A ‘punchy’ think tank debate

23 March 2011

Some time ago I reported on the Battle of Ideas organised in London where a number of think tanks went at each other on key policy issues. The programme for this year is now out. Another good idea comes form the British think tank Policy Exchange: The Policy Fight Club.

This might seem like a gimmick but it is actually a particularly interesting approach to addressing the public education role of think tanks. Think tank events are often organised as key note speaker-led panels: one main speaker, some commentators, then the audience gets to ask questions. But real policy debate is nothing like that. Policy debate is messy and chaotic -it is often confrontational. And when it matters most it is even more polarised.

So think tanks have a duty (I think, you might disagree) not just to present information but to present it in a manner that contributes towards improving the quality of the debate -and the policy process.

As Jeffrey Puryear argued, the most interesting and valuable contributions of think tanks may not be intellectual but psychological: the hundreds of events and seminars that Chilean think tanks organised throughout the 1980s helped to restore the mutual trust and understanding missing from Chilean politics and that had led to the rupture of democratic order.

Learning how to develop and use arguments, how to adapt them, communicate to different audiences, incorporate new ideas, defend one’s own beliefs, etc. are not matters that should be quickly dismissed. How we communicate is as (if not more) important than what we say.