With a troubled information environment threatening our democracies, research and policy organisations have a moral obligation to share their knowledge and methods in a two-way engagement with an increasingly alienated public, argues Keith Burnet.
Our troubled information environment is a challenge for research and policy organisations
For decades, research and policy institutions such as think tanks enjoyed a degree of certainty that their ideas would be heard in the right policy circles. Engaging with, and being known to, the wider public and soliciting their opinions was neither contemplated nor required.
Today, public opinion, often enabled by social media, is now an unyielding element within our ‘them and us’ political discourse. At best, social media platforms have removed traditional gatekeepers. This can elevate the voices of otherwise excluded individuals and communities, help to uncover biases and blind spots in policymaking, and provide for potentially more inclusive and equitable decisions.
Public opinion, often enabled by social media, is now an unyielding element within our ‘them and us’ political discourse.
At worst, social media’s immediacy and speed fans the flames of short-term decision-making. Coupled with poor and volatile political judgement, the outcome can be grim. As Twitter risks drowning itself in chaos and confused algorithms, increasing uncertainty about its future adds another element of insecurity to a hitherto important platform for public dialogue around policy.
The months and years to come will continue to throw up big policy challenges. From the global economic downturn to the war in Ukraine to the climate crisis, our collective ability for effective big-thinking and delivering robust, effective policy is fractured, arguably broken.
Radical change requires a radical response
The best public policy research helps decision-makers make better decisions. It goes beyond what’s easy and arrives at credible recommendations that work. It incorporates a range of options and opinions.
Sign up to our newsletter
Increasingly, think tanks and research organisations are diversifying their engagement and widening the scope of their audiences. Some are directly engaging otherwise underrepresented voices and communities whose lives are often the most affected by those political decisions that think tanks seek to influence.
In the UK alone, some think tanks are moving outside the Westminster bubble, from the now well-established IPPR North to the Scottish Council on Global Affairs, launched last spring. Agora develops its research agenda via a UK-wide open forum with partners and sister institutes in several other countries. The British Foreign Policy Group goes to communities across the country, largely to stimulate debate and direct engagement. The UK in a Changing Europe works from its base at King’s College and through a network of academics and researchers across the UK.
It is improbable that a traditionally elite group of white males are the right people to cut through these challenges at a time of information-overload and disinformation.
Further, effective use of digital content, social media and online events helps to develop, diversify and provide analytics to better understand audiences and make research findings and recommendations more accessible.
Coupled with joined-up digital marketing and media strategies, these activities profile-raise and pay important impact-related dividends. However, they struggle to cut through meaningfully to audiences at scale and this is increasingly true as commercial organisations invest in these strategies and diversify their presence and compete for audience attention.
One hurdle is that public recognition of what policy organisations such as think tanks do is low, and there is suspicion around their motives. It is improbable that a traditionally elite group of white males are the right people to cut through these challenges at a time of information-overload and disinformation.
Citizens want what policy experts have to offer. Why not trade with them?
A majority of people across a range of countries express a preference for impartial non-partisan news and analysis in order to make better decisions about key issues.
Indeed, the need to cut through disinformation was crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic. The same is true for Russia’s war in Ukraine, where free press coverage is clearly one of the elements that gives democracy a ‘competitive advantage’. Cast From Clay’s polling found that 55% of UK respondents agree that experts support informed democratic debate by providing high-quality information.
The most credible think tanks provide analysis that is cool-headed, exposes disinformation with ease, and makes positive contributions to democratic societies. They build processes that are open, adaptive, and inclusive of a range of expertise. They have a deep knowledge base and networks that are awash with ideas and insights. They hold in-built understanding that solutions are painstaking, methodical, and require a range of specialisms.
At the height of the pandemic, experts were able to explain complex issues to populations hungry for information. In Germany, virologist Christian Drosten, whose scientific, evidence-based briefings and podcasts garnered millions of listeners, found a willing audience for his technical knowledge. Many think tanks have Drosten’s brand of expertise on tap.
The most credible think tanks provide analysis that is cool-headed, exposes disinformation with ease, and makes positive contributions to democratic societies.
From their vantage point of privilege in understanding all the big challenges of the day, think tanks now have a pressing moral obligation to share their methods, insights and goals more openly and widely. This includes bringing into their circles more interested citizens, to the benefit of the wider community.
How policy organisations can connect better with the public
Structures that connect
Anne-Marie Slaughter – who has also written an article for this series – has argued for a ‘civic’ model of think tank, a blend of “conventional policy research with local organising, coalition building, public education, advocacy, and bottom-up projects that generate and test ideas before, during, and after engagement in the policymaking process.”
Imagine a civic-focused policy research organisation, developing locally-based partnerships and doubling down on its obligation to educate and inform the wider public. If the organisation were to couple this with a reassertion of its principles – for example, in support of democracy, or multilateralism – it would be a powerful force.
And if think tanks and research institutes could adapt and adopt lessons from their action-oriented cousins in advocacy and campaigning, their ability to resonate with a wider public would be within reach.
Language that connects
Everyone in communications knows that even if you build it, they won’t necessarily come. But language, along with compelling narratives and storytelling that makes research and facts relatable, are powerful weapons in think tanks’ communications armoury. We already know that technical or ‘insider’ language doesn’t land with wider audiences. But everyday terminology, metaphor and imagery, and human stories do.
Compelling narratives and storytelling that makes research and facts relatable, are powerful weapons in think tanks’ communications armoury.
For example, research commissioned by campaigning organisation Freedom From Torture (FFT), and acted on since, found that certain language, widely used in its field, alienates the public. For example, describing refugees in legal terms or as victims doesn’t resonate with the very section of the public that organisations like FFT need support from.
In response, FFT made significant changes to its communications strategy that, if amplified across the whole sector, could arguably shift public opinion more favourably towards refugees, directly challenging policy makers. Indeed, in Australia where campaigners have changed their language, public opinion shifted from one in 10 viewing refugees as an issue of concern to one in 100.
Sign up to our newsletter
If think tanks rethink and evolve their approach, which includes how they are structured, how they research, and how they communicate, they are well placed to better contribute to the democratic dialogue that is currently so plagued by disinformation and division.
I still get a great sense of satisfaction when ideas-filled analysis explains and sheds light on a problem or crisis and suggests a way forward. Everyone is entitled to this level of quality. The more that research and policy organisations can get that to more of us, the better.
Keith has over 30 years’ experience in communications roles in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors. The bulk of this time was spent at Chatham House, most recently as Managing Director of Communications and Publishing. There, he oversaw, among many other things, Chatham House’s transition to digital-first and audience-focused communications. Keith was also co-chair of its Co-lab set up to create immersive and collaborative research initiatives. Today, Keith is an Advisor to Cast From Clay, UN University, and is Chair of Trustees at the All Survivors Project.