Why think tanks aren’t popular

We’re beginning to think about what our website should look like. This development blog – nice and clean though it is (thanks WordPress) – isn’t our proper website of course, just our temporary home. But it’s got us thinking about think tank websites and what they say about think tanks themselves.

We’ve noted before that most think tanks’ websites aren’t that popular compared to other sites. Few of the most well-known think tanks make it into the top 50,000 sites in the UK (new economics foundation ranks 23,123rd, which is much better than most). It’s not that popularity is everything. If it was, we’d just stick a few pictures of cute kittens on the home page and watch the ad dollars roll in. But think tanks should be more popular than they are.

Think tanks engage with matters of public interest, from the distribution of wealth to welfare benefits, employment to the economy, conservation to climate change. This is the stuff of everyday news and talk radio phone-in shows. Since most think tanks aim to influence the ‘climate of ideas’, it might help if they were better known by the general public. So why aren’t think tanks more popular, specifically what can we learn about why from their websites?

Firstly, their websites are not especially welcoming or accessible to a broad audience in terms of their structure, presentation or language. Have a scan through the sites we’ve added to the links section on the bottom-right of this page. They’re broadsheet newspapers, which is fine if you’re a broadsheet newspaper reader, but not mass market. Further, they aren’t designed with a clear offer to audiences such as policymakers, decision-makers, professionals and practitioners, or just interested members of the public. They don’t appear to recognise and aren’t designed around their needs. They aren’t especially helpful.

Secondly, related to this, these sites are all about what they (the think tanks) think, not your views or experiences. Look at how they are organised and laid out. There are sometimes blogs prominently displayed (not always though), but they typically receive very few comments. These are not places of public debate – they’re editorials, not exchanges. The Centre for Policy Studies has a new ‘debate‘ series, but it’s set-up between two members of the great and the good (it’s also buried away in a menu). The Social Market Foundation has branded its blog ‘Market Square‘ – a “social hub” and “ideas exchange” – but there seems to be little dialogue going on there. Similarly, the Fabian Society established its blog as a separate site – Next Left – but there doesn’t appear to be much debate happening on it, especially when you compare it to something like Conservative Home or the comment/blog site established by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, ThinkProgress (103,000 Twitter followers – but we’ll consider think tanks’ use of social media in another post).

Instead, whether because of a fundamental policy elitism or not, think tanks seem to be much more interested in receiving your support and donations than they do in inviting your views. Given this, it’s not really that surprising that the public largely stays away.

Does this matter? It does if you believe that think tanks could play a more public role in improving public policy. Consider this point, worth quoting in full from a recent article by Felix Oldenburg from Ashoka on the Guardian Professional Network, and how it might apply to the future (or not) of think tanks:

“Consequently, much like organisations need a business model to attract investors, they increasingly need a “social model”, a reason why people should want to engage with them. Any executive without a plan to empower his staff, turn stakeholders into co-creators, and create hybrid value chains with social innovators opening up new markets may find himself a freelancer soon.”

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