in roundtable meetings at which ministers are present; worthwhile perhaps but not quite the ‘having a private word with the minister over a sherry’ image that some of them seem to suggest when fundraising (or come to that, when hosting intimate ‘Dinner Discussions’).

On the flip side, if think tanks really do have privileged access, then how democratic is this? The danger is of course that facilitating introductions could cross the line into ‘cash for access’, and thanks to the invention of hidden cameras we all know what that looks like (warning: it’s not pretty).

Our new think tank project is based on the simple proposition that excluding your opponents, or those who haven’t paid you money, is not a formula for better policy. We’re investigating a membership offer for organisations as part of our business model, but it’s for help with engaging the providers and users of public services to develop better social policy, not as a way of (supposedly) getting access to those in power. If you want that, hire a lobbying firm.

A more confident response by the Government to criticisms of its health reforms would have been to invite its most vociferous opponents to the summit meeting and genuinely listen to what they have to say. A more confident offer from thinktankland would be to make research and policy work much more public, more accessible and more open, as a way to improve its credibility and impact with those in power.

So yes, it’s true that the world is run by the people who show up, but we need more places where more people can show up to, places where we’re welcomed whatever our views and where our views can matter.

It’s 100 days tomorrow until we launch our new think tank. And unlike the health summit, everyone’s invited.

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