Assessing the value of a think tank cannot be done without considering the context. A think tank may be a fantastic producer of papers and events but these are useless unless they are relevant (and this often means preempting events):
We live in extraordinary times. The past year has been one of drama: the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan in March; the Arab uprisings; the killing of Osama bin Laden; phone hacking; swings of 400 points in the FTSE index; the eurozone crisis.
Those events provided rich material for the candidates for Prospect’s 11th Think Tank Awards. So did the fierce, continuing debate about the age of austerity: where cuts should fall, how to stimulate growth, how big the public sector should be, and how to reshape it. Think tanks have taken on some of the biggest intellectual challenges for years.
I like this model because it is transparent. Prospect is open about who judges the process:
Bronwen Maddox, the editor of Prospect, chaired the panel of judges, which included Baroness Vadera of Holland Park, adviser to governments, companies and funds, and former minister; Nader Mousavizadeh, chief executive of Oxford Analytica, previously special assistant to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan; James Crabtree, Financial Timescomment editor; James Elwes, deputy editor of Prospect and former editor of Financial World; and Andy Davis, associate editor of Prospect, and former editor of FT Weekend.
I am not going to reproduce the whole post here but I think it is worth giving you a taste of what you will read -and what we heard at the event. The decisions were, as in the world of think tanks, not straight forward. Multiple factors, often not comparable, need to be taken into account and their importance are inevitably subjective to each judge (hence why it is important to know who they are). On the think tank of the year category:
The shortlist of five included the Resolution Foundation, founded in 2005, which has made a hugely impressive start under Gavin Kelly’s “very intelligent and clear” directorship, producing original and important papers on the “squeezed middle,” the minimum wage, and social mobility. Judges complimented the Institute for Fiscal Studies, always a towering presence in the British think tank landscape, for the “Mirrlees Review” on making tax fairer in the 21st century, but felt it had not been the organisation’s best year.
The panel gave a special note to Policy Exchange for strength across a broad range: housing, education, crime and energy. It also has excellent access to policymakers and a lively events schedule.
The runner up for Prospect think tank of the year award was The King’s Fund, the large health policy research unit. It was forthright in claiming a direct influence on public policy—a claim with which the judges at least partly concurred. In its submission, the King’s Fund noted that: “Our work helped prompt a number of significant shifts in government policy [on NHS reform] and the decision to undertake the listening exercise during the ‘pause’ in the bill’s passage through parliament.” The judges felt that most credit for the government’s shift should, properly, go to the Liberal Democrats for their threat of rebellion, but agreed that the King’s Fund had pressed its views home in a highly effective manner.
However, the economic crisis dominated British and global political debate in 2011. The submission that stood out was from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR). The British government has decided that it should best deal with the country’s budget deficit and debt by a period of fiscal austerity. NIESR has been outstanding in challenging this strategy; as one judge put it, in “doing Ed Balls’ job a bit better than Ed Balls.” It has argued that “the pace of fiscal consolidation was too fast,” and that the cuts have checked Britain’s growth by too much.
Not all the judges agreed with NIESR’s analysis or conclusions. But they felt that the institute’s output was always worth close attention. Much of that was due to its director Jonathan Portes, who was appointed in February and who has reinvigorated the institute. For its scrutiny of the government’s economic strategy, it was felt that NIESR was the rightful winner of the 2011 award for think tank of the year.