The challenge for think tanks in the 21st century

The world that the think tank was born into a hundred years ago has changed significantly.

Most people in the sector recognise that the last 10-15 years in particular have signalled a paradigm shift, and many thinktankers have been reflecting on the role of the policy expert in the 21st century.

We have been exploring this, too. We’ve made a virtue of absorbing existing research from fields as varied as cognitive psychology, political philosophy, anthropology and public opinion polling.

And where we identified gaps, we’ve commissioned our own research. The following is a summary of our conclusions.

A new policy dynamic

The policymaking landscape has reflected wider societal changes. Traditionally, the key audiences for think tanks were policymakers and journalists. The policy agenda was usually set by the interplay between the two.

This is not to say public opinion didn’t matter. It most certainly did. But the public was not an active player in the policy debate. It was represented by public surveys, opinion polls, focus groups or market research.

Occasionally people would take action through demonstrations or strikes, but these were few and far between, and usually the product of a breakdown in communication.

Social media has given the public a voice. This voice is undoubtedly messy and noisy. But in aggregate, it carries considerable weight. Social media can focus opinion. It can lend its support. It can turn against you. Think of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the #MeToo movement, or the response to the dementia tax.

It has turned a bi-polar dynamic into a tri-polar one.

The challenge for policy experts

Facts are no longer the rocks of certainty they once were. The digital revolution has given access to an ocean of information. For every argument backed up by facts, you can find counter-arguments backed up by other facts.

It is hardly surprising that in this environment, people find it hard to know what to believe. It comes down to who you trust. So how do think tanks ply their trade in a world in which their main currency – facts – are so devalued?

how do think tanks ply their trade in a world in which their main currency – facts – are so devalued?

The last Edelman Trust Barometer revealed that over half the general public thought government leaders, business leaders and journalists were purposely trying to mislead them. On a more positive note, academic and technical expertise was trusted by around 3 in 5 people.

All experts are not created equal, unfortunately. Our own 2020 research shows a gap of around 40 percentage points in the extent to which medical experts (92%) and engineers (88%) were valued, compared to policy experts (50%).

Thinktankers find themselves at the confluence of two converging pressures:

• a crisis in trust in government, media and business, brought about by repeated breaches of trust by each of these actors; and

• the rise of the networked age, in which everyone has become a publisher, facts abound and are devalued, and previously-trusted authority sources have lost their high-category status.

We think experts do matter – but they need to communicate better

Cast From Clay was founded in 2016 precisely to address this challenge, at a time when trust in policy experts seemed at a low ebb. Populist politics had called into question the credibility of experts and the legitimacy of institutions.

We believe that our societies should be governed on the basis of evidence, and that think tanks play an essential role in generating policy ideas.

However, we also recognise that policy experts have not been good enough at communicating their expertise.

In 2018, we carried out research on perceptions of policy communications, and found a big gap between the appetite for good policy communication, and the supply. In both the UK and the US, seven in 10 people believe that the general population needs to understand government policy better.

But while six in 10 political insiders feel that government policy is communicated well, fewer than two in 10 among the general public feel the same. This is not good enough – we all have a duty to do better.

we asked UK parliamentarians if they felt think tanks did enough to explain policy ideas to the public. Out of 100 MPs, only 32% agreed.

And for any thinktankers who feel the general public is not their responsibility, we asked UK parliamentarians – their key constituency – if they felt think tanks did enough to explain policy ideas to the public. Out of 100 MPs, only 32% agreed.

Beyond fact-based communication

Political events in the last few years have shown us the limitations of fact-based communications. For anyone who believed that the best facts always win, this has been a rude awakening. And yet much of think tank communications remains shaped by this.

We need to reconsider the premise of our communications: the notion of the rational citizen who ingests complex arguments and formulates balanced political opinions accordingly.

This is simply not how humans work – we are governed by emotion. Cognitive psychologists have shown that facts that don’t fit pre-existing frames will be discarded without a moment’s notice. And our own research and others’ shows that this is just as true for policymakers as for the general public.

At Cast From Clay, we’ve been making the case for a few years now for a model of think tank communications which focuses on storytelling and making a human connection with your message.

There is no reason why populists should have the monopoly on humanity. Quite the opposite. And yet, for the time being they do.

There is no reason why populists should have the monopoly on humanity.

We are not advocating for human storytelling instead of facts. But we are championing human storytelling in support of facts.

To trust the message, you have to trust the messenger

Think tanks have a key role to play in shaping policy debates – however, they need to earn the public’s trust first. In this new networked age, traditional sources of authority have to compete with new dynamics of trust.

There is work to do. In our 2018 research, we found that only 17% of the public in the UK (20% in the US) trusted what think tanks have to say. The good news is that “only” 28% (24%) actively distrusted them, leaving a majority who didn’t know what to make of them.

The reality is that barely half the population profess to knowing what a think tank is (self-reportedly), while even fewer know what a think tank does. Even among people interested in politics, only two-thirds know what a think tank does.

Barely half the population profess to knowing what a think tank is while even fewer know what a think tank does

In order to have the impact it ought to have, the think tank sector needs to educate the public about what they do, and the positive role they can play in sound, evidence-based policymaking.

Celebrating the best in the sector

The Prospect Think Tank Awards, which we are sponsoring this year, bring together those organisations who have pushed the boundaries in their field. Those who have pioneered new approaches. Those who have excelled.

What better place to start celebrating the best that the think tank sector has to offer, and the valuable contribution they make to society? So on behalf of those who believe in policy based on evidence, we welcome the opportunity to celebrate achievement and best practice.

And we look forward to seeing as many of you as possible at the awards.

Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash