Thinktanks have been part of the British political landscape for some time. Mostly, they do good work, making a considerable impact nationally and in more localised ways. For example, work on supporting the working poor by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), for example, led directly to the development of child tax credits by the last Labour government, while the findings of the Hansard Society’s Puttnam commission have led to significant increases in funding and support for outreach and educational services, making parliament more accessible, particularly to young people.
Recently, though, all has not been well in the world of thinktanks. Funding at the moment is fickle; thinktanks are reliant on benefactors, small donations, membership and paid-for work, usually from the public sector or trusts. Unlike the wealthy American policy institutes, British thinktanks rarely have wealthy endowments. And where they do, must be careful not to confuse fancy offices in SW1 with quality of research.
The economic downturn has seriously affected the ability of many thinktanks to fundraise and function effectively. Building the necessary depth in the research agenda has become nigh on impossible, with the focus being instead on short-term, opportunistic pieces, which is hardly strategic or motivating – one of the reasons I decided to leave my post as director of a political thinktank after almost four years.
There are other structural flaws inherent in the thinktank system. To stand out in the market, many stake out ideological positions. This gives you a platform, making you attractive to certain groups who might fund or promote your work – as long as your ideology is in fashion. As the tide inevitably turns, you must run for the middle ground: a rather overcrowded space. So we have seen IPPR and Demos proclaim neutrality – indeed Demos reinvented conservatism alongside a rise in right-of-centre thinktanks, setting the whole cycle up for the next shift, like some Japanese deer scarer.
The alternative is to remain non-partisan. Less hostage to fortune, you can focus behind the scenes, less swayed by popular (or populist) agendas. Non-partisan generally means non-radical too; you can be perceived as a little bland. The upside of blandness is that you’re safer for institutional funders, such as government. So that’s good? Well, no, because it’s fickle. In fact, right now funding has evaporated.
The biggest flaw though is that it ties a hand behind your back, forcing you to plot a course between sufficiently vocal critique to be worth bothering with and not gnawing too hard on the paymaster’s hand. Pressure comes from management to soften findings and minimise any direct criticism of the funder. When you know you must go back to the same shrinking pool for your next round of funding, it makes maintaining independence challenging.
The other big problem is that thinktanks can appear out of touch. That’s usually because they are. After all, they deal with ideas – theory – not actually “doing”. But the problem is more nuanced. If the thinktank is well grounded with good connections, then applied theory-led but praxis-based research is the valuable long-term valuable model.
Too often though they maintain good relations with only one side of the equation (the one with power and money) and this hints at a further problem: elitism. Too often thinktanks appear to be little more than barrows to push the ideological views of a select group of behind-the-scenes funders or to give useful pseudo-independence in support of a particular policy line for those in power. Policy Exchange is simply the latest incumbent in the space from which IPPR has been dislodged.
Thinktanks aren’t a representative sample of the population. The playing field is far from level and the problem starts right upfront. Thinktanks are inveterate users of often unpaid interns (thought IPPR and IFG now pay theirs the London living wage). Done properly, they can provide valuable experience for interns, but it perpetuates a barrier to the thinktank business, effectively excluding anyone who can’t afford to live in London on little more than expenses. This also serves to remove a significant layer of entry-level jobs from the industry and perpetuates an unacceptable elitism in the Westminster bubble that is as much a part of our democratic deficit as voter disaffection.
Thinktanks need to be critical, imaginative, creative places where a culture of new ideas is backed up by rigorous research. Creating this kind of buzz is what makes a thinktank space special: lose it, and you become tired and boring. But what is the point of this without action? To put into practice the intellectual capital they generate, thinktanks need to become “do tanks”, and ensure rigour and intellectual stamina are not diluted.