For the past few years the UK magazine Prospect has organised awards to think tanks, initially focusing on UK think tanks, and more recently adding EU and North American think tanks to the competition. + This year they added a ‘global’ category, opening the competition to think tanks from the global South. The competition is open: think tanks can apply on their own behalf, submitting outputs on which they would like to be assessed. Assessing the think tanks and their outputs is the task of the judging panel: individuals drawn from think tanks, policymakers and the media. The names of the panel members are published, making the process much more transparent, which is a good thing.
The 2018 awards, like those in 2017, were sponsored by Tata, which is a large multinational initially based in India but now active in many countries around the world. The 2018 awards ceremony took place on July 17. The location was impressive – The Institute of Directors, a very grand and elegant building on Pall Mall. I was there representing the African Centre for Economic Transformation, a think tank based in Accra on whose board I’ve served since it was launched in 2008.
The competition has evolved over the years, starting from a UK focused competition in its initial years, then adding categories for think tanks in Europe and North America and this year a ‘global’ think tank category. Adding the global category is a good thing, I think, and not just because ACET won the prize as the best economic and financial think tank in the new category (a nice present for ACET on its tenth anniversary).
The awards ceremony was an interesting event: there were are a lot of awards – eighteen across the four different categories, including a ‘One to Watch’ and a ‘Best Overall Think Tank’. Having this many awards has both pluses and minuses. Having a lot of categories makes it easier for the judges to compare like with like – think tanks working in the same region and the same field.
In terms of the awards ceremony, though, there were perhaps too many awards to allow the audience to get a “flavour” of each of the winners and their work. I found myself wanting to learn more about some of the winners, their work and why they won. This may reflect the fact that the competition started out with a UK focus and so the audience, drawn largely from the UK, and in particular from London, would have been very familiar with all the other think tanks represented there. So there may have been less need to give a detailed description of the competing think tanks. Nevertheless, I think now that the competition is getting broader with European, North American, and global think tanks, the audience is likely to know much less about some of the contestants.
Of course it would take time to present information about each of the winners, and eighteen presentations would have made for a very long evening, but I certainly would have been happy to hear more about the winner of the Think Tank of the Year Award (the Centre for Economic Reform). Doing this for all the winners would be too time consuming, but it would have made winning the big prize a bit more special.
Another step that Prospect might consider (even now) is recording short video interviews with staff from each of the eighteen winners and posting these videos on the competition website to give at least a flavour of the what the winners are doing and why they won.