The best idea nobody’s ever heard of

10 April 2015

[Editor’s note: This post was originally published by Rowland Manthorpe for Think Tank Review is an experiment, conducted in the spirit of (literally) free debate. If you’d like to help, or tell them what to do, they’d love to hear from you. Get in touch: [email protected] or on Twitter: @thinktankreview.]

If a tree falls in a forest and no-one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? The modern version of this conundrum cropped up last year in an unlikely setting, when researchers at the World Bank decided to find out who was reading their policy reports, which are stored as PDFs on their website. In 4 years, from 2008 to 2012, nearly a third of these reports had never been downloaded. Another 40% had been downloaded less than a hundred times.

This may say something about the readability of World Bank reports; still, their fate is hardly unique. For most people, “reading” a policy report means reading the Executive Summary. “Reading deeply” means reading the recommendations as well. Writing last month from the world’s biggest “wonkathon,” the Think Tank Initiative Exchange, IPPR’s Head of News quoted an MP from Tanzania, a Presidential candidate from Guinea Bissau, a former Education Minister from Costa Rica and a British civil servant at DFID: “all agree on one thing: they don’t actually read the full reports.”

That’s not to say that policy reports don’t make an impact. Think tanks, the biggest producers of policy ideas, consistently generate more press than commercial organisations with much bigger media budgets, because their work can be written up as news and opinion pieces using the magic phrase “according to a report released today.” Last week, for instance, the Social Market Foundation saw its latest report on inequality featured, with near-identical quotes, in the Independent, the Guardian and the Daily Mail. Was it a good report? Were its assumptions correct, its solutions practical? On those most critical questions, the articles remained silent.

Being read by journalists is not the same as actually being read. Most of the time, newspapers simply ignore reports that don’t fit with their ideological positions. If they do feel obliged to cover them, they can usually find a way to make the findings suit their way of thinking. When University College London released a large study on the effects of migration on benefits and services, the Guardian reported it as showing that “migrants contribute £25bn to UK economy,” while the Daily Mail ran with “migrants from outside Europe leave a £100 billion hole in the public purse.” (Full Fact, the fact-checking organisation,concludedthat both stories were factually accurate.)

At the other extreme, many news reports are little more than rewrites of the press release. Last month, for instance, Demos published a report suggesting that food banks should be turned into community supermarkets. It got a fair amount of press: Left Foot Forward summarised it in bullet point form and the Guardian used it as the hook – “a study by the think tank Demos, published today” – for a short feature. Yet when we asked The Trussell Trust, the UK’s biggest provider of food banks, to review the report, they found it “unusually naïve,” “ill-informed and unworkable” and “a basic misunderstanding of the nature of food poverty and hunger.” (Demos decided not to reply, but they did meet The Trussell Trust to discuss the questions raised.)

Think tanks exist to find the best ideas for the benefit of society. Yet the thousands of reports published each year by think tanks in the UK are rarely read and almost never reviewed. This is hardly the sort of environment in which ideas can grow and flourish.

Think tankers worry about the fact that no-one reads their reports. On Wonkcomms, a blog where policy communications officers gather for support, one recurrent worry concerns the fate of the PDF. But while slicker comms might help get the message out, would they help create better policy? If this is the goal, then more needs to change than file formats.

Say you’re a researcher looking for good reports on housing policy. Where would you go? Amazingly, there’s no central place to access all the reports on a particular topic, or even browse through recent publications. Think tanks are competitors, so no one think tank has the incentive to promote any other; each one issues its reports separately as if they were the final word on the debate. With 20 to 30 reports published each week (not to mention blog posts, briefing papers, in-house magazines and email mail-outs), you practically have to go full time on Twitter to keep up with what’s being produced.

This is the problem Think Tank Review was created to solve. We ask experts to read reports and write a short review. Not just think tankers, but experts in education, investmentemployment and urban planning — the subjects the reports address. Is their evidence sound? Are their proposals achievable? Buried deep in a 150-page PDF, is there an idea that might change society for the better?

We also go through the mountain of material produced by think tanks to find the best bits and present them in an accessible form. We send out a newsletter telling people about the most interesting material published each week. We summarise reports so busy people can find time to read them. We’ve also created a searchable database so that researchers can build on previous work rather than reinventing the wheel every time they address a subject. It’s not as complete as it could be, and at the moment we’re having to update it manually, but even at this stage it makes for fascinating browsing.