As an impartial think tank, the Institute for Government works with all parties across the UK, and at all levels of government (national, devolved in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, regional and local). Inevitably, however, our focus is mainly on the Conservative party, who are in government in London.
Our work focuses on how government does things, and how it can work better, rather than advocating particular policies. As such, we are keen to work with politicians of different ideologies and backgrounds.
Here I share some lessons from our work with parties across the UK.
What we think about when engaging with political parties
The first question, as ever, is what is our objective? And how does that inform how we are pitching our communication? Are we trying to explain findings from our research, to advocate for a particular change to the way things are done in government, or to build networks, or to find out what parties think and feed that into our work? Understanding what you want to get out of any communication is key before beginning to build the relationship.
The second point to think about is the political context, both in terms of what the party thinks on a given issue and what the individual politician we are speaking to cares about. It is important to consider whether they are pro- or anti- their party leadership, what their views are on the issue we are discussing and who else are they listening to on the topic.
It is also important to think about the relationships of your colleagues with the particular party – if your colleagues are working on something else that the politician is interested in, that may affect their view of your think tank too.
The difference between engaging with government and opposition parties
How you engage with parties depends on whether they are in government or not.
Some things are common between both types of parties. For example, they are very busy people, so it is important to have accessible materials that they can understand. They will also always be thinking about issues from a political perspective, so you need to show you are aware of their views. At the same time, if you are non-partisan, it is worth reassuring them that you are approaching the issue from an impartial point of view.
Other things are specific to engaging with government or opposition parties.
It’s easy for the government to think that we’re criticising them, but most of the time we’re interested in how the system can be made better. So, we always work to make clear that that is our objective. By the same token, we always try to show why the things we are recommending are in their interest – how will this help them?
In the UK, government has the resource of the civil service. Sometimes when we try to talk to a government minister about our work they redirect us to the civil service. This can be useful at times, as the civil servants are the ones doing the detailed work, but for big issues it is worth talking to the politicians.
One challenge of engaging with the governing party is knowing who to talk to, as they may be less in touch with each other. Ministers in government, backbenchers in parliament and staff in party HQ can take different positions on an issue (and of course things may be even more complex in countries with different systems of government). In this context, it is important to work out who is the right person to talk to – and if in doubt, speak to as many people as possible!
Opposition parties are not in government, so they cannot make immediate changes to how things work. But they can influence the debate – working with them presents an opportunity for our ideas to get into the conversation. Thinking about exactly what we want them to do with the information we give them is important.
Opposition parties have fewer resources than the government. In particular, they have fewer people to look into things, so our research needs to be very accessible.
The opposition may also be able to draw on our research to criticise the government – so to maintain our impartiality we must be wary of not giving the opposition too much ammunition or simply repeating their views.
Working with political parties is worth the effort
While engaging with political parties requires preparation and hard work, it is definitely worth it for all think tanks. It allows you to get your ideas into the debate, build links with people who may be able to help you with future work and ensure your work has real impact.