Change by (almost) any means necessary: should your think tank become an action tank too?

3 December 2023

Leading a think tank is all about making tough choices. There are so many urgent issues worth exploring, and partnerships worth making, and too little time and resources to do them all justice. Staying aligned to both mission and strategy, rather than being led by the demands and whims of funders and other stakeholders, is a daily challenge.

At the Centre for Education and Youth (CfEY), we’ve made those choices harder by adding ‘action’ to our range of approaches. In this article, I reflect on CfEY’s evolution to a ‘think and act tank’ and propose a global community of practice for think tanks with similar goals.

The action partner 

The Centre for Education and Youth works to improve young people’s childhoods and life chances. In our short (five-year) history, we have always described ourselves as a ‘think and action tank’, for instance through the creation of toolkits for teachers on particular issues. 

However, our key current strategic goal is to become more practical – ‘putting research into action by co-designing and trialling scalable innovations that can have a direct impact on young people and practitioners.’  

This action partner work complements our other three workstreams, as a learning partner (evaluating programmes and organisations), investigation partner (exploring policy issues) and communication partner (supporting events and advocacy). 

Why? Three reasons to get in on the action

First is about change. While our three organisational aims are about influencing debate, policy and practice, the first two are simply routes to the third. 

Our mission is to enable all young people, but especially those at risk of marginalisation and poor outcomes, to have a great childhood and thriving adulthood. Whilst policy, and the debates that shape policy, are of course significant factors, what ultimately makes a difference to young people are the things that schools, youth settings, parents and community members do to, for and with those young people. 

If, rather than wait for the perfect policy or government, we can make change happen through designing and testing solutions directly with educators and institutions, these are faster, more visceral routes to impact that, of course, can ultimately influence policy (if indeed that is what’s required).

The second is about credibility. Unlike other think tanks (at least in the UK) almost all our small team of 15 staff are former teachers and youth workers. This makes our team automatically more grounded and rounded than the average bunch of thinktankers. As Philosopher Bernard Crick once said, think tanks often have ‘their feet planted firmly in the air’. Rolling up our sleeves and working directly with educators and getting even closer to young people, definitely gives us credibility – not just amongst educators and school leaders, but also when we are in those policy-filled rooms of government officials and others who tend to be more removed from the action. 

Finally, (and the least important reason), the cash can be useful. Our evolution to developing practical innovations has led to new relationships with trusts, foundations and other investors whose remit does not include funding pure policy research. It has also created friendships with other organisations who are solely in the delivery space, whom we might not have met had we not been occupying similar ground.

How? Three practical innovations we are currently cooking up

The Primary Extended Project Award is a new programme and assessment for 10 and 11 year olds that aims to develop a set of dispositions (research skills and creative thinking) that go beyond what our national curriculum and associated literacy and numeracy provide, and also give space for these young people to identify and explore their own learning interests.

Young Experts Citizens enables 16-25 year olds who have been at the ‘sharp end’ of policy through various life experiences – for instance through having a disability, or being a young offender – to conduct research into issues that they care deeply about and then work with local policymakers to influence tangible change. These young people have unique perspectives; both on the policy barriers that prevent them from thriving, and on navigating these obstacles. Our innovative programme values and harnesses this expertise, training, paying and empowering them to make change happen

Our non-student Freshers Fairs will work with young people and local civic organisations  (anything from art clubs to political activism) so that these young people can know what is out there to support their often trickier transition to adulthood.

There are some common strands to this work:

  •  They tend to emerge from policy research we have carried out, so we know the terrain we are operating in. 
  • They always involve local partners, so we don’t get too deep into delivery. 
  • They tend to take a ‘yes… and’ approach, so they seek to complement rather than replace or undermine existing practices.
  • And they all might have global replicability beyond the UK, although in all three cases we are keen to walk before we start flying.

Why not? Three possible risks

First, tip too far the other way, and our organisation might become ‘more tank (the vehicle, not the vessel) than think’. We might get so deep into delivery, with a passion for making that particular programme work and ‘prove itself’ that we lose the essence of what think tanks ultimately are – spaces where people can get beyond the siloes of one particular solution to provide a broader perspective, and ideally some more radical, interesting policy ideas. 

Second, the stakes and visibility in practical projects are higher. Poor quality, or boring policy research reports can easily be swept under an online carpet in the hope that nobody notices (we’ve all done it, and people rarely do notice, right?). If a practical intervention, often involving many people and institutions, doesn’t have the intended impact or creates tense relationships along the way, there are far fewer places to hide. This is the credibility downside, in that a poor-quality practical innovation might damage your policy-developing credibility.

Finally, leading innovations is a different skillset from leading research. I’ve managed to juggle both in my career (possibly in a ‘jack of all trades’ kind of way), but it shouldn’t be assumed that your current staff have the skills or motivation to move from thinking to acting. 

Who else? Building a community of think-and-action tanks

Moving from thought to action isn’t for everyone. Many – if not most – think tanks will want to just do research, and there’s a strong rationale to stick to the thinking rather than creeping into a broader mission.

However, we also know that we aren’t the only think tanks to do this. In the Education space, brilliant blended think-and-act work is being done by the TEP Centre in Nigeria and Summa-Ed in Latin America as well as some government-funded ‘innovation hubs’ that appear to do both in, for instance, some Scandinavian and South East Asian countries. Many other smaller organisations in the Global South  (including within the brilliant Southern Voice network) also engage in both policy and practical developments, often without the profile or resources they deserve. 

We feel like we are just at the start of our journey and would love to learn from and with others in this space. So we are hoping that, through the incredible OTT network, we can begin to convene a community of practice – those think tanks who already do brilliant practical work, those who are thinking about it, and everyone in between. And those think tank staff who have more questions than answers. 

If you would be part of such a community, please get in touch and, like all good action tanks, we will make it happen together.