Think Tanks: the real policy makers and breakers?

Do you want to be a p***k that works here for a year and then goes away and joins a think tank to write ‘oh on the one hand this and on the one hand that’ or do you want to be a soldier?”

– Malcolm Tucker, The Thick of it

In June 2012, the Cabinet Office published its Civil Service Reform White Paper, and while the majority of it would make pretty tedious reading to even the wonkiest of policy wonks, there is a key line that could potentially have considerable implications for the way that future UK governments and political parties formulate and develop policy. The line in question gives Ministers official power to commission policy development to external parties, including think tanks. These proposed changes were summed up succinctly by Labour MP Kelvin Hopkins: they symbolise a “neo-liberal revolution, which is marketising, outsourcing, and putting at arms’ length Government responsibilities.” But rather than suddenly placing policy responsibilities at arms’ length they actually formalise the long-term relationship that has existed between political parties and think tanks. 

Think tanks have been part of the UK political landscape for many years.  The policy of privatisation that occurred in the Thatcher years was developed by the Centre for Policy Studies and the Institute of Fiscal Studies. In 1991 Thatcher said that the Centre for Policy Studies “was where our Conservative revolution began”. More recently, Policy Exchange has become the most prominent centre-right think tank, laying claim to have influenced some of the higher profile policies of the Coalition Government, for example directly elected police commissioners, the Pupil Premium and Free Schools. Without Policy Exchange, claimed David Cameron in 2008 “there would be no Conservative revolution”.  Such utterances by two members of the ‘Prime Minister Club’ would give the distinct impression that these bodies wield considerable power and influence within the corridors of Whitehall.

A swift look at current Members of Parliament who have worked for these ‘brains trusts’ would strengthen this perception. This includes Conservatives such as Michael Gove, Liz Truss, Francis Maude, Jesse Norman, Charlotte Leslie, Chris Skidmore and Nick Boles, and Labour MPs such as Liz Kendell, Rushanara Ali and Tristram Hunt.  Many MPs also sit on the advisory councils of think tanks.  Some go the other way, like former Labour MPs Andy Reid, who is the co-founder and Head of the Sports Think Tank, and  James Purnell who after leaving Parliament in 2010 became chair of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), some 18 years after working there as a Research Fellow.  Think tanks are fast become a finishing school for aspiring MPs to rival the ‘Oxbridge PPE-party researcher-special adviser’ route.

The pull of Westminster has also attracted others ‘think-tankers’ into behind-the-scene roles. The current Director of the IPPR, Nick Pearce, once headed up Number 10’s Policy Unit; former Director of the Social Market Foundation and current Chair of Demos, Phillip Collins, was speech writer to Tony Blair; the former Deputy Director of Policy Exchange James O’Shaughnessy worked as a Director of Policy for David Cameron; and former Director of Demos, Richard Reeves went on to work as Nick Clegg’s director of strategy. More recently, Policy Exchange lost Director Neil O’Brien to the Treasury as an adviser to Chancellor George Osborne. This trend would be what one of my favourite political commentators, Peter Oborne, might refer to as the rise of a Political Class.

But behind all the names, it can be hard to grasp the precise nature and scale of influence that think tanks exert, and how this is achieved. “Think tanks can have influence in two ways”, says Ian Mulheirn, Director of the Social Market Foundation, “by coming up with great policy ideas or by acting as a forum for debate about policy. Influence of the former type depends largely on what ideas you have and whether you can get someone to buy them. Influence of the latter type is arguably more important to civil society, with good think tanks trying to act as a bridge between Westminster and the rest of the world.” Alan Robinson, a former Business Development Manager of the Respublica think tank agrees. “They are in the business of influencing and work hard to achieve that influence. They do hold some degree of influence and some more than others, but in reality all they are doing is adding a voice and creating a new angle to an existing policy concern”.

Furthermore this influence has grown in recent years, as Robinson argues.  “The relationship between political parties and think tanks has been too cosy in recent years. The last Labour Government was quite cynical in granting contracts only to a number of favourable think tanks”.  Perhaps this is not surprising given the number of Blair disciples that previously plied their trades in a concentrated few think tanks, like David Miliband, James Purnell and Patricia Hewitt, all of them IPPR alumni.  But perhaps we should also take into account the potential social benefits that can be gained from this relationship. Ian Mulhern again: “Think tanks should not be involved in lobbying, but it is a vital part of a well-functioning democracy that political parties have politically sympathetic think tanks that can help them generate a new, refreshed programme for government.”  To my mind, though, this analysis is in danger of blurring the distinction between a think tank and a political party.

It is entirely to be expected that Ministers favour think tanks they know are politically sympathetic and which will provide them with recommendations that conform to their own world view.  We can argue about the details of a particular policy, but I am still optimistic that Ministers perform their duties with a high degree of integrity. They may be put in post for one of a number of reasons: for their expertise, as a pay-off or for long service.  But they are there to make decisions knowing that one poor policy choice can kill their career.  However, an increasing pressure to come up with headline grabbing policies may tempt some to plough ahead with a fashionable, yet technically unworkable policy option.

Think tanks too, live and die by their ability to show independence and integrity, and as Ian Mulheirn points out “without the credibility that comes from independence and analytical integrity, a think tank is nothing and its output has no impact”. They may not be public bodies, but with their increasing proximity to elected officials and public institutions, transparency in the way they are funded is vital to ensure that the democratic process is not corrupted.  I would agree that their work should be judged on the quality of the advice given, and the evidence which supports it, rather than the political leaning of that particular think tank. But I cannot get away from the fact that many have become overtly aligned to one political party or another. Alan Robinson again: “Reports that appear independent have been commissioned by organisations wanting to argue for a change in a specific policy. They will more often than not be heavily influential in drafting the final report”.

In the final analysis, it is down to the individual Minister to make a policy choice, and that of course is as it should be. The fact that a think tank provides evidence for a policy decision does not fully explain the Minister’s final decision. And if think tanks are not responsible for policy choices, they cannot legitimately claim success for the implementation of policy.   Any organisation that fosters debate on the future of public services can only be a good thing, and think tanks certainly have a lot to contribute to the debate. But in reality, political parties are influenced more by national opinion polls than anything else.  If this is the case, then perhaps think tanks are just another small fish in a large pond filled with lobbyists, public affairs professionals and NGOs, all striving to have the ear of politicians.

2 responses to “Think Tanks: the real policy makers and breakers?”

  1. First, may i say this is another great article.
    I suppose you could compare the ‘Think Tanks’ to the School ‘Tuck Shops’ (pre-Jamie of course) where they are selling Snickers chocolate bars which have always been Marathons and where those younger ones who work pedaling the sweets will always end up being 6th formers (but with Chocolate on their faces).