Seven lessons on policy advocacy from the Adam Smith Institute

22 February 2017

[This post was originally published by the Think Tank Review.]

Having built a highly effective think tank from scratch, Madsen Pirie has written a refreshingly jargon-free guide to effective policy advocacy. Here are seven lessons.

For the first thirty years of its existence, the Adam Smith Institute consisted of “two directors supported by gap-year kids, recent graduates and interns, and with everyone doing everything,” writes Madsen Pirie, who back then was one of those directors and today is the organisation’s president. His book, Think Tank: The Story of the Adam Smith Institute, provides a fascinating insight into how two young libertarian academics gradually built up a low budget, high efficiency outfit that created national headlines and on several occasions significantly influenced policy formulation and political decisionmaking in London.

1. Focus on efficiency, efficiency, efficiency

In the early days, the founders of the Adam Smith Institute (ASI) had little financial backing, forcing them to become super-efficient:

We held [weekly] lunches for 18 to 20 people… [Thanks to a strict timetable] we were able to squeeze what was effectively a half-day conference with four speakers into a single lunchtime.

The ASI would then collate written transcripts of the speeches into books.

It was a very cost-effective way of spreading our ideas… We gained hugely because we were bringing in qualified outside people to talk about their own area of expertise… and we were learning a great deal ourselves in the process.

2. Systematically build credibility

Setting up an academic advisory board with prominent names on it and publishing a book was a good step.

It established the Adam Smith Institute as a body with an interest in scholarship and research, rather than one engaging in political advocacy or just policy recommendations… We continued to publish academic and theoretical works relating to our ideas, alongside the policy recommendations that attracted more interest in the media.

3. Get clear about who matters in what ways

The ASI consciously tried to broaden the Overton Window to turn radical ideas into politically feasible policy options.

Ideas could be discussed in public and become familiar and understood. That in turn made it easier for them to be taken up by politicians as policy initiatives, and it also meant the proposals could be improved by commentators who discussed them…

ASI staff wrote features in newspapers and magazines, giving the think tank an extra source of income as well as free publicity.

We had to say the same things, and new things, again and in different ways to different people. In policy a sound idea is just the starting point for debate rather than the jumping-off point for action.

The real targets of ASI’s messages, Pirie writes, were “opinion formers and opinion leaders”, estimated by his team to number around 650 in the whole country. “We were broadcasting our material to millions in order to reach a few hundred.”

4. Informal alliances can easily outperform formal coalitions

ASI staff participated in regular Saturday lunch meetings with like-minded think tankers, journalists, and staff from the prime minister’s policy research unit.

Typically we would decide how we could focus the policy agenda onto specific subjects during the coming weeks and try to co-ordinate our activities to make us more effective collectively than we would have been individually. One or more of the think tanks might arrange a publication; another would organise a seminar; the journalists would endeavour to have the subject covered in leader columns; while the research staff would ensure it was drawn to the attention of the appropriate members of the Shadow cabinet.

On the outside was our press publicity campaign to generate interest in the ideas, while on the inside a Parliamentary Question would draw it to the attention of the minister…

When a cabinet committee was formed to consider rival policy options, it was important

(…) to know what stage its discussions had reached so we could insert policy proposals and ideas at the right time. We met regularly with members of the No. 10 Policy Unit to keep ourselves up to speed on its progress.

5. Ask the government to test your big idea on a small scale first

We discovered that the general public is sufficiently fair-minded to go along with the notion of testing new ideas on a limited basis, and we often thereafter called for many of our proposals to be introduced on an experimental trial basis in a few trial areas…

6. Actively support your policy’s implementation to make it a success

Once the government had adopted a policy proposed by ASI, its staff continued to remain engaged.

We organised several conferences for local government councillors and officials, basically taking them through the process and best practices of contracting out local services to private companies… they played a useful role in spreading the ideas out to local authorities across the UK and again they aided our name recognition… we edited a smaller books dealing with the nuts and bolts of how to contract out services in ways that improved quality as well as saving money.

7. Get close to the government – but not too close

Because we were outsiders, our ideas could not embarrass the government. It could listen to the ones it liked, and ignore those it did not. That distance to the government was useful on both sides. It left we think tanks to be as radical as we liked… We did not join political parties because it would have compromised our free-market message.

I have some personal reservations about the Adam Smith Institute – it refuses to reveal who its financial backers are, and has reportedly taken money in secret from tobacco companies and then actively campaigned against tighter regulation of that industry. But this book is a must-read for every think tanker working in the UK or a similar democratic system, as well as for those interested in understanding how lobbying works (for better or for worse) on a day-to-day level.