Four reasons why policy-making shouldn't be outsourced to right-wing think tanks

Take a look at the institutions to which, if Francis Maude gets his way, the Government will be outsourcing policy. Does it seem sensible to you?

The “report from a respected think tank” news story is a staple of political reporting these days, especially now that the average news desk is manned by three hacks on minimum wage and a couple of kids on work experience. The media doesn’t tend to ask too much about the people producing these reports - they just give us the headline, give us a response from someone who doesn’t like it, and bang, story done.

And what this means is that big business has a louder voice than ever. Corporations have been able to quietly influence policy outside of traditional lobbying procedures in the past by infiltrating the civil service via the revolving door of the jobs market, but that advice is at least supposed to be objective. Now Francis Maude is suggesting that Government policy making should be outsourced to - among other bodies - think tanks, which have tax-free charitable status based on their aims to improve public policy. This isn't necessarily a bad idea, but it certainly raises questions about transparency and accountability. Here’s a quick look at a few of the think tanks on the right to illustrate why.

1. Reform

Founded by Nick Herbert, one of those Tories it’s generally considered ok for lefties to like. Unlike pretty much every other right-wing think tank, is open about who funds it and how much. Last year it received £1,251,501, which you’d hope would pay for some damn good ideas. On that note: produced a report this year entitled The Case for Private Prisons, which suggested private prisons offer better value for money and lower reoffending rates, an argument which wasn't supported by the Prison Reform Trust and was even described as “simplistic” by prisons minister Jeremy Wright.

Co-incidentally, three of its “corporate partners” are G4S, Serco and Sodexo, who run all the private prisons in Britain. This is pretty much par for the course - in the pages of the Times and Telegraph Reform has previously bigged up privately-run custody suites, and the idea of G4S bobbies on the beat. But unlike most of the others, at least it's open about where it’s coming from.

What’s a bit more under the radar, however, is the issue of ministerial access. Reform has previously claimed corporations like G4S are “left out of the Whitehall policy discussion” which is, well, debatable (yes, that’s 17 meetings with ministers since 2010). But fear not - it’s doing what it can to remedy the situation. In its prospectus for the Tory Party conference it boasted to potential sponsors that it could set up “successful events attended by ministers and shadow ministers, special advisers, MPs, MEPs and council leaders”, among them Mark Prisk, Lord Freud and Mark Hoban. Any “partner organisation” could use roundtable events or dinners with “around 20 high-level participants” to put their own “insights into the relevant policy debate at the beginning of the meeting”.

2. Policy Exchange

Founded by Nick Boles, Michael Gove and Francis Maude. To get a feel for the enthusiasm of this merry camp of dreamers, you need only read Gove’s sadly-deleted and somewhat hyperbolic testimony on their website: “Policy Exchange were a tiny band of guerrillas, partisans in the hillside fighting a lonely campaign, but now, that tiny guerrilla band has turned into the most formidable regular army on the thinktank battlefield."

If Reform is the Greg Dyke of right wing think tanks, Policy Exchange is undoubtedly the John Birt: “blue sky” doesn’t come close. Reform’s ideas might annoy everyone except those who don’t like big government, but Policy Exchange regularly sets the bar higher and manages to get on their wick too. If you want a good example, think of the Police and Crime Commissioner Elections, described by then “Head of Crime and Justice” Blair Gibbs as “the boldest reform to policing since the 1960s”.

Gibbs is a classic Tory think tank wonk: Oxford University Conservative Association, stints at Reform and the Taxpayers’ Alliance, MP’s researcher, Policy Exchange, and now he’s working for BoJo. An impressive CV which suggests a somewhat detached relationship with the practicalities of the field in which he’s an "expert". He was on Twitter, but described himself as one of the “four horsemen” of police reform, and this provoked such a furious reaction he had to leave. Let’s face it, if you’re a copper who risks his life every time he goes to work and who’s about to be hit by Government cuts, that’s probably not the sort of thing you want to read from a twenty-something policymaker.

(Incidentally, this is a common complaint about think tanks - salaries tend to top out pretty early, which means their employees go and do something else (usually working as Spads). To quote Zoe Williams: “It is noticeable [...] how often you're told by a 28-year-old that care of patients with Alzheimer's can be managed by text message and ‘parenting classes can improve community engagement and lead to local wellbeing’”.)

Anyway, the PCC plan has been hit by a number of setbacks. First, it’s never a good idea to hold an election when you don’t know who the candidates are or indeed what they’re standing for. Then you’ve got the Paris Brown affair and now this extraordinary freedom of speech horrorshow, which is a whole blog post in itself. One of the companies to fund Policy Exchange is Deloitte, which issued press releases saying PCCs must “get to grips with current policing operations” and “focus on reforming pay, pensions and paperwork, the financial management of their force, and cutting costs.” Hard to think which firm they could hire to achieve that.

3. Centre for Social Justice

The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), founded by Iain Duncan Smith, is perhaps the most prominent face of modern compassionate conservatism. Which to many means: wolf in sheep’s clothing. Its output and the thinking behind the Government’s welfare reforms are so closely related as to be indistinguishable - its last head, Philippa Stroud, is now Duncan Smith’s Spad, the current one was his speech writer. All three are churchgoers: all the fun of traditional Tory cuts, but now with added evangelical Christian zeal!

So the CSJ doesn’t believe in benefit “scroungers”, but it is big on the whole “tragedy of generations trapped on benefits thing”; though it hasn’t said much on the reports suggesting this framing is somewhat overplayed. To be fair to the CSJ, it’s shown a certain open-mindedness of late. Its director gave an interview to the Guardian in which he admitted the think-tank hadn’t concentrated enough on in-work poverty, instead focussing on those old right-wing bugbears like drug addiction, benefit dependency and, rather more controversially given the story described in the first link above, family breakdown. Now you might think he’s come to the table a bit late on all this, and you’d be right, what with people in this publication and others making the point that the majority of benefits claimants are in work for oh, I don’t know, YEARS, but it’s a start.

And you have to say the CSJ seems generally more well-intentioned than others. Or at least you do if they’ve quoted you in their research (oh yes, dear readers). But this rather begs the question of who’s funding their work. Someone gave them circa £1.5m last year to come up with their ideas, but we have no idea who they are. We can see that one of the CSJ’s award sponsors is the recruitment firm Manpower, and that raises questions, because that firm is one of the largest shareholders in Working Links, a major player in the DWP’s Work Programme and which has been accused of systematic fraud. Maybe we don’t want to go down this rabbit hole, because then you’d start asking whether it’s right that the people contracting (and indeed investigating) the firm in Government should also receive money from them in another capacity.

4. Centre for Crime Prevention

Just thought I’d drop this one in as it tells us rather a lot about how our media works. As you can see, the Centre for Crime Prevention has clocked up a number of media appearances, quoted in the Sun, Express, Metro and Mirror among others, with serious, weighty headlines like “Soft on hardened criminals: Now two thirds of serious repeat offenders avoid jail”, “Reoffending rates show "revolving door" community sentences not working, critics say,” and so on.

So they’re a right wing think tank and they like hard, punitive justice. Fair enough. But who are they? Well here’s the thing: they’re one man (Peter Cuthbertson from the Taxpayers’ Alliance), and his blog. Look, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t take him seriously. Actually no, I am saying that. Read his quote here, then read this and see who you agree with. But that’s another issue.

I’m just saying that I have access to Google, some pretty damn trenchant views on stuff (mostly DVD box sets, but still) and the capacity to put out a press release. I’m no hack: I’m a think tank. Brace yourself, news editors.

I could go on with all this, but I think you’re getting the picture. The question though, is whether think tanks backed by big business are such a bad thing. Hopi Sen has previously made a decent argument in favour of think tanks across the political spectrum. And these are certainly good for the bright young right wing things who work for them - they can go on to jobs as political advisers or at the firms whose backs they’ve been scratching - but they’re also good for you. Because really - what else are they going to do in their twenties? Go into journalism, get slowly driven mad by the experience of writing for an online audience and wind up calling people “Libtards” on Twitter while guffing on about climate change? Do we need more of that? Or even worse - go into proper politics and become an MP? Do you want the guy representing your democratic interests to have been submitting comedy motions about how his Oxbridge college could declare war on Brussels at Junior Common Room meetings two years previously? No, didn’t think so. The simple fact is these institutions provide a public service. Long may they reign.

Think tanks can transform into the standard-setters and arbiters of quality of 21st century policy analysis

In recent years, think tanks have been beset by financial constraints, increased competition, and, more recently, a growing questioning of, and popular dissatisfaction with, the role of the ‘expert’ itself. Marcos Gonzalez HernandoDiane Stone and Hartwig Pautz examine each of these challenges and find that, at a time of huge over-supply of (occasionally dubious) evidence and policy analysis from a variety of sources, think tanks have an opportunity to reinvent themselves as organisations able to discern the reliability and usefulness of policy advice.

Last month, the annual Global GoTo Think Tank Index Report was released, amid claims “think tanks are more important than ever before”. It is unclear whether this was said in spite of, or because of, the emergence of ‘post-truth politics’. Experts have become targets of anger and derision, struggling to communicate facts and advance evidence-based policy. Popular dissatisfaction with ‘policy wonks’ has meant think tanks face challenges to their credibility at a time they are under pressure from increased competition. The 20th century witnessed the rise of the think tank, but the 21st century might yet see its decline. To avoid such a fate, we believe think tanks must reposition themselves as the credible arbiters able to distinguish between poor analysis and good quality research.

The GoTo index uses peer review to rank the world’s leading think tanks, some 6,846 of them, “with the help of a panel of over 1,900 institutions and experts from the print and electronic media, academia, public and private donor institutions, and governments around the world”. However, the index shows that defining what constitutes a think tank remains difficult. Chatham House topped the list, but the report puzzlingly ranks Amnesty International and Transparency International – generally considered NGOs – at positions eight and nine as top think tanks outside the US. Such confusion suggests the assertion “think tanks are now more necessary than ever” is more problematic than frequently assumed. It points to underlying tensions in the think tank industry that could herald the end of the think tank century.

In recent years, think tanks have faced three major challenges: financial limits in a world characterised by austerity; increased competition both among think tanks and with other types of policy research organisations; and a growing questioning of, and popular dissatisfaction with, the role of the ‘expert’ itself. Here, we look at each of these in turn.

As the policy analysis industry has expanded, funding sources have not necessarily grown in tandem. Anecdotal accounts from think tank insiders strongly suggest that a decade of austerity has brought about leaner times for think tanks. Government agencies and ministries have less funding available to support what is often considered a luxury: expensive non-state policy research and analysis. Private funding is unlikely to make up shortfalls. Last century, philanthropic foundations often played a key role in the establishment of think tanks around the world. This century, the endowments of the world’s major philanthropic foundations took a hit in the wake of the global financial crisis.

Furthermore, whether depending on private or public funding, think tank funders’ demands and preferences can be fickle even at the best of times. Funds are most often project-based, and overreliance on short-term grants sets in motion a treadmill that saps organisational resources for institutional consolidation, instead cultivating a profile that reflects sponsors’ fads and fashions. Moreover, questions over their transparency and independence from funders are a frequent challenge for think tanks.

A second factor impinging on think tanks is strong competition from other knowledge providers. Advances in telecommunications and social media have fundamentally altered the environment in which think tanks communicate their research, opening spaces for competitors. Today there is more “interchangeability between the think tank public intellectual and the academic public intellectual” with the pressures of impact agendas. Hence, many universities have established their own dedicated applied policy research centres. In such a context, the line between an academic department and a “university-affiliated think tank” (as listed in the GoTo Index) has become blurred.

Likewise, many of the world’s leading NGOs, including Amnesty International, have developed solid in-house capacity for policy research, as have some large commercial and central banks. Business associations (like the Confederation of British Industry), large management consultancies (such as PwC), and professional bodies are better able than in the past to promote their policy perspectives with in-house research units.

International organisations also deliver recommendations with a style, format and intent similar to that traditionally associated with think tanks. The IMF, not listed in the GoTo index, is a good example. The OECD, often referred to as the “developed nations’ think tank”, is listed in the lower scales of the index. By contrast, the World Bank Institute, a capacity-building and training unit, appears in the index as a leading government-affiliated think tank, when the core of the World Bank’s policy research and analysis is found in the Development Economics Group.

Such issues in differentiating think tanks from comparable organisations stem from the ambiguity of the think tank itself and are compounded when new actors seek to occupy the space at the interface of expertise and policy. Individual experts and policy wonks – whether based at universities, think tanks, or working as independent consultants – are no longer as reliant on employment with intermediary organisations to broker their work in policymaking circles. Today, university researchers and public intellectuals can circumvent think tanks and academic journals, taking their policy analysis directly to social media in the hope to attract the attention of internet-affine policymakers. Media platforms such as YouTube and Ted-Ex, and blogs such as this one, give policy experts public exposure, even if they may be ignored or unheard in policy communities.

The third major challenge think tanks face is linked to that very interface between expertise and policy, embodied in the rise of so-called ‘post-truth’ politics. Parallel to the perceived failure of policy experts to make sense of the (economic, political, environmental) crises of recent years, their advice has lost purchase across many publics. More worryingly, in a context in which experts are discredited, policymakers might not feel the need to seek external counsel or validation. This has led members of organisations as influential as the Heritage Foundation to ponder the possible ‘death’ of the think tank.

Despite the think tank label retaining some cachet, maintaining the academic quality and reputational competence associated with universities, or the technical proficiencies of professions such as law, requires significant investment. Very few independent think tanks can sustain such costs, with many no longer having the desire to invest heavily in their technical and academic competence, as digitised (new) media generates demand for celebrity policy wonks, possibly more noted for their contribution to ‘info-tainment’ than for their scientific pedigree.

Nevertheless, think tanks do retain some competitive advantages. The rapid proliferation of knowledge complicates the absorption of information among policymakers. To put it simply, there are limits to the quantity and diversity of knowledge that government actors can make sense of, especially in states hollowed out by austerity programmes and burdened by ever-higher public demands. Managing the over-supply of (occasionally dubious) evidence and policy analysis from research-based NGOs, universities and advocacy groups has become a problem of governance. But this issue also opens a space for the reinvention of think tanks.

With information overload comes a need for talented editors and skilled curators. That is, organisations as much as individuals which help those within policy processes to discern the reliability and usefulness of analytic products. Potentially, think tanks could transform into significant standard-setters and arbiters of quality of 21st century policy analysis. If they do not, they risk becoming just another group in the overpopulated ‘post-truth’ policy advice industry.

This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

Economic downturn affects think tank funding


The global financial crisis has caused another kind of recession -a recession in foreign funding for think tanks. According to an article in the Research website, some think tanks in Sub – Saharan Africa are having trouble securing funds, some so much that one of them, the Institute of Public Policy in Namibia, may not make it until the end of this year. Its core funder, the Ford Foundation, cut its support in 2011. This news is particularly interesting considering that the IPP is one of Africa’s top think tanks according to James McGann’s Global Go To Index; if top think tanks can’t make it, the outlook is even worse for smaller ones.

(Of course this also calls to question the accuracy of an index that cannot take core sustainability issues into account.)

Other think tanks have also felt the strain of less and less funding. The Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (Codesria), from Dakar, Senegal, has had a 16% cut from its main funders and has now had to adjust its programmes to fit its new financial reality.

“We reduced the number and duration of some research capacity enhancement activities,” says Ebrima Sall, Codesria executive secretary.

He adds some donors cut their support for overhead costs while others have gone through lengthy internal review processes that slowed down the release of funds.

This post follows up on last week’s interview of Sandra Polonia Rios on Brazilian funding models and how more importance needs to be placed on leveraging domestic funding. The 2012 University of Pennsylvania report stresses that the international economic crisis has caused funding cuts in governments, corporations and private foundations; this scenario coupled with little local funding leaves think tanks paralysed and with difficulty to function normally.

Having said this it is hard to argue that the fate of these organisations is shared by all think tanks across the region. Many, for instance, those supported by the Think Tank Initiative, still enjoy healthy incomes. And some think tank directors and researchers command salaries that are significantly higher than their peers’ in many developed countries -in nominal terms. So high are these salaries that some donors, under pressure in their own countries to demonstrate value for money, have earmarked their contributions to non-salary expenses.

So are African think tanks really losing out? Or is it just a few that have paid the price? If you have any stories of closures, new deals, and even salary levels please share them. We will treat any information with confidentiality -or as you so please.

Think tanks, evidence and policy: democratic players or clandestine lobbyists?

Depending on your perspective, think tanks either enrich the democratic space by conducting policy research and facilitating public dialogue and debate, or undermine democracy by pushing policies favoured by powerful corporate interests. Till Brucknerexplains how Transparify are contributing to debate about think tanks’ role in evidence-based policymaking by assessing their levels of financial transparency. The Transparify report, released today, enables citizens, researchers, journalists, and decision-makers to distinguish between legitimate policy voices and questionable sources of ‘expertise’.

When prominent American politician Jim DeMint was asked why he gave up his seat in the Senate to become president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington DC, he replied that the new job would give him greater influence on politics and policymaking than his elected office had.

But is that influence benign or malign? Observers are divided. Professor James McGann, author of numerous books on the subject, argues that think tanks enrich the democratic space by conducting policy research, developing policy options, facilitating dialogue between diverse stakeholder groups, and stimulating public debates, regardless of whether they pursue an ideological agenda. More think tanks are better for democracy, he concludes.

In contrast, George Monbiot, a left-wing British commentator whose columns often lament the influence of think tanks, sees these organisations (or at least those whose politics he disagrees with) primarily as lobbying groups in disguise that undermine democracy by pushing policies favoured by the powerful corporate interests who bankroll them. “A few billion dollars spent on persuasion buys you all the politics you want,” he recently wrote. In a donor-driven marketplace of ideas, Monbiot warns, the think tank sector as a whole only serves to further tilt the playing field in favour of the rich.

Image credit: Transparent by Natasha d.H. This work is licensed under a CC BY 2.0 license.

Transparify, an initiative I work with, decided to contribute to the ongoing debate about think tanks’ role in evidence-based policymaking and democratic politics by assessing think tanks’ level of financial transparency. As On Think Tanks founder Enrique Mendizabal has argued:

“Think tanks are all about influence. They are not, as much as they pretend to be, neutral ivory towers that undertake entirely value-free research and offer value-free advice… Think tanks help their case by presenting themselves as neutral academics… Domestic or foreign [funders], nobody hands over money to think tanks without wanting anything in return…. They all want something.”

We decided to examine which think tanks voluntarily disclose who funds their work. Think tanks that lack confidence in their ability to maintain independence despite the ubiquitous donor pressures noted by Mendizabal are likely to feel defensive. They may keep their books closed in order to avoid awkward questions about why, say, their studies funded by Philip Morris always conclude that raising taxes on cigarettes is a bad idea, or why their institution only started to advocate for clean energy after it received a large grant from a solar panel manufacturer. Conversely, a policy research institute that has confidence in the quality, intellectual independence and integrity of its research and advocacy will have no problems disclosing its donors, no matter who those donors are.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) is an interesting case in point. In December 2016, leaked documents revealed that the London-based think tank had signed a multi-year funding contract worth at least £25 million with the Persian Gulf monarchy of Bahrain. The documents also revealed both sides had pledged to keep most of the donations secret. After the document had been leaked to the media, the IISS issued a statement claiming that it did “not accept any funding that may impinge on our intellectual and political independence”. But if the IISS leadership was so confident about its ability to resist donor pressures, why did it try to keep the Bahraini cash infusion – which may amount to nearly half of its overall funding – secret in the first place?

In order to measure differences in transparency, Transparify has developed a five-star rating system to allow us to compare think tanks’ disclosure levels across multiple institutions. The maximum five-star score shows that a think tank is highly transparent, revealing not only the names of its donors, but also how much each donor gave and the purpose of each donation. At the opposite end of the scale, an organisation with a zero-star rating keeps the identities of all of its donors secret. Below even this are those categorised as ‘deceptive’, which seem to disclose significant amounts of information but in reality hide major, potentially embarrassing donors from public view.

Figure 1: the Transparify ratings system, taken from the report, ‘Think Tanks in the UK 2017: Transparency, Lobbying and Fake News in Brexit Britain’, and published with permission.

Using this system, we visited the websites of 27 British think tanks to assess their transparency (more information about the methodology is available on the Transparify website and also as an appendix to its report). This is what we found:

Table 1: Transparify ratings for 27 British think tanks, taken from the report, ‘Think Tanks in the UK 2017: Transparency, Lobbying and Fake News in Brexit Britain’, and published with permission.

A closer look at the highly opaque institutions on our list confirmed our hypothesis that think tanks that hide their donors usually have something to hide. For example, according to research compiled by TobaccoTactics, the Adam Smith Institute, the Centre for Policy Studies, and the Institute for Economic Affairs have all previously received undisclosed funding from tobacco companies, and all have produced research that was then used to lobby against stronger anti-smoking regulations. We found that the Adam Smith Institute has created a structure so opaque that it concealed not only who gave money, but also who took it, leaving us unable to determine where close to one million pounds given by American donors had ended up. Meanwhile, Policy Exchange has previously used evidence that appears to have been fabricated; the resulting report led to fake news headlines in several media outlets that had naively trusted “research” conducted by an opaque think tank.

Opaque ‘think tanks’ working the Westminster lobbying circuit seem to have considerable financial backing. Collectively, they spend more than £22 million of dark money every year to shape public debates and influence politics and policies in Britain. Ironically, some are registered as charities and so are indirectly subsidised by tax payers.

Table 2: Status and expenditure of those think tanks with Transparify ratings of one star and below, taken from the report, ‘Think Tanks in the UK 2017: Transparency, Lobbying and Fake News in Brexit Britain’, and published with permission.

Alarmingly, such opaque organisations not only push out their policy prescriptions via Facebook, Twitter and public events, but they also continue to receive extensive media coverage, including by the BBC. In addition, research published by think tanks regularly finds its way into the academic literature. If academics do not check the source’s funding transparency beforehand, this opens the door to idea laundering.

So, is the influence of think tanks on democratic politics benign or malign? We believe that overall, think tanks – including those that are overtly ideological – make a positive contribution to debates and decision-making in the UK. After all, 17 of the 27 think tanks we assessed are considered transparent, and many produce excellent research. At the same time, this positive contribution is undermined by a minority of opaque outfits that threaten to give think tanks as a whole a bad name.

Transparify’s ratings enable citizens, researchers, journalists, and decision-makers to distinguish legitimate policy voices from dubious sources of ‘expertise’. We hope that the report we release todaywill move the debate about think tanks beyond the good-versus-evil dichotomies of the past, and instead spark a nuanced debate about what kind of think tanks we want to have influence on democratic politics, and how the media in particular can avoid giving traction to soundbites and policy prescriptions produced by opaque organisations of questionable intellectual independence and integrity.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the author

Till Bruckner has over a decade of experience in the field of research-driven advocacy. His professional history spans research, campaigning, policy analysis, and journalism. He has worked in a wide variety of contexts, including the UK, Afghanistan, Georgia, North Africa and the Caribbean. Till currently works as the advocacy manager for Transparify, consults with a variety of organizations, writes for Foreign Policy and other publications, blogs with the Huffington Post, and is a regular contributor to the On Think Tanks blog. He is interested in the hidden power relationships that structure global politics and our everyday lives, and in learning new ways of using research and advocacy to produce positive outcomes. Till holds a PhD in Politics from the University of Bristol. His full professional history and list of publications can be found on his LinkedIn page.

Public Intellectuals and Think Tanks: A Free Market in Ideas?


The paper critically evaluates the thesis of the interchangeability between the think-tank public intellectual and the academic public intellectual. It suggests that this thesis, while endorsing the rise of the think-tank public intellectual, pronounces the salience of the intellectual-social critic and undermines the authority of academic public intellectuals. It is argued that the think-tank expert doubling as the public intellectuals could limit the political relevance of the academic public intellectual and that the think-tank expert’s monopolization of the public forum could present a threat to the quality of public debates. While recognizing that there are many contradictions inherent in the role of intellectual and that there are now numerous factors that hinder the abilities of academics to act as public intellectuals, the paper emphasizes public academic intellectuals’ contribution to the dynamics of public opinion and the quality of democratic standards. In today’s context, with the omnipresent of media, the new conditions of knowledge production, the neo-liberal ethos and the social prominence of think-tank experts, the sources of the academic public intellectual authority are in a continuous need for reinvestment.