What's the secret to a successful think tank in the 21st century?

Michael Harris /   June 29, 2015 at 8:31 PM 4,389 views

The Global Go-To Think Tank Index, compiled annually by the Think Tanks and Civil Society Program at the University of Pennsylvania, which ranks policy research organisations using a panel of nearly 1,500 experts and peers, claims that the ‘best’  think tank in the UK is Chatham House (the Royal Institute of International Affairs). You can always quibble with the methodologies used in such studies of course , but there’s no doubt that Chatham House is well-regarded domestically and internationally, which explains its #2 overall global ranking. In any straw poll of policy and research types, there’s a handful of think tanks that are typically cited as authoritative and rigorous – although for some reason they don’t rank highly in the Pennsylvania Index. They include the Institute for Fiscal Studies (ranked 25th and then only in ‘Domestic Economic Policy Think Tanks’), the King’s Fund (unranked, despite the health category), and more recently the Resolution Foundation. These organisations have been mentioned frequently in the workshops we’ve been holding for this project, as have the Centre for Social Justice and the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion (CESI). Both of these have been characterised as serious, rigorous and well-informed (including a good awareness of policy developments in their fields) – the same reason the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) was awarded think tank of the year by Prospect magazine a few months ago. The Pennsylvania Index determines its rankings by criteria such as impact, reputation, profile etc. In addition, as noted in the introduction to this year’s report, the best think tanks are finding ways to respond to two main needs:

  • the ‘operational gap’ experienced by policymakers as a result of their lack of access to the information and tools necessary to respond to contemporary problems;
  • the ‘participatory gap’, that is the perspective held by many people and organisations that they are excluded from policymaking.

Certainly most think tanks seek to bridge the first gap (and always have done), but the extent to which many also try to bridge the second gap is more debatable. In the previous post we suggested a new definition for think tanks in the 21st century: open, accessible, inclusive and transparent social institutions which work in partnership with others to improve policy. What’s interesting about the Pennsylvania Index is that these characteristics can also be seen to sit behind the rankings for organisations such as Chatham House. Chatham House is a forum for discussion as well as a research organisation (it calls itself a “membership-based policy institute”), which is one of the reasons people like it and find it so useful. Similarly the RSA. The best new think tank according to the Index? The ‘prize’ goes to Google Ideas, a ‘think/do tank’ (as they say) intended to find technology-based solutions to intractable problems. I confess I hadn’t heard of it before reading the Index (perhaps this explains why). As far as I’m aware there’s no website, but there is one for its first project, to find solutions for violent extremism by bringing together former violent extremists, survivors, activists and experts. The philosophy (captured in the Q&A) is as you might expect rather different from that of traditional think tanks: “AgainstViolentExtremism.org is a virtual space where a community will grow, self-generate and self-regulate. Responsibility for the processes around site content and functionality must, as far as possible, lie with network members. The power of this tool is that it operates without reliance on a central arbiter, mediator or middleman – connections, collaborations and online content are generated and managed organically.” In a social media age, this suggests that the secret to a successful think tank is to act as a meeting place, rather than trying to claim a monopoly on wisdom.

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