Put your name on policy – blog with Guerilla

We’ve got lots of plans for the next few months as we develop Guerilla Policy. Our ambition is to create a movement of people and organisations who use and provide public services, working together to create better social policy. This is just the start. One of the things we’d love to do is create a hub for frontline practitioners and service users to blog about their work, their experiences and how they think policy needs to change.

We’ve written before here about our love of public and voluntary service bloggers, and how we’d almost always rather read a dispatch from the frontline than (largely) warmed-over opinion from a Westminster-centric commentator. At their best, frontline bloggers capture the day-to-day reality of public services in a way that no-one else can, including the dirty, difficult, and sometimes dangerous experiences that form the basis of real expertise and so the insights we need to improve social policy. For example, read BendyGirl‘s writing on the reality of welfare reform at Benefit Scrounging Scum (shortlisted for the 2012 Orwell Prize). These blogs are often highly informative, contentious, challenging, and sometimes as dull as real life – which after all is the reality of life at the frontline.

These bloggers often engage directly in policy issues, but from a practical, pragmatic and informed perspective that could surely be incorporated into policymaking before we’ve wasted millions of pounds (and harmed people’s lives) introducing policies that are destined to fail. So much ‘professional’ commentary is dominated by that week’s ‘inside baseball’ nonsense, to the exclusion of how policy effects real lives and how it could be improved. Frontline bloggers make policy real, sometimes uncomfortably so from the perspective of policy wonks – which is probably why their views aren’t usually invited into national policy debates (Guardian Professional Networks is a notable exception, along with parts of the trade press).

We want to put the real insiders where they belong – at the centre of policy. What we’re looking for are practitioners and services users who can provide a real-life perspective on policy – just as BendyGirl does on the reality of welfare. It doesn’t matter if you don’t consider yourself an expert – in fact, we’d prefer it if you didn’t (self-proclaimed ‘expertise’ often denoting an arrogance and insularity from other viewpoints).  It doesn’t matter if you don’t know the ‘right’ words, because writing that’s worth reading doesn’t depend on anything other than your proximity to the reality of public and voluntary services. And it doesn’t matter if you can’t write for us every week (you have a life to live and a job to do, after all) – we’d prefer it if you posted when you have something to say and a bit of time to reflect.

If you already blog, we’d love to syndicate you here and hopefully add to you readership. And if you’ve never blogged before, why not give it a go – your voice deserves to be heard as much as anyone else’s. If you’re interested or have any questions, just fill out the form below and we’ll get back to you asap. We can’t pay you – but we can help you to put your name on policy.

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.”

Try something new

We’ve been thinking about value a lot recently, as we begin to test out the business model and pricing for our new think tank. We fully expect it to be tough job to convince potential customers and partners to work with us initially – ours is a very different approach after all, and it’s understandable, however much they might like the idea in principle, if many of these potential customers want to see how it works in practice first and in particular see some successful case studies.

But there’s another way of looking at this, which is the steadily eroding value proposition of traditional think tanks. As we’ve suggested before, think tanks have an important role to play in policy, but they will have to change in order to continue to do this. Here’s the dramatic way of putting it: if we don’t re-invent the think tank, will it still exist in ten years’ time?

It’s no secret that most think tanks live a hand-to-mouth existence. Look through their published accounts and you’ll see that some think tanks aren’t regarded by their auditors as ‘going concerns’. And this is where recent accounts are available; quite a few high-profile think tanks don’t appear to have filed accounts with the Charity Commission for some time, which is hardly reassuring. And now no-one (i.e. the organisations that typically commission them) has any money. Do the math.

Think tanks won’t survive through better management or cost-cutting though. Rather the problem is that the traditional think tank value proposition is beginning to crumble to dust. Consider what think tanks do and the way they traditionally do it, and whether it’s more likely or not that someone else will develop a way to do it better/faster/cheaper over the next few years (you can guess what we think). Let’s consider research, analysis and access in turn.

With regards research, my own experience of commissioning think tanks suggests that you can struggle to get much value between let’s say £20-35k. This is because it doesn’t pay for much time from the better/more senior think tank staff, the work is basically done by someone just out of university, and by the time the project gets going they’re already beginning to chase the next commission. Much lower than this and think tanks get less interested (though they may still bid for the work) – the commissioner of the project will understandably still want a good solid piece of work, but because of think tanks’ high overheads it will be a struggle to devote that much serious resource to it and the project margin just isn’t there. Consultants could be better value at the lower price point, but of course you won’t get the ‘brand advantage’ from working with them compared to some think tanks.

Then there’s the more fundamental point about what kind of research you want done and to what quality. Anything below this kind of price point (that is up to £35k) and you’re basically looking at largely desk research, with perhaps some interviews for case studies (any more field research than this and the economics wouldn’t make sense for the think tank). So here comes the point about the eroding value: surely this kind of activity can be carried out better/faster/cheaper through a crowdsourcing approach, if it’s ‘just’ about gathering and collating what we already know? (Again, you can anticipate our answer).

If you have deeper pockets and a more complicated research question/project, then you’ll also want to consider academic researchers since they are typically more likely to have the specialist research skills that such projects might require (and on some bids, think tanks will partner with a university for this reason, which can work out well but also poses a risk whether the collaboration will work in practice). But again, we’ve suggested that even multi-faceted research projects could be conducted largely online in collaboration with a large community of practitioners and service users.

As for analysis, well we’ve considered this in a previous post, but the headline is that most think tanks don’t really do serious policy analysis. What actually often happens is that charities and other commissioners pay a think tank to write a report that kinda looks like ‘research’ but for which certain findings are ‘anticipated’ (it’s basically research that isn’t, aimed at audiences who can’t tell the difference). Here we call it ‘policy wash.’ Now, as the commissioner, if you know what you want to say, why not just write it yourself and pay a think tank to slap their logo on the front of it? (In some cases we’ve been told about this is basically what’s happened).

And with regards ‘access’, it’s unclear what exactly you’re buying when you commission a think tank. If they promise access then they’re getting into dangerous territory (see last post), but if they don’t again you’re probably better spending your time and money working with your peer organisations on a public campaign – something that the internet can now help you with via web-based collaboration tools, social media campaigns etc.

So yes, we need to ensure we develop the right value proposition for our customers, but existing think tanks also need to consider the value they currently offer to customers – otherwise it’s our bet that those customers will go elsewhere.