An introduction to our series, where writers known for thinking deeply about the work of research and policy organisations reimagine what the sector’s future could be.
For many years now, I have entered the hushed offices of research and policy organisations across the USA and Europe to talk to them about their work.
There, the buildings are solid. Four walls provide the confines of rational thought. The edges are clear and sturdy.
In our conversations, we ask policy organisations about their value-add. They often invoke evidence, objectivity, and independence. Facts, reality, data. These things we stand for, policy organisations say. These things, too, are solid, definitive.
Yet from time to time they mention something else: ideas. Go to any event about research and policy and you’ll hear a statement such as: “This sector exists to explore and generate new ideas and bring them to bear upon persistent social challenges.” Kudos.
Still, ideas are images in the mind – burgeoning not concrete, possible not actual. Consult a dictionary and the antonym of idea is: fact.
The question this raises for me is: Are research and policy organisations in the business of what is, or what could be?
Are research and policy organisations in the business of what is, or what could be?
In this series, four writers known for thinking deeply about the work of research and policy organisations reimagine what think tanks could be. While research and policy organisations are traditionally solid with hard edges, here they are remoulded to be more fluid.
Taking a sweeping look at our changed information environment, Keith Burnet – formerly Chatham House Communications MD and now advisor to Cast From Clay and UN University – asks policy organisations to rise to the challenge our current reality poses. He spotlights two opportunities for think tanks to better connect, both through their language and through their structures, with a wider citizenry.
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Connecting with citizens is a theme two authors pick up at length.
The inimitable Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of ‘think and action tank’ New America, offers a vivid and electrifying vision for the future of public policy organisations: how they orient and relate at a structural level. There, organisations lash themselves together in flotillas of action, moving toward a common goal: “loose enough to allow for genuine autonomy and individuality, but joined enough to be able to adopt common missions and metrics.”
Who rides in these flotillas of action? As former Head of Research at the RSA, Hannah Webster, would have it, citizens must be involved. Drawing on the RSA’s work to pursue a much more participatory approach to their work, she shares what they’ve learned so far through with a convincing set of guiding principles that do not – as can sometimes happen when talking about power-shifting models – slip into patronising tones or sentimentalism.
Consider that AI tools like ChatGPT now fulfil the task of neutral information parsing pretty sufficiently. These authors show us that more is possible from these organisations.
We end with a clarion call from one of the think tank’s sector’s leading voices, Sir Robin Niblett, Distinguished Fellow – and former Director – of Chatham House. Robin challenges us to shake off metrics that may have once meant something, but no longer suffice: “Talking to ourselves is not enough. Being the top of the pile among other think tanks is not enough. Being regularly quoted in the Financial Times is not enough.” No, instead, Robin urges, “we must democratise our best ideas”.
There is no better time than now. Arguably, public policy experts have tried to fill the role of a kind of characterless intelligence, a view from nowhere, impartially gathering information to be fed into the policy decision machine.
A view from nowhere is a fallacy, but even if it could be achieved it is unlikely to effect change. That’s because part of the potency and salience of a message is the messenger. A supposed view from nowhere is also a view from no one and therefore has no social power.
If that weren’t enough to convince you, consider that AI tools like ChatGPT now fulfil the task of neutral information parsing pretty sufficiently (and much of the time in clearer and more intelligible language than many research organisations).
As our information environment plumes with defective information, we need policy organisations to move, and soon.
It would be easy at this point for me to warn of the impending end to research and policy organisations if they do not awaken and respond to this burning platform. But what is at stake is far bigger. Because these organisations help inform our democratic debates by providing quality evidence to inform our decisions. As our information environment plumes with defective information, we need them to move, and soon.
If they are to remould and reshape our world for the better in this time, with these challenges, research and policy organisations must remould themselves.
These articles call on research and policy organisations to grow more porous. And, in order to shape society, to allow themselves to be shaped by society in turn. Both in ideal and in actuality, they show us that more is possible.