Think Tanks and the policy process: Right, wrong and possibly both at the same time

I’m currently halfway through The Conservative Party and Social Policy, edited by Hugh Bochel. The contributors chart recent developments in the policy agenda of the dominant Coalition partner. The book does a good job of conveying the protean nature of Conservative thought. Of course, one of the dangers of such an enterprise is that when assessing whether Cameron’s Conservativism represents continuity or change – traditional, neo-liberal or progressive – you’re driven to the conclusion that it’s too early to say. And that is precisely what the book does.

As well as having plenty to say on the substance of policy, the book also has something to say about the policy process, although that isn’t really central to its purpose. Academic debate continues about the drivers of public policy. Is policy driven by interests, institutions or ideas? How should these influences be blended? Or is policy better viewed, as some have argued, as its own cause?

While contributions to the Bochel collection pass comment on the balance between these factors, there is a strong sense of idealism. The focus is very much on the evolution of ideas and contestation between the internal coalitions advocating for different conceptions of Conservatism.

A key element of this story is the role of Think Tanks. This is a fascinating area because we don’t really know as much as we should about the way in which Think Tanks interact with and influence the policy process. But the influence can be pretty direct. Peter Somerville in his chapter in the Bochel collection comments parenthetically about one proposal that started life with a Think Tank. He takes it as an example of the arbitrariness of the policy process: “Someone has a bright idea, gets it published through a medium that is accessible to key policymakers and, then, if the latter like it, it can become policy almost overnight”. The idea has not necessarily been critically evaluated for coherence or for its implications. Its impacts have not necessarily be assessed and understood. Whether it complements or conflicts with other policies and objectives has not been ascertained.

Think Tanks play a high profile role in the current policy landscape. But it is striking quite how influential they have been on the political Right over a much longer period. It was the arrival of the Institute for Economic Affairs in the 1950s that started to move thinking away from One Nation Conservatism. And the Centre for Policy Studies, founded in 1974, became the main conduit for neo-liberal ideas into British political debate. The Heath government had a dalliance with neo-liberalism, but it never got serious. It was only after Keith Joseph and Co absorbed the bracingly simple nostrums of monetarism and a thorough-going economic liberalism that the Conservatives really broke from the commitment – always somewhat half hearted – to the post-war welfare settlement.

In the run up to the 2010 election Ian Duncan-Smith’s Centre for Social Justice generated rafts of reports which informed thinking to different degrees in different policy areas. But other Think Tanks have arguably been equally, if not more, influential.

In the field of housing policy, which is the field I know best, you can identify proposals first given an airing through Right wing Think Tanks that have transferred relatively directly to the current Conservative/Coalition policy platform. The Coalition’s proposals for social housing reform find strong resonance in a 2009 report by Localis entitled Principles for Social Housing Reform. Similarly, the Policy Exchange produced a report that has been influential in shaping the idea of the right to move and CentreForum on proposed reforms to the planning system. The Policy Exchange report Making Homes Affordable, by Alex Morton, was apparently voted best Think Tank Publication of 2010. It pushes a relatively conventional line on issues such as accessing home ownership and housing assets and reducing the strictures and scrutiny of the planning system. Yet, it’s arguable that we need to break away from conventional ways of thinking about housing markets if we are going to shift to a more sustainable housing market in future.

Many of the ideas and arguments advanced in Think Tank publications are constructed on a relatively slight evidence base and, in some cases, what appears to be a relatively tenuous grasp of the subject they are seeking to influence. Some reports that have attracted a lot of attention in policy circles may have only passing acquaintance with substantial and complex research literatures. Does that matter? Not, I would suggest, if we are going to treat Think Tank reports as advocacy in support of political positions. But it does matter if such publications are going to be constructed as ‘research’ and an evidence-base for policy. The designation ‘research’ is an honorific – it speaks of rigour, care, the weighing of arguments.

Matthew Taylor of the RSA makes an important point in a comment piece in a recent issue of Public Money & Management. The Coalition’s austerity programme is going to have a major impact upon the funding for academic social research. Therefore the knowledge base available to policy is likely to degrade over time. Poor quality, uncritical thinking makes for poor policy. So is there a need for new mechanisms of review for the ideas that find their way into policy via Think Tanks?

A recent example of the genre is the Policy Exchange Research Note Just deserts? Attitudes to fairness, poverty and welfare reform, published last week. This publication has attracted plenty of media attention and comment across the political spectrum.

It raises a host of interesting questions about what should guide policy. More specifically, what role should people’s attitudes have in driving policy? Or should such attitudes only influence policy when they are demonstrably evidence based? For example, the report concludes that most people think that benefits being too generous is a main cause of unemployment. I wouldn’t dispute the finding. But then we also know (from previous academic research) that a large proportion of people who haven’t been a recent benefit recipient have no idea how low benefit levels actually are. And when you tell them the levels of benefit they revise their views on generosity.

There is the bigger question of whether people even have fixed opinions on many issues relevant to policy makers. An alternative view is that the process of elicitation gives people the cues they need to construct an opinion on matters they had not previously considered. If the latter, then some – such as Murray Edelman in Politics as Symbolic Action – have argued that uninformed public opinion needs to be treated with great care as a guide to policy.

Take another example from the Just Deserts? report. The report asks interviewees about benefit sanctioning. It concludes that nearly half of respondents think people on Jobseekers Allowance who refuse job offers or interviews should be sanctioned in a way that means “they lose a large amount of their benefits, but keep enough to cover their basic needs”. But that is not a coherent answer in the context where JSA is set only marginally above subsistence level in the first place. Any cut as a ‘sanction’ will mean that claimants will not ‘keep enough to cover their basic needs’. (Even more alarming is that one in five respondents think that in these circumstance people should lose all their benefits, which would be authoritarian in the extreme).

As a piece of research the Just Deserts? report has some significant flaws. This isn’t the place to be exhaustive, so maybe just a couple of observations will do. The survey asked a number of double barrelled questions (a mistake you are taught to avoid in lesson one of any survey design course). There are questions that conflate fundamentally different concepts (eg ‘equal treatment’ and ‘equality (of outcome)’). Some of the questions are so vague as to admit to a wide range of interpretations – so the fact that X% agreed with a statement almost certainly doesn’t mean very much because they’re all agreeing with different things. Some of the issues the report is dealing with are subtle and require careful unpacking, but the report tries to capture complex issues in simple agree/disagree responses. And the interpretations put on some of the results are, as might be expected, the ones that serves the Policy Exchange’s own agenda. But those aren’t the only interpretations that could be offered.

I have discussed this report more because it is a recent example of the genre, rather than because it is a particularly egregious case. I think the point should be clear.

This government is proving relatively immune to evidence. If we have any aspiration to evidence informing the development of policy then it is important to ensure that, as far as possible, the evidence available is robust and not partial (in every sense of the word). That is a challenge that will, in a climate of austerity, become more difficult by the day. If we are not equal to the challenge then the consequence will be a policy process that is even further impoverished.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

2 replies »

  1. Interesting blog. What role think tanks play in the policy process can only be an extremely important question now, given the quite disproportionate (relative to their size, resources etc) impact they have and continue to have on policy reforms. I won’t preach about mandates, legitimacy and accountability, but these are all important issues that should be asked of think tanks. (I always think of C Wright Mills and his Power Elite in this context, but maybe that’s a bit over dramatic). I have some experience of working in such an organisation, as a researcher, and it was s fascinting environment. I think you put your finger right on the key issue though: what think tanks do is often not (in my my experience rarely is) what most people would think of as social scientific research. They develop ideas and write reports pursuing those ideas. Obviously research goes into that process, but their activities aren’t research driven. The primary agenda is different. There’s nothing wrong with that, in itself, but it does become problematic when (a) what they do is branded as research in order to get funding and (b) what they do is used as research by policy makers and others. Thanks for the post. Let’s hope the immunity to evidence will ebb quickly.

  2. It seems to me that Think Tanks seek or construct ‘evidence’ to support their perspective. This isn’t in itself a bad thing provided they are not described (say in the media and especially the BBC) as if they are unbiased or neutral commentators. As such I Think Tanks are useful in provoking debate.

    I heard Alex Morton speak recently and it was clear that his ‘findings’ were basically an expression of his world view. Interestingly his conclusion (at a housing conference) is why does the state subsidise services to the poor when Primark provides clothing for the poor without subsidy.

    Next week will also see Respublica producing their latest housign policy, that should keep us all busy for a few days.