What is the role of a think tank or social change organisation today?

24 May 2017

[This article was originally posted on the RSA’s blog.]

What is the role of a think tank or social change organisation today? While this is unlikely to be a burning question for many, it is something we, at the RSA, regularly consider as we increasingly understand what it means to have an impact.

We live in unprecedented times characterised by rapid change in the way we live and work, coupled with (seemingly) insurmountable societal problems. It is within this context that we believe institutions who are committed to social change continuously question and adapt their existing models to respond to and address society’s challenges. The same is true for think tanks, who are not often considered as civil society actors but have the potential to play a vital role in the development of a country’s future.

In March, we launched a RSA Global discussion paper entitled, Innovation in Think tanks – Policy influence and change in Developing countries which explores how think tanks support social change and how they must be fit for purpose to enable progress in their local context. The focus of the paper is on the experience of think tanks in the global south, how they operate and why donors need to pay more attention to them. Think tanks are unique in that they exist at the intersection of evidence based research and policy making, and their multi-disciplinary audiences (governments, policy specialists and the wider society as whole) allow them to be potentially powerful force for ideas.

At the RSA we believe the current lack of trust in government and institutions is, in part, due to a failure of policy solutions that really tackle society’s intractable problems. For the public, experts and their datasets do not describe reality, and any attempts to solve problems are often too narrowly defined, attending only to a few policy levers in lieu of reviewing the system as a whole. Or, these solutions suffer from a strict path dependency, following predictable steps towards predetermined outcomes which, in reality, this is rarely the case.

For innovative solutions to truly address the lives of all people and leave no one behind social actors, such as think tanks, must move beyond its traditional core model and innovate. This paper argues that they should act politically and exercise power and influence when necessary. The paper suggests three directions for innovation that we open for discussion:

  • Political insights: think tanks should explicitly develop the expertise and knowl­edge of the local political context, for example through carrying out ‘political and power’ assessments on any given issue.
  • Elite convening: think tanks could develop function that not only facilitates debate and discussion between key interest groups, but which looks to identify collective interests and coordinate actions across different stakeholders to help bring about policy change.
  • Campaigns and alliances: think tanks may mean engage in more bottom-up approaches to policy influence, leveraging the power of citizens and communities to press the case for reform.

The RSA is committed to maximising its global impact and welcome comments and thoughts on how think tanks can play an increasingly effective role in social change.

To encourage a conversation, the RSA is organising an event with Duncan Green addressing how change happens.

The world is full of wannabe ‘change agents’; a mix of campaigners, lobbyists, organisations and officials – all determined to transform the world. They want to improve public services, reform laws and regulations, guarantee human rights, get a fairer deal for those on the sharp end, achieve greater recognition for any number of issues, or simply be treated with respect.

And yet very few universities have a ‘Department of Change Studies’, to which social activists can turn for advice and inspiration. Instead, scholarly discussions of change are fragmented with few conversations crossing disciplinary boundaries, rarely making it onto the radars of those actively seeking change.