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.
A couple of weeks ago the Government announced its plans for ‘open policy’. In this post and the previous post we suggest how it can make open policy a reality.
As part of its recently published civil service reform plan, the Government has committed itself to ‘open policymaking’. It has announced a new “presumption in favour of open policy making, with policy developed on the basis of the widest possible engagement with external experts and those who will have the task of delivering the policy”. This post and the previous post set out how Government can make open policy a reality – staring with a few things that Government should avoid doing.
6. Don’t focus only on generating new policy – improve existing policy
One of the problems with the ‘policy industry’ of think tanks, charities, campaigns and commentators is the restless hunt for and promotion of ‘new ideas’ (what David Walker calls ‘neophilia‘). This competition distracts from a more considered approach to improving policy and public services which focuses on how policies and approaches can be steadily improved and refined, better implemented, delivered and administered – in other words, sufficient time to research, think, reflect, plan and review. Openness should enrich existing policy, not serve only to add more ‘noise’.
7. Don’t focus on new technology – use what we’ve already got (used to)
This project, Guerilla Policy, is about how policymaking can be (and needs to be) re-thought for the age of mass participation, social networking and media, and open online collaboration – in particular, how these offer the possibility of getting more frontline voices into policymaking. But just as neophilism often results in costly, unnecessary and untested new policy, so technologism tends to assume that new ways of working always require new technologies. They don’t. Wherever possible, Government should use existing technology and platforms. Don’t fall for the tech hucksters, keep it simple (even if it’s not perfect), and focus on the content instead.
8. Don’t listen to the loudest – openness is about hearing quieter voices
Government has said that the open policy agenda is about widening access to policy to individuals and organisations not normally involved. Fairly or unfairly, a certain type of personality comes to mind when you think about the policy industry. But if open policy really is going to reach out, it needs to include the people and organisations who aren’t always so confident in their own perspicacity but have relevant evidence and insights to contribute. Open policy should carve out spaces for the people we don’t usually hear from – especially those marginalised and vulnerable users and communities who rely on public and voluntary services.
9. Support lots of experiments – and do it openly
Like anything new, parts of the open policy agenda won’t work, and the critics and cynics will do what they do best (sneering). But the best way to discover what works is to invest in a diversity of projects so that we find out and learn. The scale of projects is then important. What will kill open policy is ‘too big to fail’ pilot initiatives. What will allow it to grow and thrive are lots of little experiments – and a commitment to keep testing and keep learning.
10. Stimulate a new ‘market’ – then step back
Government should be congratulated for its public commitment to the open policy agenda, but this doesn’t mean it has deliver it all on its own. In part, this agenda reflects what entrepreneurs and organisations outside of government have already demonstrated is possible – from Change.org and 38 Degrees, Mumsnet to the Spartacus Report. There is already an emerging ‘market’ in open policy, one which Government can play a useful role in helping to legitimize, but not one it has to direct itself. If some or most of the platforms and places where open policy gets done are independent from Government, this will also be an advantage – for the integrity, transparency and credibility of open policy, and also for the specific policies it produces.
To some, the open policy agenda might be a gimmick. But we’re confident that in the (hopefully not-too-distant) future we’ll look back and wonder why the way we currently create policy was ever considered ‘normal’, and why we ever thought it was credible that policy was developed largely behind closed doors, by a relatively narrow group of people, many of whom lack direct practical experience of the issues they were creating policy for. These two posts have been about how we can bring forward this future and make open policy a reality sooner – let us know what you think and what we’ve missed.
How can trade bodies make greater use of social media to improve the impact of their policy and research work?Posted: June 26, 2012 | |
How can trade bodies make greater use of social media to improve the impact of their policy and research work? Chris Sherwood, Co-Founder of Guerilla Policy and Director of Innovation and Development at Scope, argues that public sector trade bodies could make much greater use of social media to improve the impact of their policy and research work.
The lifeblood of trade bodies is to represent the interests of their members effectively to Government. Generating impact from their policy and research work is critical to both maintain confidence of members but also to ensure that their organisations have a credible platform from which to lobby from. Social media can help to achieve this – especially if trade bodies wish to set the agenda not just respond to it.
Like many people in my position, I’m often invited to meetings held by trade bodies, which are intended to try to capture and reflect the views of their member organisations. I tend to take a lot away from them and, like many participants, I appreciate the opportunity to network at these events. I recently took part in a consultation event on one area of government policy, which involved drawing together 40-50 individuals from the leading organisations in the sector to discuss a series of policy recommendations to improve this area of policy. The event was summarized in a report that was submitted to the Government. It was a well-attended event and a good quality report emerged as a result. However, it also prompted me to think: how could social media have helped to achieve a better outcome?
At the moment, we’re thinking about the wider application of Guerilla Policy. Guerilla Policy is an experiment in how research and policy development can be opened up through the use of social media and the internet generally. Could this approach be applied to trade bodies in order to generate greater impact from their policy and research work? On this blog we’ve already discussed the potential benefits that could be gained from social media to the development of policy and research, especially by inviting collaboration from a wider group of people who use and provide public services. These lessons, we believe, also apply to trade bodies.
Social media can help trade bodies in the following ways:
- Help them to work collaboratively with their members to set the policy agenda in an open and transparent way;
- Reduce the costs of involvement such as travel and time costs;
- Enable ongoing dialogue between members and trade bodies, which allows for greater time for reflection and consideration;
- Provide greater transparency over what happens to the contributions that people make, so that they can see the connection between the ideas they offer up and the final product;
- Engage more people, in particular frontline practitioners and service users who bring a different perspective on the issues to hand;
- Strengthen relationships between trade bodies and their membership and in particular to deepen these by engaging more people in member organisations;
- Hook the media early on in order to build interest, rather than relying on a press release at the end of a project.
Social media offers other possibilities for trade bodies. A dedicated social media community would also enable trade bodies to conduct quick trawls for case studies and evidence to enable them to respond to an increasingly fast media cycle or to collaborate more effectively with partners. Finding the right case study to articulate your ‘policy ask’ can often be critical in generating interest. Social media enables also trade bodies to expand their networks, and since many journalists already use Twitter as a main news source when researching articles, trade bodies need to increase their social media visibility if they are to continue to be heard.
There are obvious barriers to adopting such an approach, not least that this way of working could be quite different to the way that some of the organisational members of trade bodies work. Developing policy in an open and collaborative way might also be daunting – what happens if you arrive at a different conclusion to the one you expected? There are also concerns about accessibility of this kind of technology, since generally-speaking social media is more popular with younger workers.
Yet the benefits are likely to come in terms of the impact of trade bodies’ work. The Spartacus Report is a model to learn from – but also a warning. This report on welfare reform was developed by disabled activists using social media. The impact was significant with it trending no 1 on Twitter before hitting mainstream media including Newsnight. This example shows that in a crowded media agenda, it is important to think creatively in order to cut through on behalf of members and their issues. It also points to a potential risk for trade bodies in that they could face competition from groups who can claim to represent their members, as social media facilitates the formation of new common interest groups.
Social media offers up a range of possibilities for trade bodies to increase the impact of their policy and research work on behalf of their members. It allows them to strengthen their relationships with their members, gives them a better chance to cut through, represent their members and ultimately influence Government policy.
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.
Today we’ve launched a new discussion forum on Guerilla Policy. It’s actually a lot more exciting than that, so give us a bit of time to explain what we’ve done.
Our new forum is based on StatusNet, the world’s leading open source social software. StatusNet is a microblogging application, similar to Twitter. As its developer says, StatusNet “enables [people] to collaborate, share insights, solve problems and build relationships in real time.” Here’s what you can do using our site:
- start conversations on issues that matter to you;
- ask questions to the rest of the community;
- invite others to participate in projects and develop collaborations;
- join existing conversations and share your thoughts;
- set-up a profile for you or your organisation;
- search for topics, people and organisations;
- send direct messages to people and organisations.
You can also set-up private areas if you’re not ready to share a project with the whole community.
Why this particular software? We’ve said before that we think the future of policy research and development is in collaboration rather than competition. It’s a discussion, not a war of attrition, because no single person or organisation has the monopoly on truth. Social software creates an open environment for collaboration, and this is what we’re trying out with our new site.
(You might be thinking that if the software is like Twitter, then why not just use Twitter? Firstly, the software we’re using is open source, which means that we can use it for free and tweak it to suit the needs of our community. Secondly, it means that the conversations we have here are owned by the people and organisations that participate and contribute to them – try asking Twitter or Facebook to relinquish ownership of your data and see what their reaction is. Thirdly, we think that the future of social networks is in communities focused on particular issues or purposes, whereas Facebook, Twitter etc are just too general – but let’s see).
We’ve put this together very quickly (we’re called ‘guerilla’ after all) – and if it doesn’t work then we’ll try something else. This project is also a conversation, after all – we’ll be led by what the people who join our movement say they want and need in order to create better social policy.
So try out the site and let us know what you think. Start a conversation, join a conversation – go to Guerilla Policy.
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 developPosted: May 11, 2012 | |
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.
We’re creating a platform for people who use and provide public and voluntary services to inform better social policy. For this to be a place they want to come to, and invest time and energy in, it will have to feel like – it will have to be – their community. How can we ensure that our community becomes theirs? The answer lies in an essay published more than 40 years ago.
The Guardian has been running an interesting series of articles this week on the ‘battle for the internet‘. Wednesday’s articles considered the growth of ‘walled gardens‘ such as Facebook and iTunes. The usefulness and increasing ubiquity of these privately-owned ‘public squares’ raises important privacy, censorship and accessibility issues. These might not matter much to most of us, most of the time, but they still matter – both personally (for example, when they use our data in a way we didn’t anticipate) and politically (given the economic, social and cultural power such companies now wield). This has led some commentators to suggest that these platforms are effectively public utilities and should be regulated as such, but this (highly unlikely) proposition has only been put forward because of our lack of influence, as ordinary users, over how these platforms operate and what their policies are.
The only way we can really hope to influence how they act is to leave (with all of the obvious downsides of doing so). This is the ‘exit’ option described in Albert Hirschman’s oft-cited 1970 essay Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. Facebook’s owners – which could be you if you’re intending to buy some of their shares – must at some level exist in a perpetual state of fear that their users can simply up sticks, and in this way the threat of exit is a powerful driver for improvement. It leads to new features, better services etc – indeed it’s the basis of free and competitive markets. But this doesn’t make these communities ours – quite the opposite, it distances us from them.
Exit isn’t the only ‘option’ we want in relation to the communities of which we’re part. This is why Hirschman notes that, in addition to leaving, people can try to use their ‘voice’, that is they can attempt to repair or improve matters through communicating their problem and/or proposing a solution. What’s clear, thought about in this way, is that platforms like Facebook are highly unlikely to listen to our views unless they are accompanied by the threat of exit. We can judge this because Facebook et al. have failed (or haven’t cared) to develop mechanisms and processes by which we can effectively express our voice and influence how they operate.
Hirschman suggests there’s a third factor at play, which is loyalty. This can slow exit (for example, people feel very strongly attached to a particular brand), but perhaps only for a time. Loyalty can drive people to use their voice – to suggest changing things and improving them, so that they aren’t forced to exit. You’re more likely to use your voice if you have some degree of loyalty to a community, institution or company – otherwise why would you bother?
Hirschman’s model, though in one sense pretty simple, is the kind of idea that once you read about it sticks with you and you find yourself applying to all sorts of situations (which of the three aspects of it you think matters the most can also suggest a particular political persuasion). My own view is that exit matters – a lot. If you don’t like something, show how you feel. If you want to use a social network that doesn’t own all your data, then support the development of Diaspora. If you don’t like Microsoft’s (often tardy) programs, choose open source software (like we’ll be doing for our demo platform). If you’re tired of being prompted and pushed around by iTunes, use another music player. And if you want to support the development of a new way of creating better social policy in a community that you shape – if you want to break down the ‘walled garden’ that is most policymaking – then watch this space.
But surely a better way to build and retain a community – and so strengthen loyalty – is to enable and encourage people to exercise their voice. It’s this that ultimately determines the health and sustainability of (online) communities, because it determines the extent to which people feel that they own a community. It may be less tangible, but it’s much more meaningful, than holding a few hundred shares out of a few million. In this spirit, I’d be interested in what you think about what makes communities work – what attracts you to them, and why you stay.
Social media is disrupting traditional media and conventional approaches to public communication. Platforms such as Twitter offer a timely and low-cost way for think tanks to disseminate and discuss their ideas and findings, and potentially to broaden their audiences. Are they seizing the opportunities offered by social media?
A few weeks ago we did a quick bit of research on which UK think tanks had the most Twitter followers (this was for the main corporate Twitter feed). The ‘winners’ were Chatham House (19,320 followers), The RSA (18,597) and the new economics foundation (18,214). There were also some well-known think tanks with surprisingly small Twitter presences, such as Reform (2,357), The Centre for Social Justice (1,881) and The Institute of Economic Affairs (1,383). The full list of 35 think tanks can be found in an earlier post here.
Since then, we’ve also looked at individual think tank staff, fellows and associates for nearly 50 think tanks (comprising 1,385 people in total). We included fellows and associates because there is no consistent definition of think tank people and some think tanks effectively use this as an alternative staffing model. We didn’t include advisory boards or trustees. The full list has been posted in instalments on this blog, with the top 50 here. The methodology was pretty rough and ready: we just checked whether the individuals had a Twitter account that they use as part of their think tank work (inevitably this means that we’ll have overlooked a few people who don’t identify any organisation in their Twitter bio or use the platform frequently, but then again this also means that they are unlikely to be prominent or regular tweeters).
The top 10 is perhaps unsurprising; these are well-known people after all, and many of them also inhabit other spheres (as journalists, commentators, bloggers etc), which broadens their appeal. What is more surprising is the extent to which they are outliers. The majority of think tankers make relatively limited use of Twitter, suggesting that think tanks are neglecting a cheap and easy way to communicate.
Only 38% of people had a Twitter account that we could link to their think tank work. Of these, 71% had less than 500 followers, while 42% had less than 100 followers. No women appear in the top 10 and only seven appear in the top 50, which may also say something about a glass ceiling in think tanks. As might be expected, there’s also a generational dimension, with an emerging group of more junior think tankers who are making a name for themselves using social media. This includes James Grant (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 1,448 followers), Tim Hughes and Edward Andersson (Involve, 798 and 770 followers respectively), Will Tanner (Reform, 760 followers), and Rory Geoghegan (Policy Exchange, 611 followers).
More generally however, the total Twitter community around think tanks is quite small. Only nine organisations have more than 10,000 followers in total for their staff, associates and fellows, with the top five comprising Demos (50,725), IPPR (41,280), ResPublica (21,884), Chatham House (21,701) and the new economics foundation (12,257). (In the case of Demos in particular, there are quite a large number of people who are listed as staff or associates who may not be current or active representatives of the organisation, nevertheless we have included them in these numbers since we wanted to avoid making judgement on think tanks’ behalf if these individuals continue to appear on their websites). Some high-profile think tanks have very small individual-based followings, such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies (137 followers) and Civitas (339 followers), and this echoes their relatively small organisational social media profile (5,615 followers in the case of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and 657 for Civitas). 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 Future (8,583 followers with three staff). Involve also appears to place an emphasis on individuals using social media, with a total of 3,294 followers across its staff.
It also appears that most think tanks primarily use Twitter as they would traditional media (typically, publicising reports and events), rather than as a way to exchange ideas and provoke discussion. As a result, think tanks may be 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 organisations most of which operate on a rather hand-to-mouth basis in terms of finances and which seek to influence public opinion as well as government policy.