Crafting the mental goods

Jeremy Hardie
5 September 2001

It is now a commonplace that politics, national and global, fragmented around the end of the twentieth century. Before people expressed themselves in democracies through elections, so the golden age account goes. You chose representatives, who put your wishes into effect through a government, which worked through a parliament or similar assembly. If you wanted change, it funnelled through that system, emerging as the policy of the elected government.

Getting a government to deliver a policy is still the point at which change starts to become real. But how you achieve this has altered fundamentally. Pressure groups, commercial lobbyists, single issue NGOs – all of these determine how government learns about the need for change, or the weakness of a change it has proposed. Elections remain as only one of the mechanisms, and a very occasional one at that. Electoral representatives have been more or less sidelined. In the main they just deliver the votes which show that the government has power.

In parallel, there have been changes in the setting where policy thinking – the reflective complement to political action – now takes place. One location has always been within government itself – ideally, ministers having the ideas and public servants putting them into practice. There have always been variations on this state model of policy development. Post-War Japanese politics was dominated by powerful groups of permanent officials – hence their Ministry of International Trade and Industry’s notion of Japan Inc. In Britain after the Churchill defeat of 1945, the revival of conservative thinking came from a group of bright young aspirant politicians in the Conservative Research Department. In France, the continuity and homogeneity of the official class provided the consistent basis for policy through a succession of often ephemeral governments.

All these versions share one characteristic, that the work – the thinking, the debates, the testing and formulations of policy – takes place within the state or government or political party, and is performed by people in their employ. This is true also of the French example, where even officials working for the nominally private, independent sector remain committed to their position as members of the official cadre. In all these cases, policy development is not “independent”.

How then did, and does, policy come to be developed independently, and if it was, should it continue to be so?

The earliest, still surviving, examples of institutionalised non-government contribution to the policy debate are the now traditional think tanks in the USA – such as Brookings, which is committed to the improvement of the performance of US institutions, the effectiveness of government programmes, and the quality of US public policy. Another great US institution, the National Bureau of Economic Research, was founded in the 1920s with similar, if initially narrower, aims.

Similar think tanks emerged in the United Kingdom after 1945. In France, organisations such as the Observatoire Français des Conjonctures Economiques and the Centre d’Etudes Prospectives et d’Informations Internationales were created to develop policy outside the civil service, though true to French official tradition such bodies typically depend on government money and are often directed by a member of the administrative class.

But how does this all work now? How are think tanks doing in the new, pluralist, global, political world – are they still doing a worthwhile job?

If the United Kingdom is anything to go by, it seems not.

I am a trustee of a foundation that gives money to think tanks in Britain. About every five years, we commission a survey of our giving in this area, and of the think tank world, to check on what we are doing and what we should do next. Five years ago, the Report showed a generally healthy situation: some good, some not so good, but overall a picture of bright people producing good and original ideas that, at least sometimes, affected policy. Which is what think tanks are for.

The most recent Report was different. Again, it gave an account of who was good, who bad. But its overall judgement was discouraging. “A paucity of ideas”; “Need an injection of vitality”; “Many of them pointless”. These were the views of experienced journalists, politicians, and specialist research groups about the think tank scene.

Suppose this is right. What has gone wrong?

Perhaps several things.

One reason suggested by the Report relates to the career prospects and ambitions of bright young political researchers.

The attractions of power

The Labour government has substantially increased the number of political and special advisors. Five years ago such people would have seen a think tank as the natural place to develop their ideas into practical forms. Now they seem to believe that they can have the same freedom in government, with the added buzz of being near power. To be fair, there is also a better prospect that what they say will be listened to – a besetting anxiety of outsiders who make policy suggestions is that what they write will not even be read, let alone acted on.

Although the magic balance of independent radicalism and access to power is in principle achievable, in practice it looks as though the attractions of power win out. An ambitious thirty-year-old working in a think tank now knows that if things go well, she may get a key policy job inside government. That is what a number of her friends have got, and if only because there are now a lot more such jobs, the dream is worth entertaining. That opportunity is bound to affect the independence and hence radicalism of policy thinking. It is really hard to advocate, for example, re-nationalisation of Railtrack, if you are hoping for a career move into British government. It may be an attractive idea if carried out well – exactly the sort of problem policy thinkers are supposed to provide. But it would be a career-stopper.

Too much competition

Second, there is now more competition from the Universities.

In Britain over the last twenty years, academics have become worldlier. They have been told to be relevant, and they have to raise more of their money from the market – whether companies, foundations or the government. There have always been worldly academics, from Keynes to the trainloads of economists who went to London in 1964 to help Harold Wilson’s Labour government. But now every university has its institutes and centres, often no more than the departments repackaged. Such centres are real competition to think tanks – both for the money, but also for the people, some of whom like the appearance of real academic life, which even these days offers somewhat better security and distinction, and much the same prospect of influencing opinion, meeting the powerful, and getting your name in the papers.

Finally, there is competition from the single-issue pressure groups. International organisations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth now produce serious research, and their access to power is typified by invitations to Davos and to dialogue with Shell. Friends of the Earth, in Britain, claims to have helped to write 18 pieces of legislation, which would be something to be proud of.

So the think tanks are no longer alone. Rather, they never were; but the opposition is now much better and much more on their turf. The division of labour – governments govern, universities teach and research, pressure groups protest and think tanks think – has broken down. Everyone is crowding round where the think tanks want to be – producing policy-relevant, original ideas.

Funding: setting the agenda?

One reason for this centripetal tendency is how you have to raise the money. The market test of success is whether you, the think tank, can find the money from the outside world, particularly from companies. That on the face of it is a good idea. We do surely want some way of testing whether prospective research is worth doing, and that test must be an external test, assessing more than just the optimism of the researchers; and it must be real. The outside assessor must be tough minded about the prospects of success, not sentimental. So a company which seriously decides to put up its own money looks like a good agent of discipline.

But there is the familiar problem. Companies cannot and should not use their shareholders’ money to promote research that is no more than pro bono. It has to be in the interests of the company as well. That notion can be elastic – you don’t have to prove rigorously that the research will increase profits. But it has to be something to do with the interests of the company and its shareholders. The vulgar version of what happens next is that the company tells the researcher what to conclude – the researcher then becomes no more than a fancy version of an advertising agency hired to devise and disseminate the message that does the company most good. That is how the lazy hack likes to represent the corrupting influence of company money. But in reality everyone knows that the game can’t be played like that, and if ever it is suggested that it should be, the researcher has a good line in righteous indignation to see the suggestion off.

The real problem is not that companies dictate the answers, but that they may set the agenda. Private health companies do not tell you what to say about the future of health provision. But it is only research on the future of health provision which they will give you money for. That would be fine if every topic had a champion – this company gives you money for health, that for transport, a third for housing. And this is nearly the case – the range of topics for which you can get company money is quite wide. But you cannot get money for a number of absolutely key current issues. Citizenship is unlikely to interest anyone. Nor, more generally, are constitutional issues.

And companies, and increasingly foundations, want research that is seen to make a difference. So money goes into topics already regarded as relevant to problems which need to be solved. It is much harder to get money for more speculative, blue sky enquiries which by their nature can’t promise a result, have a high chance of failure, and cannot be specified closely in advance. The drug and IT companies can do basic research: think tanks find it hard.

So not only are think tanks crowded by competition. They, and their competitors, are more limited in what they can research, and how.

Now for some realism. There never was a golden age when the world was populated by financially secure, intellectually independent policy researchers, producing radical policy ideas without fear or favour. Think tanks and universities have always had people who want to be, hope to be, are about to be in political power. It is hard to think of a think tank that has not been more or less pre-committed to some broad policy line or political party. And nobody has ever given money for research without thinking about what the research is for, and whether it will succeed.

Delivery is all

But it is all a bit worse now. The so-called end of history means that ideology is out of fashion, and delivery is all that matters. Delivery is a practical matter – you know what you want, and the hard question is which of the available tools is best for achieving it – as Deng Xiao-Ping said, it doesn’t matter what colour the cat is so long as it catches mice. Now Blair has said exactly the same: that “what matters is what works”. So policy research becomes more about how to solve the problem than what the problem might be, more about which of the available tools we use than what tools we might invent. In such a world, radical thought becomes less important, and smart young people see government, universities and think tanks as closely competing venues for the solution of practical problems. Market testing, mediated by reliance on company money, reinforces the dominance of immediate relevance.

On one view of this analysis, there is no problem. There are more and increasingly various sources of policy ideas. If think tanks are less important than they used to be, that doesn’t matter – they have moved from being almost the only player to one among many, and it is of no concern if their relative importance has declined.

I don’t think that is right. The current concern with delivery, and the need to raise money by showing that what you are doing is immediately “relevant”, applies to everyone in this game – the single-issue pressure group, the university, the think tanks themselves. Blue-sky thinking degenerates into slogans of hostility to globalisation, which is not thinking at all. Governments need, and will always need, a source of independent, forward-looking ideas about issues which are not yet seen as immediate problems.

We citizens need our governments to be open to independent thinking. For this to happen, there need to be active centres of such thinking. The vulgar version of managerialism, whereby governments are expected only to run things well, meaning fix today’s problems as soon as possible, is not enough. But it is hard to see at the moment where ideas about how to do things differently are to be generated.

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