Think positive

I spend a fair amount of time here considering what’s ‘wrong’ with think tanks – the way they don’t find more ways to invite the public and public service professionals into their projects, how in an age of social networks and social media they should find new ways to create communities around their work, and so on. Despite this, I also happily recognise, as someone suggested to me the other day, that what will be more important for the success of this project is defining the positive purpose of what we’re trying to build: how the world might look a little bit better with our project in it. This blog is called ‘new think tank’, after all, not ‘everything that’s bad about think tanks’.

The issue isn’t how to fix think tanks. Rather, considering what’s ‘wrong’ with think tanks is just one route towards articulating what the real problem is – and for which a better think tank might in its own way make some kind of contribution towards solving.

The other day I came across a TED talk by Simon Sinek, a speaker and commentator, on how great leaders inspire action. Simon makes the deceptively simple but significant point that leaders (he also talks about businesses such as Apple) start with the ‘why‘ of what they’re doing rather than the ‘what’ or the ‘how.’ So in the case of Apple, lots of companies make computers and phones and MP3 players, but Apple emphasises not a list of product features (the ‘what’ and the ‘how’) so much as ‘why’ it does what it does: because ease of use, design and beauty can make technology great. I’ve also been struck again recently by the simple but powerful emphasis of the Obama 2012 campaign (as in 2008) on being part of the campaign, in other words its positive offer of participation and ownership. ‘Yes We Can’ might subsequently have been mocked and parodied – but why did it become so well-known in the first place?

We’re not Apple or Obama 2012, but we should try to learn from the best. So here’s a few more thoughts on the ‘why’ of our project.

Firstly, we believe that think tanks are basically good things. I’ve suggested before that this project is based on the view that think tanks could be meaningful vehicles for public involvement in public policy, that they could be open and transparent in ways that could improve their work and enhance their impact, and that the internet and social networks in particular could help to achieve both of these things.

In another sense though, the ‘think tank’ part of this is irrelevant, even unhelpful. I think partly in terms of think tanks because I’ve worked in them, but I also recognise that for many people the term is either unfamiliar or carries some negative connotations. All I really mean by ‘think tank’ is an organisation that conducts research and policy analysis and makes recommendations for better policy and nothing else (unlike say parts of government or public bodies, universities, or campaigning or service providing charities). The importance of the ‘nothing else’ is independence, and so impartiality. This isn’t the same as saying distance or aloofness from practice and practical issues though, since as I’ve also suggested here, the work of think tanks could be improved the closer they are to the frontline.

Secondly, we believe that everyone can participate in what think tanks do. There’s never been a professional qualification required to work in a think tank, though with ‘qualification inflation’ it’s increasingly necessary to have completed some kind of research degree (something which, while understandable, surely has the overall impact of further distancing think tanks from some of the frontline). Personally I don’t buy the idea of a specialism called ‘policy analyst’ that’s improved by remoteness from the issues you’re considering. Engagement, allied with common sense (both of which can derive from frontline experience), a sensible and sound process, and a willingness to challenge your own presumptions and to be challenged by others (i.e. some humility) are probably what matters most. Specialist research skills matter of course – so involve people with those skills – but on their own these don’t make for better research or policy analysis. Listening is just, if not more, important.

If we put the first and second points together then we have a simple (and yes, simplistic) reason for trying to build a better think tank. We don’t need to call it a ‘think tank’ (it probably won’t help if we do), but it’s worth doing, not because of ‘what’s wrong’ with think tanks but because of what could be right with them.

Thirdly, we believe that people often like to be involved in making things better. As Clay Shirky suggests in Here Comes Everybody, mass collaboration depends a lot on the notion that people are basically good. To make this project happen, we need to do more to articulate what would be better in the world if it did. But some part of it is also about seeing it for yourself. Like lots of people, I’ve always thought that the ‘what’s the point of politics?’ stance, however understandable sometimes, can help to bring into existence the very thing it’s complaining about. Logically, then, the opposite is also true. I believe in protest, but I think we also need to put forward better, worked-out (as best we can) alternatives to what we don’t like.

In this case, we believe that social policy – and so public services – would be better if practitioners and the public were more engaged in developing it. Our sense is that other people, potentially lots of them, believe the same thing and want to be involved in something potentially great. It might not be through this project, but someone will find a way to achieve what we’re talking about here – and we’ll be signing-up when they do.

2 Comments on “Think positive”

  1. Kiril Radev says:

    I am totally in love with the idea and would realize here in Bulgaria, but I don’t have sufficient resources yet. Then again I will be following on your development closely and share ideas with you. I also know about a partner think tank in Tunisia that is going to build something quite similar to your concept. If somebody is interested, I have their contacts.

    • Thanks Kiril for these positive comments, it’s much appreciated. And do send us further information on the Tunisian project, it sounds interesting (you can use the contact form on the ‘Get Involved’ page. Thanks again, and keep in touch.

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