Last Autumn I left my job at one of England’s biggest think tanks. As I moved out of the think tank world, I began mulling over what difference, if any, I had made over the last seven years. Funders were increasingly asking us to demonstrate our impact, and so as part of my Clore Social Leadership fellowship I have conducted a short piece of research on this topic titled, Impact: an enquiry into how think tanks create change, interviewing some of the key people working with think tanks to explore exactly how they create change in the world.
My research has shown that the main way think tanks create change is by influencing policy and politics, bringing in new ideas to solve complex problems. To do this well, certain conditions need to be in place. Firstly, they need a unique and politically appealing proposal. To have the greatest traction this should be based on evidence, and reinforced by a coalition of partners asking for the same thing. Strong relationships with politicians, their special advisers and civil servants will all help to get new ideas taken up when windows of opportunity arise.
But what happens when the political climate isn’t ripe for an idea? Then, think tanks have a role in making the unthinkable possible, and provide a safe space for politicians to debate and test ideas before going public with them. Some think tanks also have an impact by holding the government to account, putting a spotlight on topics through doing consistent research and analysis that raises its profile.
Three big challenges came out of this research. These are issues think tanks need to address if they are serious about their work having the biggest possible impact.
- The first is for think tanks to develop stronger relationships with civil society, activists and campaigners, so that policy work can better reflect the everyday experiences and challenges of citizens.
- The second is to think about how they communicate beyond the political elite, free of the jargon that many of us become quickly used to.
- The third challenge for think tanks is to consider partnerships as a central part of their strategy for change. Time, funding streams and short term projects often act against collaboration, but the best examples of impact in this research came from long term, strategic work that engaged a range of organisations, from policy, academia, and front line practice.
Think tanks also face difficult questions about how they can maintain consistent political influence under new charity regulation, and how to engage a political landscape that is increasingly fragmented and devolved. Newly elected mayors, devolution and an exit from the EU all change where think tanks seek traction with their work.
At their best, think tanks connect the dots between the challenges of our everyday lives and radical new visions for the future. At their worst, they offer bland solutions to yesterday’s problems. I hope this research goes some way to illuminating the different tactics think tanks might use to increase their impact.
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