Guest blog: Julia Slay on working at a think tank

We hear about what think tanks really do from someone on the inside…

What I learnt from 7 years working in a think tank
Originally published by Julia Slay on her blog.

Last week I left my job at one of England’s biggest think tanks. When I applied for the job in 2009, I didn’t even know what a think tank was. I met someone while visiting a friend in hospital and thought, ‘that sounds alright’. Now, seven years on, as I move out of the think tank world, I’ve been mulling over exactly what it is that they do: what difference, if any, have I made over the last seven years? I’m so interested in this idea of what kind of impact think tanks have, that I am publishing a piece of research with the Clore Social Leadership Programme on that exact topic, so this is a starter to summarise some of what I’ve learnt along the way. It’s also an attempt to explain to many of my friends what I have been doing for the past few years, which I have always struggled to explain. So – here goes:

It’s hard to describe what a think tank is. We used to have a joke in the office, revolving around the question: how would you explain NEF to your grandma? A deceptively difficult task, it turns out. By and large, think tanks aren’t public facing organisations that run eye catching campaigns or are held to account in a public forum. You might occasionally see someone from a think tank being speaking on the news, but they tend to operate behind the scenes. At their most basic, think tanks develop and promote ideas: ideas about how the economy should be run, what foreign policies the government should adopt, what education policy should be, these kind of things. They do research work, some do practical work with organisations such as charities or community groups, and then what follows is a lot of ‘influencing’ – though of course, everyone has a different idea of how to influence.

At their best, think tanks can connect the dots between the challenges of our everyday lives and radical new visions for the future.

Think tanks create change in lots of different ways. One of the common critiques of think tanks is that they publish too many reports that sit on shelves getting dusty, which rarely have an impact. If it does have an impact, the thinking goes that a researcher does some research on – say education policy, comes up with a report, which is launched at an event with the great and the good of politicians and civil servants. Some informal lobbying is done of education ministers and their special advisors, and then – hey presto – a new policy or initiative is announced that neatly captures all of the suggestions made in the research. HA – if only! (And yet, if it was always this easy, the democratic gulf between our politicians, their ideas and real people’s lives and problems would be increasingly vast). Though there are a lot of reports knocking around the office getting dusty, think tanks influence politics and policy in many different ways, including:

  • By publishing new data and putting an issue on the agenda of policymakers or the media
  • By re-framing an issue, or coining a new term: the Resolution Foundation’s work on ‘the squeezed middle’ is often mentioned here
  • By running projects to test out new ideas, models or approaches with ‘on the ground’ organisations, like charities, or businesses.
  • Holding government to account by publishing data on their polities or conducting regular and robust analysis on a particular topic, such as poverty
  • By feeding ideas into a political party, and often being very involved in the development of party manifestos.
  • Through staff members moving in and out of think tanks into political parties, the civil service, and other public services/business positions – facilitating a flow of ideas, contacts and relationships.
  • Forming coalitions or partnerships with other organisations, activists, campaigners or charities to push an issue on to government (or businesses’ agenda)

Mostly, you can’t tell what kind of impact your work will have when you start it: there are so many external factors shaping the context of your work, you can but hope. How effective you are depends a lot on the political climate and how in favour you are with the current powers that be.

Think tanks are intensely political. Every think tank claims to be ‘the leading independent think tank’ but the reality is that most have close links with one political party over another and seek to influence politicians and policy makers more than any other group. Many think tanks will have advisory groups with politicians on them, or a Chief Executive who has formerly worked closely with leading members of a political party.

Getting away from ‘The Thick of It’: though rare, there are times when you find yourself in a room with a Minister, or group of senior civil servants who are desperately searching about for a policy idea, and you realise in a tragic-comedy way how some decisions are made. Many people are now criticising the process where ideas presented to politicians are developed in ivory towers, by people far removed from people’s everyday lives. The ‘old’ model of a small group of privileged people working up policy ideas and lobbying government to adopt them is increasingly seen as out of touch. More and more think tanks are finding it valuable to engage the public in their debates, such as the RSA’s recent ‘Citizens Economic Council’ work, or to work more closely with campaigners, businesses and civil society in identifying priorities for work, and encouraging take up of their ideas.

Too much focus on policy – not enough on practice: many (though not all) think tanks focus on policy change, looking for a big government announcement picking up their idea. This is one type of change, but more and more think tanks are looking at how to apply their skills to practice, by working with organisations such as charities, businesses or public services to test out new ideas on the ground. This is the work I always found most exciting, and most transformative. It’s not the sudden change in policy we often perceive as being important, but the drip drip drip of slow change, in practice, which you can sometimes only see when you have some distance.

Think tanks can be exciting and challenging in equal measure. You can feel so close to changing the world, and yet incredibly far away at the same time: you are powerful and powerless at the same time.

At their best, think tanks can connect the dots between the challenges of our everyday lives and radical new visions for the future. At their worst, they offer bland solutions to yesterday’s problems. For now, at least, I am glad to watch them from a distance.

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