[This article was originally published as the concluding piece of the On Think Tanks 2018 Annual Review. ]
I think that the people of this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong …
Michael Gove, UK Member of Parliament, June 2016
In many countries, the past two or three years have seen a startling rise in the level of political turbulence. Think tanks are relatively small and fragile actors in the world of politics, and so this turbulence strikes them like a gale force wind. If that were all, then think tanks might be best advised to batten down the hatches and ride out the storm. But the challenge goes much deeper, striking think tanks’ legitimacy as political actors. Think tanks need to craft a response: business as usual is not really an option.
First, it helps to understand what has caused the present turbulence? In the editorial to the OTT Review 2018, Enrique Mendizabal attributes the political storm to disappointment and frustration with the ways in which governments handled the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath. This is a common explanation. But it may be too simple because it ignores the steady rise in the inequality of income and wealth in many countries since the 1970s. It may also give too little weight to the dramatic changes in the nature of the global economy, in particular the rise of China and India and the economic and political upheavals this has brought with it. These upheavals are partly related to the process of globalisation, and partly to technological change (with more to come). The result is stress on the body politic in many developed countries, and the reaction to this stress has often had malign consequences. Technology, in particular increasing connectivity and the rise of social media, has clearly played a role in amplifying the turbulence and accelerating its spread.
Another factor, less often discussed, is the ‘hollowing out’ of politics following the consensus on the primacy of markets after the 1980s. There was widespread agreement that policy should let markets ‘do their work’ with government’s role reduced to providing, at most, a regulatory framework to guide the markets. Regulation is, however, usually highly technical in nature and is therefore delegated to independent agencies, staffed by technocrats, who are given goals and left to pursue them as they think best. This leaves little for the political process to do: all the action is in the independent agencies, be they central banks or telecoms regulators. In many ways this development was very congenial for think tanks, because much of policymaking is delegated to technocratic experts, who think tanks love talking to. But whatever the economic case for this approach to policymaking, the impact on the political process does not seem to have been very healthy, as other (and often more divisive) issues have filled the vacuum left by the delegation of policymaking to technocrats.
Which of these theories is correct? The truth is that we don’t really know. It may be some time before the dust settles and we have a clear picture of what has really happened and why.
Think tanks are small players in the political world, and nothing they do is likely to have much effect on the turbulence, or its sources. Does this mean they can ignore the turbulence? No. Quite the opposite. It has important implications for all aspects of their strategy and operations, from initiating and carrying out policy analysis (and who to involve) to communicating evidence (and who to communicate it to).
Most of the responses discussed so far involve giving much more emphasis to engaging with ‘the public,’ and much less emphasis to interactions with ‘experts.’ ‘Public engagement’ is an apt description, as well as the theme of this year’s OTT Review. Enrique Mendizabal’s editorial sets out a straightforward version of this approach:
The public demands captivating narratives, guidance rather than instructions, nuanced yet simply communicated arguments and opportunities to engage as equals. In exchange, they will offer think tanks the support they need to regain the centre stage in evidence-informed policy debates, they will help communicate their ideas across society, and they will award them a new dose of credibility.
This is an appealing suggestion, and it is hard to think of any reason why a think tank should not behave in this way. But on its own, it seems unlikely to prove a sufficient response. The problem with ‘captivating narratives’ is that stories based on fiction are almost always more captivating than stories based on fact. Narratives based on lies spread quickly, much more quickly than those based on evidence. In a battle of narratives, think tanks fight with one hand tied behind their back. The approach also seems to rest on an implicit assumption that the average member of ‘the public’ is willing to engage with a wide range of policy issues on a day to day basis. This seems implausible – we all prefer to delegate tasks that don’t interest us to specialists (our cars to mechanics, our health to doctors and so on). The notion that a large proportion of the public are willing to spend significant amounts of time (and mental energy) engaging in policy discussions seems to fly in the face of experience. Lukas Hupfer takes a similar approach in his article describing the ‘Policy Kitchen,’ an online tool created by foraus. The approach starts from the premise that ‘the public needs to be involved at all stages of research,’ but the process begins with ‘a diverse network of global thinkers.’ And the public involved in using the tool seem to opt in to the system based on their interests, expertise and previous involvement with foraus, and it is not so clear how representative they are of the public at large
John Schwartz and Joe Miller from Soapbox, in their article on ‘the interested public at large,’ offer a very lucid discussion of public engagement, noting that it should be seen not merely as a means to an end, helping think tanks bolster their credibility and legitimacy, but as an important end in itself. They endorse the views of the Director of Chatham House:
The route to social progress runs through the participation of an informed population. Peace, prosperity, democracy and sustainability require civic debate around ideas and evidence.
Accordingly, one of their aims for public engagement is ‘widening the ways that the public can participate in research, increasing the reach of our content and increasing capacity to moderate and engage with this participation.’ But here too it is not entirely clear in practice who from among the public will participate. There is a reference to a (very interesting) Chatham House project, the ‘Commission on Technology and Democracy’ but the project seems to kick off with a panel of experts to structure the debate and then draw in others by ‘reaching out to anyone and everyone who can help.’
Other approaches are possible, and some of them are featured in this Review. One obvious strategy is instead of trying to recruit individual members of the public, think tanks should engage with actors whose mission is to ‘represent’ the public in some way that is relevant to the policy issue under consideration. Such actors might include NGOs, social movements, trade unions or even political parties. If individual citizens don’t have the time or inclination to become deeply involved in issues of public policy, they may delegate this to an institution they trust. On the face of it, this seems like a promising strategy, and the article by Andrea Baertl, reporting on joint work between OTT and the Open Society Foundations, focuses on how think tanks and social movements can collaborate.
Another unconventional, but highly promising approach to public engagement is the work done by think tanks to support the formal electoral process. There are a range of roles that think tanks can play: from providing evidence and information to fact-checking claims made by candidates during their campaigns, to helping organise debates between the competing parties. This is nicely described by Louise Ball and Leandro Echt in their article in this Review, which draws lessons from a set of case studies carried out by OTT and GrupoFaro. The experience of the 2011 and 2015 elections in Argentina suggests that think tanks need patience, perseverance (and a bit of luck) to carry this off, but if offers them a chance ‘to step forward as the link between policy, evidence and the public.’
Another, and perhaps even more promising, option is engagement with citizen juries or citizen assemblies who play a growing role in the formal processes of developing new policies and seeking legislative approval for them. This is the subject of a fascinating recent report by the Alliance for Useful Evidence on ‘mini-publics’ – another way to connect the public with evidence. Citizens are randomly chosen to examine a policy issue. They meet in small groups and have the chance to interrogate experts in the field in question before making their recommendations. The report by the Alliance for Useful Evidence tries to draw lessons from eight case studies of mini-publics: one is that mini-publics ‘need to get smarter in their use of experts and evidence,’ giving more emphasis to ‘systematic reviews that look at all the available evidence, presented in a fair and accessible way.’ There is clearly a role for think tanks here, and perhaps we will hear more about it in the 2019 Review.