Reflections on New Think Tank – 3. Crispin Oyen-Williams

This is a series of posts in which we’ve invited people to give us their reactions to the New Think Tank project. This post is from Crispin Oyen-Williams. Thanks to Crispin for contributing this post, and we welcome your comments.

I think the New Think Tank is a really innovative and brave idea. Getting real people from the front line of services to input into policy ideas gives findings a new potential level of authenticity and relevance – something currently lacking in the public policy process.

As I said above though, opening the process up to any potential input takes courage, as what will come back will be unknown. Managing potential tensions between a sponsoring client and some views that come back that are uncomfortable will undoubtedly occur. In reality, though, gaining real input should be seen as the measure of success for the New Think Tank – that real people feel comfortable enough to deliver some out-of-the-box left field thinking.

This theme of real people with real thoughts (warts and all) cannot be understated. It must shine through though in the brand, the ethos and the work of the New Think Tank. This is key, both to its credibility, as well as the new Think Tank’s ability to differentiate itself from competitors.

This is a blog and I am writing informally, so forgive me if it sounds like I am going a bit over the top about the ‘get the real people in here’ point. But, I feel that this could be a sizeable challenge, as moving think tanks away from the idea that the dog wags the tail and not that the tail wags the dog (the tail being a small group of policy experts to the body that is the everyday ‘Joe Blogs’ public) is easier said than done.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to a workshop looking into ideas around the formation of the New Think Tank. The workshop was an exciting session where all attending came up with lots of innovative thinking about the way forward for the New Think Tank. Only problem for me, was that the entire table was made up of public policy experts and not the real people the New think Tank seeks to engage.

Now, having met the founder Mike, I have no doubt that he has made sure that real people do have ownership of the formation of the New Think Tank; with this table being just a branch of a much wider process. However, the workshop did point out to me a very clear illustration of the very large challenge that awaits in trying to make sure that real people from the frontline of services are always involved in all aspects of idea creation in the New Think Tank.

Stepping out onto a less travelled path, let alone cutting out a new path is always tough. But I have real admiration for Mike and the goal of the New Think Tank to involve real people and their expertise in creating ideas for policies that affect them. I am a world-weary student of the political theory realm, where many arguments portray the importance of representation as being in conflict to the brightest idea winning. But rather than see them as mutually exclusive, I have always seen representation and good idea generation as interdependent and mutually reinforcing. I therefore look forward to seeing the innovative ideas that the New Think Tank generates. Best of luck on the journey!

Crispin Oyen-Williams


3 Comments on “Reflections on New Think Tank – 3. Crispin Oyen-Williams”

  1. Tony Smee says:

    After working in heavy industry for 50 years I retired in 2004 with lots of ideas and a lifetime of inventions, patents, and areas where I’d like to do research. So started to propose my inventions to anyone who would listen, and I’m finding that only university academics are receptive to really new thinking and innovation. All the government departments and the media have been clogged with non-engineers who are particularly skilled in presentation and hype but fail in any practical implementation.
    This is particularly true of the Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) department which is run by people with no experience in business, innovation or skills. Also true for the Technology Startegy Board (TSB) with Vince Cable which since 2004 has not produced a single impressive innovation having spent £2billion.Many of them have never had a proper job in a factory or construction site so it’s difficult for me to communicate with these people as there are no experienced practical skilled engineers at any level in the government or in most board rooms.

    I blog and comment about this because the effect on the economy is to stifle growth and block innovation as hype and spin don’t produce growth. They produce “statistics” and PR showing how everything is going well but the reality from an engineer’s point of view is disastrous. I have checked the TSB “case studies” and “success stories” which are mostly a waste of taxpayers money but after a bit of good PR they seem to be on the right track.
    My latest is a series of reviews on my Telegraph blog, rather long discussions of each “success story” showing cases where projects are wasting money.
    I’m at number 7 right now with more to come soon, it takes time to check through the smoke and mirrors to see what is going on.

    • Thanks Tony – my own sense is that many people (including many who work in government) would agree with your point about lack of practical experience, whether it is in engineering for departments making policy that affects industry or in public services for those departments that making policy covering services. Part of what you refer to – the ‘case studies’ etc – is obviously about promoting current policy initiatives rather than rigorous policy analysis, but quite a few civil servants have contacted us to discuss our plans for this project and how it or similar approaches could be used in their policy development, which I take as a positive sign – they recognise there’s a problem and they want to investigate new ways to fix it. Along with hiring more people from practical backgrounds as opposed to policy generalists, various forums (including online communities) might be one way to bring greater expertise into government policy development and decision-making.

  2. I really appreciate Crispin’s post – and I couldn’t agree more that our challenge and measure of success is that ‘real people’ (non-wonks) get involved. This will be a long road, but the work starts properly this Friday when we launch our new site and new name – and I can tell you now that it won’t include the words ‘think’ or ‘tank’.

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