Of the consistent complaints I hear about think tanks and the scholars who occupy them, two have to do with the degree of expertise.
One complaint centers around the phenomenon that experts are too often willing to appear as talking heads on subjects outside their expertise. Some of it is innocent enough. It’s not possible for think tanks to have an expert for every world event or issue, so think tankers extrapolate from the areas in which they genuinely have expertise. Other times, it’s clear that media ambition trumps being a good expert.
Another criticism is that think tankers, like professors, are in the “ivory tower,” too removed from the work of those who do more than think for a living. Sure Senior Fellow Smart Guy was a high ranking official in the Treasury Department, but that was in the Nixon administration. Since then, he’s been reading in his office, delivering lectures and writing books that are outdated by the time they’re published.
Well, a new endeavor in the UK (called “new think tank”) led by Michael Harris is seeking to sidestep those limitations by starting a think tank that enlists the help of current practitioners—a think tank by crowdsourcing, they call it.
It’s time for a new approach to developing social policy. The commentators who developed and popularised the idea of producer interests in the 70s and 80s often had a home in free market think tanks such as the Institute for Economic Affairs and the Centre for Policy Studies. As researchers who stay close to policy and policymakers, think tanks might be little known amongst the public but they can be highly influential in shaping the terms of public debate and providing policy solutions to social problems.
If you want to set up a new think tank, you need a “big idea”, whether it’s the need for a free market revolution or the “big society” as developed by the newer conservative think tanks. Here’s ours: instead of repelling frontline workers and service users, invite them to lead research and policy work. Use their expertise and experience to inform better social policy. Create an experimental community where alternative ideas can be developed and discussed. It’s social policy by the 99%.
But is it really a think tank?
It’s hard to say since the project won’t launch until June, but the organization’s Web site says so.
That’s how we’re thinking about the project at the moment, but it might not end up being called a ‘think tank’. We’ve worked in and around think tanks so that’s how we tend to view the world, but as the project develops we might end up calling it something else, especially because few people know much about think tanks or what they do. Alternatively, our approach to conducting policy and research work could be something we offer to other organisations—even other think tanks—rather than a separate organisation.
A model that relies solely on practitioners may have more success in the UK, where relationships between government and think tanks are generally accepted (not that all the practitioners would necessarily be from government--they may well come from other sectors, too). But in the context of think tanks in the U.S., where there is presumed government-think tank independence, is there something valuable American think tanks can borrow?