Think tanks occupy a unique place in the policy world.
Neither academic institutions nor the parties tasked with policy implementation, their role has traditionally been as independent “policy labs”, growing ideas for politicians to use when in power. Yet, as we are all aware, the political landscape has shifted in recent years. And think tanks are having to adapt.
This week, Smart Thinking published the first survey conducted among leading UK think tanks, looking at the changes and challenges they are facing. Most significant is a fundamental shift in the environment in which they operate.
Brexit is a big factor behind this, most notably because of the political climate the debate has created.
A staggering 85 per cent of those surveyed believed the current political climate to have had a negative impact on public policy discussions, while 64 per cent also agreed that the rise in fake news and distrust in experts was a direct risk to think tanks.
It is difficult to overstate the risk to the long-term influence of these institutions posed by the decreasing trust in experts. To be a part of the policy conversation, think tanks need to be able to influence policymakers. Typically, their direct audience would be politicians, but there are increasing concerns that the politicians — of any party — are no longer listening.
There is more of a readiness from parties to source ideas from a wider range of organisations, including at a grassroots level, as well as directly from their members. In the run-up to the recent election, only 28 per cent of the think tanks surveyed engaged with any political party on their plans, and a majority did not think well-informed policy fed into the manifestos. This is concerning, not only for the long-term health of the think tank sector, but also because it suggests a wider malaise in public policy discussion in the UK.
While think tanks are aware that they need to engage both with their traditional (politician) audience and with those the politicians are listening to more, the majority (58 per cent) still ranked politicians as their number one audience, with just 14 per cent believing it to be the general public.
But in a world where politicians are looking over the heads of the “experts” they once turned to in order to craft policy, think tanks need to reinvent their role.
Perhaps that means holding more events or making their work more accessible to a general readership. Indeed, 92 per cent of respondents thought that think tanks had a role to play in educating the public, particularly in an age of fake news, although there is debate over how to do that effectively.
Interestingly, when asked what their think tank’s most valuable contribution was, 49 per cent listed producing evidence-based research, with just 30 per cent saying making policy recommendations.
From interviews, this seemed to derive from a wish to plot a “safe” course through a difficult political climate. Focusing on research rather than recommendations is less likely to be seen as partisan.
And yet, the role of think tanks as producers of public policy ideas is still crucial, and the sector must look at how it can innovate and increase its influence. Well-evidenced policy ideas, rooted in practicalities as well as academic research and unconstrained by political ideology, are needed now more than ever.
Think tanks have been a major voice in that policy conversation for a century now. Adapting to changes in who and how they influence will be crucial, not only to the think tanks themselves, but to the future development of UK public policy.
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