Reflections on New Think Tank – 5. Simon Gough

Michael Harris /   June 29, 2015 at 8:31 PM 1,484 views

This is a series of posts in which we’ve invited people to give us their reactions to Guerilla Policy (formerly the New Think Tank project). This post: Simon Gough from Redfront. Thanks to Simon for contributing the post, and we welcome your comments. One of the biggest challenges awaiting New Think Tank is engagement. For its great ideas to take hold, and for real change to happen, New Think Tank has to capture the attention of a wide range of frontline public service professionals. This need to engage people is not unique to New Think Tank so, by way of exploring engagement, I thought it might be worth looking at an extreme example. Like it or not, Mail Online is the most visited newspaper website in the world, having earlier this year overtaken the New York Times. It regularly sparks debates that extend well beyond the site itself, making a big impact on other platforms. And how does it do this? By provoking people. Its particular combination of forthright opinions and features that border on the outrageous leave us in no doubt that Mail Online’s agenda is maximum engagement. And it succeeds in that agenda, whether it’s attracting disgust or agreement. No, I’m not suggesting that New Think Tank becomes the Mail Online of the think tank world. But the indisputable success of being provocative is not to be ignored. So what does provocation look like in the policy space? Firstly, to some extent, provocation is an inevitable, and indeed desirable, product of the traditional Think Tank process. Think Tanks are built for opinion. They need to get attention and state a clear position. The people who employ them need it and the think tanks need it for survival in the marketplace. And this raises my first question for New Think Tank. With a crowd-sourced platform what kind of threat is posed by the possibility of producing moderate opinions? In other words, will New Think Tank’s output spark a wider debate or just present unremarkable consensus? The nature of crowd-sourcing makes it a complex activity. It can produce extraordinary, innovative results or reduce everything to the mundane. Understanding these mechanics is an essential role for New Think Tank. Of course, the challenges arrive much earlier than the policy-making function, so my second question concerns the earlier stages. What approach will New Think Tank take to engaging people at the outset? I believe this to be a bigger issue. High-traffic platforms, like my Mail Online example, don’t attract people by asking them to share their opinion. They pull people in through posing provocative questions, however they may be presented. Provocation is an important part of user-centric design and it goes much deeper than getting people’s interest. If you want to develop continuous engagement you have to make people think. You have to challenge assumptions, spark dialogue and provoke. Thankfully this doesn’t need to be a constant struggle. Rather it comes down to what we were talking about in the branding workshop: how should New Think Tank position itself? What is its voice? If this is done right, and from what I’ve seen so far I fully believe it can be, then the first battle is won. With the right provocation, and the right attitude, New Think Tank has every chance of engaging people in a truly revolutionary project. Simon Gough

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