On public engagement

1 March 2019
SERIES OTT Annual Review 2018: Public Engagement 18 items

[This article was originally published as the editorial piece in the On Think Tanks 2018 Annual Review. ]

There are many histories of think tanks – but I like this origin story of the modern think tank. Sometime in the late 1800s, business leaders, policymakers, experts and the interested public came together in civic associations in US cities to solve pressing problems such as crime and waste collection. Money, policy, expertise and the people worked together.

In time, money moved into increasingly professional foundations, policymaking acquired formal processes and developed into highly specialised bodies, and expertise came together in universities, think tanks and consultancies. Only the public remained in the community.

Throughout the 20th century, think tanks have honed their policy influencing skills. They have developed new channels and means of communication. They have adapted their research teams and agendas to address policy questions – often in tune with the political cycle. Their communication function has developed exponentially. Many have adopted state of the art marketing and PR strategies with great success. Their main audiences have consistently been other think tanks, funders and policymakers.

The public has remained relatively underserved.

However, ever so often societies undergo sudden and unexpected upheavals. The First and Second World Wars. The Great Depression. The breakdown of democracy in Chile. The fall of the Berlin Wall. The 2008 financial crisis. Endemic corporate corruption in Latin America. The recent rise of populism in Europe and the US. Brexit. These present a new challenge for think tanks. Either their usual audiences are no longer interested in what they have to say or they are no longer relevant.

These are moments when institutions crumble. Their credibility is called into question. And so is the credibility of others associated with them. It wasn’t just the politicians who could not prevent the 2008 financial crisis who suffered – economic policy experts took a beating too. Brexit brushed aside political institutions and think tanks alike. The rise of new populism in the US and Europe has shaken the foundations of many established think tanks that have been questioned on everything from the source of their funding to their associations with political operators. Think tanks who have offered services to Odebrecht and other companies found to be corrupt in Latin America have been affected, by association.

Suddenly, attention has had to turn towards the general public. The public is now thirsty for explanations of what is going on – and what happened. They are ready to act and play a greater role in shaping the future. They are more attuned to nuances than the elites who are busy trying to save a sinking ship.

Our attention has to turn to the public too. It is more informed. It is more aware of the corrosive role of money in politics – and in think tanks. It is more interested in finding out who is informing and influencing their elected (and appointed) representatives. The public is actively participating in public debates and not simply consuming the opinion of a small intellectual elite.

However, think tanks are rarely equipped to engage with the general public. They prefer to use technical language, communicate using channels and tools designed to influence decision-makers and tend to enjoy (and crave) the company of the elites.

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.