Reflections on New Think Tank – 5. Simon Gough

This is a series of posts in which we’ve invited people to give us their reactions to Guerilla Policy (formerly the New Think Tank project). This post: Simon Gough from Redfront. Thanks to Simon for contributing the post, and we welcome your comments.

One of the biggest challenges awaiting New Think Tank is engagement. For its great ideas to take hold, and for real change to happen, New Think Tank has to capture the attention of a wide range of frontline public service professionals. This need to engage people is not unique to New Think Tank so, by way of exploring engagement, I thought it might be worth looking at an extreme example.

Like it or not, Mail Online is the most visited newspaper website in the world, having earlier this year overtaken the New York Times. It regularly sparks debates that extend well beyond the site itself, making a big impact on other platforms. And how does it do this? By provoking people. Its particular combination of forthright opinions and features that border on the outrageous leave us in no doubt that Mail Online’s agenda is maximum engagement. And it succeeds in that agenda, whether it’s attracting disgust or agreement.

No, I’m not suggesting that New Think Tank becomes the Mail Online of the think tank world. But the indisputable success of being provocative is not to be ignored. So what does provocation look like in the policy space?

Firstly, to some extent, provocation is an inevitable, and indeed desirable, product of the traditional Think Tank process. Think Tanks are built for opinion. They need to get attention and state a clear position. The people who employ them need it and the think tanks need it for survival in the marketplace.

And this raises my first question for New Think Tank. With a crowd-sourced platform what kind of threat is posed by the possibility of producing moderate opinions? In other words, will New Think Tank’s output spark a wider debate or just present unremarkable consensus? The nature of crowd-sourcing makes it a complex activity. It can produce extraordinary, innovative results or reduce everything to the mundane. Understanding these mechanics is an essential role for New Think Tank.

Of course, the challenges arrive much earlier than the policy-making function, so my second question concerns the earlier stages. What approach will New Think Tank take to engaging people at the outset? I believe this to be a bigger issue. High-traffic platforms, like my Mail Online example, don’t attract people by asking them to share their opinion. They pull people in through posing provocative questions, however they may be presented.

Provocation is an important part of user-centric design and it goes much deeper than getting people’s interest. If you want to develop continuous engagement you have to make people think. You have to challenge assumptions, spark dialogue and provoke.

Thankfully this doesn’t need to be a constant struggle. Rather it comes down to what we were talking about in the branding workshop: how should New Think Tank position itself? What is its voice?

If this is done right, and from what I’ve seen so far I fully believe it can be, then the first battle is won. With the right provocation, and the right attitude, New Think Tank has every chance of engaging people in a truly revolutionary project.

Simon Gough

4 Comments on “Reflections on New Think Tank – 5. Simon Gough”

  1. Alex Kenmure says:

    I’d question (or at least be wary) of the “success of provocation”. Usually when I’m provoked to say something, what I say is pretty stupid – I think this might be because I am reacting rather than thinking and often “playing the man, not the ball” so to speak. If that ended up happening through GP the quality of thought development and articulation would probably be pretty poor. I’m not arguing that provocation doesn’t have an impact, but I would say that it is one of many ways to engage a wider audience, and it has its own nasty side effects (like steroids i would presume).

    You are absolutely right though about the whole engagement thing in terms of the success of GP. I’m undecided on the best approach, but my instinct is that it’ll be at its best if it has the space to grow at the pace of people using it and that when people do engage it isn’t because GP has provoked them to use it, but something has provoked and individual to use GP as a way of voicing their thoughts and opinions.

  2. The difficulty with crowd sourced policy development is the crowd word. Is the emphasis going to be political and never mind the economic or social outcomes? Or economic and… (you get the idea).

    It would seem to me that the think tank must lead and try to identify some principles that can be taken as truths universally acknowledged. I also think that even crowd sourced policy must be better evidenced than “me and 1642 of my mates” agree.

    So here’s a few ideas:

    starting from the position that markets deliver outcomes governments have doing nothing to resolve market concentration (it’s not only the banks that got too big). There would be a surprising degree of agreement with this on the the left (Fabians, the strange non-death of neo-liberalism) and the right (IEA: Public Choice – A primer)

    with rights come responsibilities

    moral hazard from extending extenuating circumstances to the central case

    The much under appreciated policy initiative called “doing nothing” – it’s too easy to lob money at “doing something” without any real analysis of the unintended consequences (for those with long memories I’ll pick on the historic and hopefully agreed as a good example “Individual Learning Accounts”

    • Thanks Gerry, I certainly agree with your last point about the overlooked qualities of ‘doing nothing’ (policy hyperactivism being one thing that think tanks have surely contributed to). In reference to your critique of the ‘crowd’, an important point to make is that this project isn’t (or shouldn’t be) based on the notion that more opinions = better policy (a ‘pure’ translation of crowdsourcing into policy). Rather the way I envisage it working is that a core project team of people with a direct experience and expertise in an issue work on policy related to this issue and then present their work back to the ‘crowd’ (the rest of the community) for comment, challenge and further contributions. In this way I hope we could combine the benefits of expertise (albeit from a very different group of people to typical think tank staff) with the power of the crowd. Related to this, I’m not sure we need more/better political philosophy in policy (and I speak as someone who likes political philsophy), rather I think what we need is more practical intelligence in policy development – that might also help to avoid situations like ILAs. At least that’s our hope.

  3. Thanks to Simon for his characteristically perceptive and interesting post, and Alex for his equally typically reflective response. Reading both, my instinct is that whatever we do it has to be authentic; if this also turns out to be provocative then that’s fine (and truth – not universal truth but one person’s truth or a group’s truth – often is very provocative because it’s genuine, in contrast to the amount of received ‘wisdom’, hedging and fear that often exists in the policy world). This also goes to Simon’s point about consensus – I don’t think we should try to engineer consensus for the sake of it (and I don’t necessarily think consensus is best), rather I see the point of the crowd as being to challenge those involved in a particular project on their evidence supporting a specific claim (this evidence could take a variety of forms, of course). I think Alex nails it when he says that this needs to grow at the pace of people using it, and its voice is actually their voice – again, if we’re not doing this, then it’s not genuine, and if it’s not genuine then people will see through it pretty quickly.

Let us know what you think

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s