The power of Mumsnet – for Blog Action Day #PowerOfWe #BAD12

This post is about Mumsnet. We believe that sites like Mumsnet could represent the future of developing public policy. They point to the potential of mass membership online platforms to engage thousands of people in practical consideration of policy issues and so radically widen participation in policy – or as we call it, guerilla policy.

This post is also part of Blog Action Day, held on 15th October 2012. Founded in 2007, Blog Action Day brings together bloggers from different countries, interests and languages to blog about one global topic on the same day. Past topics have included water, climate change, poverty and food with thousands of blogs, big and small, taking part. The theme for 2012 is ‘The Power of We’ – something ably demonstrated by Mumsnet and its peers.

Now in its twelfth year, Mumsnet was founded by Justine Roberts, a former investment banker and sports journalist, and Carrie Longton, a television producer. The site is now Britain’s busiest social network for parents, receiving nearly six million visits a month. It is the 460th most popular site in the UK – much, much more popular than the Labour Party (5,057th), the Conservative Party (15,040th), or the Liberal Democrats (19,346th). With more than 600,000 registered users, it also has a bigger membership than all of the main political parties combined. In May last year, Mumsnet also launched a site aimed at grandparents, Gransnet, which already has 70,000 members and rising.

On the day I’m writing this, the most popular discussion thread (with more than 1,000 posts) focused on welfare reform, specifically the proposal from George Osborne at the Conservative Party conference to limit the number of children people can claim for as part of the Government’s aim of cutting £10 billion more from welfare (the thread was titled “to be fed up of George sodding Osborne and his Knobbish Ideas”).

As Mumsnet itself states, it’s a community, not a lobby group, and has “no particular political axe to grind”. Despite this, it has been highly active about issues it (or rather its community) feels strongly about. Mumsnet has initiated several national campaigns, and publicly supports a number of causes related to parenting, for example:

  • ‘We Believe You’, a campaign showing the hidden scale of rape and sexual assault in the UK.
  • A campaign for better miscarriage care and treatment, including the Mumsnet Miscarriage Code of Care, a five-point code that proposes a series of simple changes to current health service miscarriage treatment.
  • Successfully challenging major retailers to ensure that lads’ mags are kept out of children’s sight on newsstands, and its Let Girls Be Girls campaign against the commercial exploitation of children’s sexuality.
  • Monitoring how much money local authorities are spending on short breaks for families with disabled children.
  • Opposing cuts to Legal Aid.

This compares pretty well to any think tank or lobby group, even though it’s not Mumsnet’s core business. As a result, Mumsnet has come in for some criticism, which really boils down to two main points.

Firstly, critics question how representative Mumsnet is. The site has been labelled “a bunch of Guardian-reading, laptop-wielding harpies” (by Toby Young, of course, in the Daily Telegraph) “…peopled almost exclusively by university-educated, upper-middle-class women” – in stark contrast to the paper’s own readership of upper-middle class men. The site has also been called “smug, patronising and vicious” by the Daily Mail, of all papers. This reaction is seemingly motivated by competitive jealously, both because the Mail makes a business out of being vicious but also in umbrage that anyone else would dare speak for (middle class) mothers. This also betrays an old media take on new media, in that it completely misses the point. Mumsnet allows mothers to speak for themselves, in contrast to the Mail’s brand of misogynistic ventriloquism. And Mumsnet is just one site – if it’s not representative, there’s Netmums and many others.

Like any online community, Mumsnet doesn’t have to be – indeed it can’t be – representative of anything else but its members. Even though it doesn’t think of itself as a political organisation, Mumsnet realised that it would be remiss not to use its “authentic voice” to engage in issues its members care about, without determining on behalf of its members what these are. If its members didn’t support a campaign, it wouldn’t fly, the site’s leaders would get it in the neck, and its members would just go elsewhere. As Justine Roberts notes (in a recent New York Times article), “The power is in the democracy of it”.

In truth, Mumsnet is probably more representative of its members than the CBI or the TUC is of its members, but it doesn’t claim to be the “voice for employers” or the “voice of people at work” in the way that those organisations do – merely ‘for parents, by parents’. It might be much more illuminating if these organisations such as the CBI and TUC radically re-thought how they represent their members – away respectively from their committees made up of big businesses and conferences with their arcane voting rules, and towards the direct deliberation that online forums enable – so that their members can represent themselves rather than being represented.

The second criticism is the flip side of the first – that platforms like Mumsnet, because they are so large and hence potentially powerful, are somehow a threat to politics as usual (which is surely not a deal breaker). Some commentators (prematurely but perceptively) labelled the last election the ‘Mumsnet election’ as all three main political party leaders took part in live chats on the site. Again, professional jealousy might partly explain this reaction – ‘how dare ordinary people be allowed to question policymakers, that’s our job!’ But it also indicates a recognition that the location of real politics is shifting, away from the Westminster bubble and empty town hall meetings, and towards alternative spaces including online platforms.

Should we turn away from people wanting to participate – or towards them? Politicians have to go where the people are, and that’s the way it should be. People don’t need to be ‘engaged’ – policymakers need to recognise the ways in which people are already engaged and go with the grain of these, using the same approaches and language that ordinary people use. The recent party conferences were indicative of the increasingly ‘empty stadium‘ of contemporary politics. Just like bank robbers and money, places like Mumsnet will increasingly be where policy takes place because that’s where the people are, and where people are is where the personal experience and expertise is that could be used to inform better policy. That’s the power of we.


5 top tips for think tanks using social media

This is a summary of a presentation to the London think-tank summit ‘At the intersection of traditional and social media’, Europe House, 15th June 2012, by Mike Harris and Chris Sherwood.

In our day jobs we work at existing organisations – a well-known think tank and a large national disability charity – that hope to inform and influence policy. We’re not representing these organisations today, but we think that how these types of organisations go about engaging in policy needs to change in a social media world – that policy ‘expertise’ and authority is being increasingly challenged, and that social media offers incredible opportunities to develop policy in new, far more open and collaborative ways.

In this presentation we want to explore how think tanks can better engage with social media in order to achieve their objectives. What are the key characteristics of effective organisations, and how can think tanks reap the benefits of this cheap and easy technology?

A few months ago we did a simple piece of research. We looked at the Twitter following of 40 UK think tanks and also at their individual staff, fellows and associates (comprising nearly 1,400 people in total). We used our blog to ‘crowd check’ the accuracy of our results by publishing the findings in installments. This was a quick, broad-brush piece of research so we don’t want to over-claim, nonetheless it did reveal some interesting findings. It seems that many think tanks are missing an opportunity to use social media more effectively to drive their objectives.

The total Twitter community around think tanks is actually quite small. Only nine organisations have more than 10,000 followers in total for their staff, associates and fellows. In contrast, in lieu of resources and established media profile, a group of newer think tanks are exploiting social media more effectively – for example the Sports Think Tank (2,412 followers with three staff) and British Futures (8,583 followers with three staff). (This research has subsequently been updated and extended by the European Parliament Information Office in the United Kingdom).

Less than 40 per cent of people have a Twitter account that we could link to their think tank work. The majority of think tankers make relatively limited use of Twitter, suggesting that think tanks are neglecting a cheap and easy way to communicate. Of these, more than 70 per cent have less than 500 followers, and 40 per cent have less than 100 followers. No women appear in the top 10 individual tweeters and only seven appear in the top 50, which may also say something about the ‘glass ceiling’ in think tanks. As might be expected, there’s also a generational dimension, with an emerging group of younger think tankers who are making a name for themselves using social media.

So how can think tanks make better use of social media? Forget Lady Gaga – think tanks can learn a lot from other organisations whose mission is to engage in policy. The ‘Global Go To Think Tanks Report’ from the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania rates only two UK-based policy organisations in the top 10 in terms of how they use the internet and social media – Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. What are organisations like these and others doing that we can learn from?

In the style of a Twitter headline, here are our ‘5 top tips for think tanks using social media’:

1: Share ideas rather than own them

Who likes being hectored? Top tweeters engage in open discussion about their ideas – that’s why it’s called ‘social’ media. Yes these organisations have a point of view, but they also engage in a conversation. What this reflects is a broader cultural change in how we engage with the internet – more of us want to be producers of content, not just passive consumers of content produced by others. For the ‘business’ we’re in, this offers the possibility of using social media for an ongoing open dialogue between ‘producers’ and ‘consumers’ of research, across all phases of the research cycle. If you think it’s a battle of ideas, you risk sounding like a loser.

2: Promote others not yourself

Social media is about discovery – of people, organisations and ideas. People follow others when they help them discover other interesting people, ideas, facts and sources. We’re not interested in being told over and over what we already know you think – we’re interested in how you arrived at that place and what you’ve come across that you find interesting, provocative and challenging. You become seen as an ‘expert’ not in what you know so much as in what you hear about before anyone else does. From a research point of view, this also opens up possibilities for collaboration, connecting people who otherwise may never have met and secondly means that you stay abreast of the latest developments in your field.

3: It’s personal, not a press release

Individual tweeters are often more important than think tanks’ corporate feeds – and so individuals are critical to extending the reach and impact of organisations. Social media isn’t a centralised communications function – it isn’t about compressing your one-time press releases into 140 characters – it’s about expressing personality in under 140 characters again and again. Our observation is that most think tanks aren’t supporting their staff to be spokespeople in social media – and this is the critical respect in which think tanks are missing a massive opportunity.

4: Co-opt people in a mission

A lot of commentators assume that we’ve entered an era of passive disaffection and cynicism. We prefer to think that lots of people are waiting for something to believe in. Let’s give it to them. That’s what organisations like Amnesty International do – go look at their Twitter feed. It’s a conversation but also an invitation to action. Every think tank advocates for something – even if it’s just more research into their area of interest – why not invite others to advocate with you? Because social media offers the opportunity for think tanks to engage with a wide audience at virtually zero cost, it also poses the question of who think tanks think they are talking to – policymakers, the public, the press? It’s not clear that many think tanks have decided who.

5: Think without limits

Traditional media is about scarcity and exclusivity – there are only so many stories in today’s papers. Social media is unlimited and democratic – there is effectively no limit to going viral. Charities, think tanks, government could all usefully consider what we can learn from the Spartacus report from earlier this year, where a tiny band of disabled activists took the social media world by storm by organising, researching and promoting their own report against welfare cuts online.

Let’s also think more creatively. Compared to many other businesses and charities, think tanks have only just begun to consider how they can create resources that people would want to share with each other through social networks – such as pictures, video, infographics. As a result, think tanks are failing to reach out to broader audiences, particularly to engage the wider public in topical debates as a means of promoting their ideas and arguments – a missed opportunity for organizations many of which operate on a rather hand-to-mouth basis in terms of finances, and which often seek to influence public opinion as well as government policy.

Our new venture, Guerilla Policy, is an experiment – we want to explore what a think tank looks like for a social media age. Our hunch is that it’s open, transparent, collaborative, democratic and participative – and genuinely social. In the spirit of social media, let’s see what happens.


Do we need a manifesto for public and practitioner involvement in social policy?

This project – Guerilla Policy – is about developing a movement of people and organisations who use and provide public services, working together to create better social policy. Do we need to write a manifesto?

Our project is based on the critique that much social policy is made by people who have little or no direct experience of the public services and issues that policy relates to – and that this direct experience matters. We’ve put forward ten reasons why we think social policy would be better if it was developed by and with the people who use and provide public and voluntary services – that they have the necessary expertise, experience and insight that good policy development requires. Guerilla is a movement that we hope will serve to bring these people and organisations together in order to create better social policy.

It might sound somewhat portentous, but movements often start with and coalesce around manifestos. Most obviously, we think of political and social movements when we hear ‘manifesto’, but there could also be useful analogies in the manifestos developed by the proponents of open and free software. Here are some examples that in various ways could serve as inspirations for our own manifesto – we’d welcome your own suggestions for other examples, and indeed your views on whether we need a manifesto at all.

  • The GNU Manifesto was written by Richard Stallman in 1985 at the beginning of the GNU free software project, and it became a key document in the free software movement. (‘Free software‘ is where the users have the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software). The Manifesto put forward the reasons and aims of the project, why free software was so important and how it would benefit users, rebutted the objections to free software, and set out how programmers could support the project.
  • The Cathedral and the Bazaar is the book of essays first published online in 1997 by ‘hacker philosopher’ Eric S. Raymond on the impact of open source software on technology and indeed the wider world.  The title comes from Raymond’s analogy for two fundamentally different ways of developing free software: the ‘cathedral’ model in which source code is available with each software release but the code developed between releases is restricted to an exclusive group of software developers; and the ‘bazaar model in which the code is developed over the internet in full view of the public. Raymond argues that the latter approach is better – the more widely available the source code is for public testing, scrutiny and experimentation, the more rapidly all software bugs will be discovered. Raymond’s evangelism helped to persuade Netscape to release their browser as open source software and promoted Linus Torvalds and the Linux project.
  • Out of Netscape came the Mozilla project. ‘Mozilla’ is the everyday name for the free and open source software project founded in 1998 to create a next-generation range of software for the internet, most famously the Firefox browser and Thunderbird email application. The organization was formally registered as a non-profit organization in 2003 as the Mozilla Foundation. Mozilla’s Manifesto sets out the organisation’s principles which it believes are critical for the internet to continue to benefit the public good as well generate commercial activity – the project uses a community-based approach to create world-class open source software and to develop new types of collaborative activities.

Even if you’re not interested in software or in technology generally, these manifestos are worth reading for the revolution in thinking and practice that they represent, and which continues to affect our lives everyday. And of course they also echo and have inspired much of our thinking in this project on how we can collaborate in order to improve social policy.

So, do we need a manifesto? We’ll be discussing this – and exchanging ideas about what this manifesto could include – on our new site. If you haven’t already, register by clicking on the link on the top right, create your profile, and go into the group ‘Developing a Guerilla Manifesto’. We’ll see you there.


Reflections on New Think Tank – 4. Alex Kenmure

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: Alex Kenmure. Thanks to Alex for contributing the post, and we welcome your comments.

I’m ashamed to say that I’ve only recently started voting. For 12 years I’ve been a part of that nebulous and condemned portion of the electorate who have (in the eyes of many) forsaken any right to have an opinion on how the country is run. It’s an unusually emotive issue – in some ways I’ve wondered whether people have had more of an opinion on my non-vote than they would have if had voted for the British National Party (note: I didn’t vote for the BNP btw). So, tired of the judgement, I made my way to the voting booth a few weeks ago to have a vote on who should be our local councillor. It turned out to be an oddly pleasant but also dispiriting act. I was taken aback about how low-tech it all was – volunteer with a clipboard, pencil, paper, makeshift booth all enclosed within a quaint village hall. I felt like I could have been voting in the 1950’s and quite enjoyed the quintessential British-ness of it all.

And then it hit me. My vote, my say in how my local area is run, had been boiled down to a simple “X”. Was that it? What on earth could people read into that? It doesn’t say why I voted, if I have any reservations, my own thoughts on what could be changed in the area – in a simple act of participation I had actually disempowered myself and traded my own views for a validation of someone else’s policies. It would seem that at the end of the day, I am trading my research and opinions for a “best fit” generic model. My conclusion – voting, our single greatest tool in shaping the destiny of our communities, is enjoyable but rubbish. No wonder so many people don’t vote!

Where am I going with this?

Well, the challenge above is the main reason I like the idea of the new think tank project. I really like the concept that instead of a system that discards all the interesting stuff everyday individuals have to offer, a mechanism could be set up to capture the thoughts, solutions and challenges residing within all of us –  the “lightning in a bottle”. As part of the branding workshop, it was interesting to hear the language we used to describe people: users, stakeholders, customers, frontline workers, policy wonks etc. I think we found it difficult just to use the word “people”, which to me is a little ironic given that the real “customer base” for this project is people plain and simple. There is a very cool opportunity here to create something that isn’t just about undermining a policy industry, but provides a genuinely refreshing alternative for people who have something to say to be able to contribute to a challenge and see how what they bring to the table makes a difference.

I’m not sure how it is going to work out – one day I think it’ll be a massive success, the next I think it’ll be a terrible flop (!), but as I watch it develop the one thing I would like to see is that it retains a sense of fun. Can it capture my unhealthy giddiness at voting, while at the same time being a million times more effective? Impactful, but a little bit cold doesn’t really cut it for me, nor would it for a lot of my friends I shouldn’t think. It doesn’t have to have the quaintness of a village hall, but it would be nice if something can be developed in such a way to make the act of participating feel as important and enjoyable as the result.

Who knows… maybe one day someone might post about the first time they engaged with the new think tank model as an important moment in their life.

Alex Kenmure from Camden Council has worked in policy and performance roles within local government for the past 6 years and is interested in developing new relationships, perceptions of value and outcomes-based delivery models between voluntary sector organisations and local authorities.


Reflections on New Think Tank – 2. Stephen Bediako and Emily Littlewood

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 Stephen Bediako and Emily Littlewood from The Social Innovation Partnership. Thanks to Stephen and Emily for contributing the post, and we welcome your comments.

Existentialism holds that the starting point for any (philosophical) problem must be the experiences of the individual. When many individuals come together the combination of their perspectives starts the process of ‘group think’. This group think is then, in turn, the springboard for community and group mobilisation.

The world has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. We have irrevocably integrated our entire lives together, opinions and ideas pass around the globe in a matter of seconds. Individuals can now create groups on a host of social media including: Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. Free and instant communication on a world-wide scale means that a single quiet voice can now be heard. And if it gets enough hits or likes – the same voice can become louder than ever before.

While the New Think Tank is still taking shape bear with us for a minute while we indulge in what we think it should or could be. There are three areas where we think it can add to the policy landscape. Each of these additions has already taken place in other industries or facets of our lives – so the precedent has previously been set. Therefore the New Think Tank will be an exercise of diffusing innovation across from other areas of our existence, rather than generating new innovation per se. In other words, the New Think Tank will be keeping the world of policy in-step with the rest our lives.

The first is democratising the voice of the critical mass. There are thousands (even hundreds of thousands) of exceedingly valuable public and social sector voices that are never heard in the policy reports of Government or leading think tanks. On a rare and lucky occasion there will be a consultation with a small group of workers, but they will represent a fraction of the overall workforce. The New Think Tank provides a real democratic opportunity for key workers to develop the policy that will shape their lives. The result is supremely relevant and political party neutral policy which is couched in personal experience.

Secondly, this democratisation should create some truly brilliant and shockingly innovative research. The research will also be of much greater variety – from the weird to the wonderful. For an example of democratisation, look at the music industry. The 21st century saw the collapse of the traditional record label business model and the ‘Big 5’ record producers. Some would say that since then the industry has taken a turn for the worse. We would argue however, that the music industry has never been better and is now thriving. The rise in digital music and file sharing sites, such as Spotify, combined with inexpensive recording software has changed the music landscape. It is now possible to produce quality music in your bedroom one evening and distribute it over the internet to a worldwide audience the next day. The rules have changed and barriers to entry are low, resulting in a vibrancy and variety of music that has not been seen before.

The final, and crucial, point is that this think tank provides a route back to democracy. The genuine participation of public professionals in developing policy feels like an empowering and invigorating idea to me – if it works – the message it could send to the general public could be even bigger. The production of policy that drives our country needs to be opened up and the internet and crowdsourcing is the route for it. In the same way that access to music, goods, information and people has all been revolutionized by the internet. The time has come and it will be unstoppable.

Stephen Bediako is a Director at The Social Innovation Partnership where he works with clients to innovate and implement new ideas and services, deliver evaluations of their projects and manage the delivery of programmes.

Emily Littlewood is a Research Analyst at The Social Innovation Partnership where she works on evaluations and innovation projects related to young people, education, and criminal justice.

The Social Innovation Partnership – ‘Research, Evaluation, Outcomes’ – www.tsip.co.uk


Why we need a new approach to developing social policy – 9. It’s the future

This is the ninth in a series of posts on why social policy should be developed by and with the people who use and provide public and voluntary services. We’re publishing the last in the series on Monday, and we welcome your comments.

According to How Stuff Works, the top five future technology myths are:

5. We’ll all be driving flying cars soon

4. We’re approaching the technological singularity

3. Moore’s Law will always hold true

2. Robots will be our friends

1. We can stop climate change.

In the case of policy, the equivalent myth is the inevitability of policy development and determination dissolving into some kind of ever-rolling 24/7 technology-enabled plebiscite, and that we will all feel perfectly represented. Of course, the future is not inevitable. Despite the obvious benefits to opening-up policy research and development (at least from our point of view), the future is something we make, and innovation is mostly about implementation. At the same time, and at the risk of falling into the myth trap, it also feels inevitable that policy research and development is going to change – for two main reasons.

Firstly, social change. Politics is changing and our political institutions aren’t changing nearly quickly enough to keep up. We’re in the middle of a long-term cultural change, flowing away from deference and attachment (to a community, to a class, to a party) and towards individualism, autonomy, and self-determination. This is often assumed to mean that we no longer want to be part of anything, that we’re all just self-acquisitive, selfish individualists. We hope it means the opposite.

We increasingly expect and demand that our voice is registered and (to some extent) listened to. We want to be involved – where institutions can demonstrate that they recognise who we are and that we have something to say. We want to exercise individual self-determination, but we want to do it together. We want to represent ourselves, rather than be represented. It’s not incidental that the President of the United States was a community organiser. Look also at the rapid growth of communities and movements such as Avaaz, Change.org, 38 Degrees, Citizens UK (London Citizens), and Make Poverty History (returning in 2013). We’re only at the beginning of finding new ways to mobilise people in order to change policy. Any existing institutions – from charities to companies as well as political parties – that don’t provide meaningful ways for us to participate will surely just fade away.

Secondly, technology. Many of the communities mentioned in the previous paragraph wouldn’t have been possible even a few years ago; now because of the internet and social media anyone can establish a socially purposeful social network (which is what we’re doing here). These platforms represent the principles of community organising made digital, but our conventional political and policy processes haven’t begun to reflect these various forms of digitally enabled community organising.

Part of the public’s disengagement from politics is certainly about structural issues – the decline in the efficacy of the nation-state in an age of globalisation and transnational corporations, the increasingly widely shared view that whoever we vote for, the government we get is of, for and by the 1 per cent, and so on. But part of it is also probably due to the fact that our democratic processes are in the dark ages technologically speaking, on the apparent assumption that applying even twentieth century tools to the business of taking part would be tantamount to ‘letting light in on magic’. So we can vote instantly for something as inconsequential as a Saturday evening TV talent show, but we still trudge to an empty school on a week day to exercise our democratic rights. Institutions that don’t use the technologies we use everyday quickly seem out-of-date and out-of-touch.

From this perspective, the UK Government’s moves towards openness are welcome but limited. Initiatives such as open data, e-petitions and opening-up publicly funded research are innovative but, given the extent of public disengagement, also insufficient. Alongside open data and open services, the third dimension of open government – and we would argue the most important of all – is open decision-making. This isn’t about developing better forms of consultation, rather it has to be about cooperative problem-solving. The future of national policymaking, the only way we can resolve the crisis in trust and legitimacy facing us, paradoxically lies in the ethos and practices of community organising.

In this project, this means developing new ways that policy development can be informed by providers of public and voluntary services, frontline practitioners and the public who use services. It’s their expertise and experience that’s largely missing from policy development at the moment, and policy is poorer as a result. The working title for the project is ‘new think tank’ (at least for the next couple of weeks), but it’s not really a think tank as commonly understood – rather it’s an open public platform for policy research and development. We’ve suggested here before how many think tanks neglect social media and how in particular they miss the opportunity to use it to host conversations. We think that a social network could be used to work with frontline practitioners and service users, in order to draw directly on their expertise, experience and insight to create better policy.

It’s not inevitable that our approach will work, but it’s inevitable that the way we develop policy has to change. In the future we might not all be perfectly represented, but we definitely need to be much better represented. This project is about what we can do right now to improve policymaking, but it’s also about anticipating and responding to this future – starting today.


Ten reasons why we need a new approach to developing social policy – 6. Policy would be cheaper to research and develop

This is the sixth in a series of posts on why social policy should be developed by and with the people who use and provide public and voluntary services. We’re publishing the rest of the series over the next week and a half, and we welcome your comments.

Innovation means that products and services get faster, better and cheaper – but only generally and only over time. On any given project, engineers say you have to ‘pick any two’ – that you can’t cut costs and improve quality while delivering in less time. In 1992, then NASA administrator Daniel Goldin disagreed. Under his ‘faster, better, cheaper‘ management philosophy, NASA launched 146 payloads worth a total of $18 billion, and all but 10 were successful. The problem was that the ones that were unsuccessful were hugely embarrassing – among them the debacle of the $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter, which was lost because a contractor failed to convert from imperial to metric units when coding its software.

In previous posts in this series we’re suggested that a lot of policy research and development could be conducted better and faster than at present, by being conducted collaboratively by and with provider organisations, practitioners and the public who use services. But we also think that this approach could prove cheaper as well, and that in this case instead of working against each other, faster-better-cheaper could be mutually reinforcing.

First of all though, why does ‘cheaper’ matter when it comes to policy? At the moment, many valuable contributors to better policy research and development are effectively priced out of the market. No organisation that conducts or commissions policy and research work has money to waste, but smaller charities typically don’t have sufficient resources or capacity to undertake much policy work themselves or to sponsor a think tank or a research consultancy to do it for them. The result is a narrower set of voices in policy – and policy is poorer for it.

The heart of the problem is the business models used by policy and research providers such as think tanks. We’ve suggested before that the business model behind think tanks is ripe for disruption. The reasons for this echo why incumbents in so many other sectors, from retail to media, are being disrupted by new market entrants based around the internet and social media: high fixed costs; incumbents focusing on existing ‘high-end’ customers; over-specified, often expensive products; and limited use of cheap, commonplace ICT. Most of the time, most think tanks operate as part of the old economy rather than the new.

As a result, and because of a lack of suitable alternatives, think tanks have in effect played a gatekeeper role in helping only a minority of organisations to develop and strengthen their policy messages to government and introducing these organisations to policymakers. Think tanks provide a platform, but not to everyone. It’s not that they want to exclude smaller organisations, just that most smaller organisations can’t afford to commission them.

However, the lesson from other sectors is that the internet and social media can offer routes around existing gatekeepers, by creating faster, better and cheaper ways for smaller ‘producers’ to reach new audiences. And for many charities and other organisations, the engineers’ dilemma  is actually less significant, since if ‘good enough’ policy work was faster it would also be better (for example, so that they can input to a current policy debate or media story).

The key is this is finding and building a better business model, which is what we’re attempting to do here. Our approach is based on building an online platform – a social network – so that organisations such as charities can work directly with frontline practitioners and service users on policy issues, and harness the time, commitment, expertise and support of these groups in order to produce more credible, independent policy.

What’s certain is that if we don’t manage it, someone else will – that’s the inevitability of innovation. Like other sectors before it, policymaking is about to be disrupted.