How we treat other people often reflects how we are treated, and in many organisations this gets established at the top. Workplaces with assholic chief executives easily turn into environments where bullying, passive-aggressiveness and small ‘p’ politics are rife; once modeled by leaders, these behaviours can become permissible, even normalised. We increasingly recognise that these behaviours are bad for business. So why have we normalised these behaviours when it comes to how we develop and implement social policy? And is there a link between this and how people get treated at the frontline of public services?
I’ve written in the Guardian blog about the perverse ‘everyone hates us, we don’t care’ approach to policymaking, for which think tanks are partly responsible. Starting in the 1970s, a group of commentators associated with the new right think tanks began to characterise organised frontline workers and service users not just as ‘self-interested’ or ‘obstructive’ but as the underlying cause of the country’s problems. These groups, went the argument, effectively hold politicians to ransom until governments pay them off by spending more on public services. This only makes them stronger and turns the “collectivist ratchet” inexorably away from a free society. This situation had to be reversed.
As a result, not listening to frontline workers has almost become a badge of honour for politicians, as if there’s something suspect about a policy developed in partnership or supported by professionals (i.e. the people who are responsible for making it a success on the ground). Without the participation of the people who use and provide public services it’s not that surprising when social policy is poorly evidenced, badly designed and difficult to implement.
There’s something of the bully about this approach to policy development, a passive-aggressiveness. It’s the political equivalent of the boss who believes that low staff morale means that he (it’s almost always he) must be ‘doing something right‘ – a sentiment recently supported by the secretary of state for education (the person ultimately responsible for ensuring that schools are safe, respectful environments that foster learning, creativity and civility).
Policy should be contested, but this doesn’t mean it has to be mean, or that division and divisiveness make for better deliberation. Those who relish the ‘contest of ideas’ neglect that politics requires conciliation and compromise. Macho policymaking might make for tough headlines but rarely for good policy, and the type of people who compulsively need to win are invariably also losers.
Sadly, many think tanks in effect contribute to, rather than challenge, this assholic political culture. Our ideas are always right, theirs are always wrong. The other ‘side’ needs to be destroyed (rhetorically at least), because they are stupid/dangerous/evil. And if this is how (thought) leaders behave, is there a danger, as in the workplace, that the rest of us become infected by the same disease?
When people aren’t listened to, the result at the frontline of services is often low morale and stress, leading to disillusion and disengagement. In such circumstances, it’s no wonder that policy fails to achieve its objectives, which in turn encourages some policymakers to adopt an even more aggressive approach designed to defeat their ‘enemies’ at the frontline. Given this kind of thinking, and without taking away responsibility from anyone, should we really be surprised to discover bullying, abuse, and neglect at the frontline of services when these are the same behaviours we witness at the centre?
Here’s the (updated) top 40 most well-known UK think tanks ranked by the popularity of their websites (according to Alexa.com). The number in brackets is the global popularity ranking of the website.
- The RSA (115,276)
- Chatham House (184,918)
- The Overseas Development Institute (224,804)
- Adam Smith Institute (245,629)
- new economics foundation (258,708)
- Joseph Rowntree Foundation (402,928)
- The Institute of Development Studies (407,307)
- ResPublica (519,065)
- The Young Foundation (531,207)
- IPPR (545,712)
- The King’s Fund (549,430)
- Ekklesia (587,949)
- Open Europe (596,395)
- The Institute for Fiscal Studies (750,728)
- Institute for Economic Affairs (793,598)
- Civitas (802,873)
- Demos (818,733)
- The Work Foundation (1,378,491)
- Policy Exchange (1,387,435)
- New Philanthropy Capital (1,409,356)
- National Institute Economic Research (NIESR) (1,601,702)
- The Institute for Government (1,724,245)
- Centre for Local Economic Strategies (1,965,958)
- Social Market Foundation (1,995,554)
- Runnymede (2,140,813)
- The Fabian Society (2,163,876)
- Compass (2,248,832)
- Foreign Policy Centre (2,393,283)
- Centre for Cities (2,411,640)
- Resolution Foundation (2,728,050)
- Centre for Policy Studies (2,785,876)
- Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) (2,866,152)
- Involve (3,006,163)
- Centre for Social Justice (3,164,534)
- New Local Government Network (3,471,930)
- Transform Drug Policy Foundation (3,863,400)
- Theos Think Tank (4,128,032)
- Policy Studies Institute (4,183,046)
- Sports Think Tank (4,594,213)
- International Longevity Centre – UK (4,616,285)
And: British Future (4,778,818); CentreForum (6,598,451); Reform (6,676,968); The Smith Institute (11,194,237); Race on the Agenda (ROTA) (16,803,917); Politeia (no data); RAND Europe (no data – in this case because the site is part of the US ‘parent’).
- If Conservative Home (125,821) was a think tank, it would be the second most popular think tank in the UK;
- Left Foot Forward (260,894) would be the sixth most popular think tank;
- And Mumsnet (10,158) would be the most popular think tank by a long way.
(The rank is calculated using a combination of average daily visitors and pageviews over the past 3 months. The site with the highest combination of visitors and pageviews is ranked #1. A more detailed methodological note on how Alexa calculates its traffic ranks can be found here).
And this development blog is ranked 5,247,212 .
I had a conversation today about this project where I spent a fair bit of the time explaining what it isn’t. For example:
- It isn’t a think tank, commonly understood, because it won’t have the infrastructure or staffing or resources associated with think tanks (indeed this is a critical part of the business model);
- It isn’t a competitor to existing think tanks, because we’re looking mainly at a market that doesn’t commission research at the moment;
- It isn’t a research supplier as such, because the point of our approach is that charities and other provider organisations often have much of what they need in order to conduct policy work already (credibility, experience and expertise, relationships to stakeholders etc).
I don’t mind having to take this ‘isn’t’ approach – though it does make what we’re doing sound more negative than I’d like – but obviously it begs the question of what this is.
One of the difficulties with innovation (if I can call this an ‘innovation’) is describing what you’re doing in a simple, easily-graspable way for others, when by definition it’s something new, and at the same time as you’re still exploring for yourself and potential customers what the ‘is’ is. This is why you find yourself using more ‘isn’ts’ than you’d like (and hedging these often makes it even murkier: “Well, not exactly, it isn’t quite like so-and-so…” etc etc).
One way that anyone developing anything ‘new’ tries to get around this is to compare their ‘it’ to some existing products and services (‘it’s like x but for y’). Or they cite examples of things we’d all like more of and then suggest that their product or service will produce these things more cheaply and easily. We’ve done both of these at various times here. We’ve suggested that it’s like ‘Sourceforge [but] for social policy‘ and that we’d like what we’re doing here to support the production of many more user-led Spartacus-like reports.
Both of these approaches keep some of your options open – but only for a while. (And after all, what does it really mean to claim, as thousands of entrepreneurs must have done over the past few years, that they’re developing ‘the new Facebook, but for [insert niche but potentially profitable audience here]’? And if it’s so much like Facebook, minus of course the hundreds of millions of dollars of investment in functionality that Facebook and its investors have made, then why wouldn’t your target audience just use Facebook instead?)
Inevitably you begin to approach the point when you have to say ‘this is what it is’, in order to give potential partners enough to provide you with an honest response about whether it meets a real need they have – in short whether they’re in or not. But you resist this because you also have to give something up: the idea that your project appeals to everyone or could ever appeal to everyone. Promise and potential (which are nice things that everyone can buy into) has to give way to practical appeal (which of course means a much smaller audience of actual buyers). In this sense, the more you define what it is, the more you make it something that isn’t for some (probably most) of your potential audience.
We’re getting nearer to this point – but we’re not there quite yet.
“[Our] work combines a radical, civic philosophy with the latest insights in social and economic policy analysis to produce original, implementable solutions. We would like to foster new approaches to economic inequality, investment and group behaviour, so that the benefits of capital, trade and entrepreneurship are open to all. Our work is based on the premise that human relationships should once more be the centre and meaning of an associative society, and that we need to recover the language and practice of the common good. Consequently our ideas seek to strengthen the links between local individuals, organisations and communities that create social capital.”
I’m a fairly educated guy, but I have no idea what this means. I’ve used this kind of wonk-speak myself in the past – especially when I was a post-graduate – but developing better policy depends on using grown-up language.
As George Orwell argued in Politics and the English Language, there’s a link between the health of our politics and the clarity of our language, and vice versa. As Orwell noted: “[Our language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
Orwell’s point was that truth in politics is closely connected to truth in language. As he wrote: “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.” Inflated style in particular is often a clue that the author is trying to obscure the reality of a situation. If think tanks are going to influence public culture – which is even more ambitious than informing public policy – then they should speak in plain English.
The way we use language will be critical to our work to develop a new kind of think tank – one based on the practical insight and expertise of the people who use and provide public services everyday. It might not always be a comfortable experience, but working closely with practitioners and the public should help us stay away from the wonk-speak – and keep us honest.