Think Tanks – Part One

by oliver

Sorry for the delay in this update. My computer and iPad both made “kerplunk” sounds one after the other, taking my first draft of this post with them. 

The delay meant I wasn’t able to put up the super new banner, created by my good friend Sally, until now. Hopefully there’ll be a few more illustrations from her in future posts. She’ll provide the talent, I’ll provide the filler.

Speaking of filler: 

My last post touched on a few themes like “What is policy?” and “How is policy made?” I mentioned that the most common conception of policy making is linear and embeds rational decision making at its heart – identify a problem, develop solutions, get approval for them, and implement. Bish bash bosh. But then I gave examples of how this neat and tidy model doesn’t always stack up against reality.

In this post, we return to this theme of “rational policy making” with a look at think tanks, ostensibly the most sciencey, rational and thinky of the lot.

First, let’s look at the typical story for why we need think tanks. A very silly account is as follows:

  • Politicians are unscrupulous bastards whose only job is to get elected by any means necessary. The most talented practitioners of bastardry get into government, led by the Prime Minister who is by definition the biggest bastard of the lot.
  • Because politicians value rational decisions less than unscrupulous bastardry, they don’t possess the scientific or analytical awareness to understand what objective evidence is or how to use it to make good policy. (In fact, if they were scientifically minded, they probably would have stayed away from politics altogether).
  • Enter think thanks. They are the bridge between academia, where objective facts are defined, and politics, where decisions are made. Think tanks are full of thinky people doing the thoughtful thinking of which the party animals in the rest of Westminster are not capable.

This account is grossly overblown but works to make two points. First, think tanks present themselves as heroes in a world that needs them. No news there. But I’d also conjecture that this hero story exploits a gap that gets bigger the less trustworthy our politicians appear to be.

Think tanks are happy to buy into this model. But they have to contend with the fact that if politicians are as bad at thinking as all that, then how much stock will our political overlords put by those who do think?

This exact problem was discussed in a post at WonkComms a few weeks back, when Leonora Merry, a PR at a think tank, discussed her “existential crisis” while reading Damien McBride’s (excellent) biography, Power Trip. She writes:

McBride describes in several places how important policies – from the petrol tax cut in 2000 to changes to vehicle excise duty the same year- were hastily cobbled together with scant regard for evidence or expert views, purely to serve a political purpose or keep a journalist happy. O’Malley describes this as ‘McBride’s war on evidence based policy’.

She’s right to be concerned. My own favourite example from the same book is when Damien McBride forgot to change something in the Budget documents and had to change government policy to fit the misprint.

So how do we reconcile the world of evidence based policy making in think tanks with the  haphazard behaviour of political staff inside government?

Enter John Kingdon’s policy streams model. To paraphrase Merry’s account:

Agendas are set when three loosely connected streams come together to open a policy ‘window’.

  • In the problem stream, problems are identified,
  • In the proposals stream, solutions to the problems get formed.
  • In the politics stream, the political will or ability to act emerges.


As this tiny picture shows, one of the key features of the streams is that they can exist quite separately:

  • Political developments are sometimes driven in a vacuum from problems or policies. At conference time, the leaders of each party, ministers and shadow ministers will all be casting around for something to announce. The cyclical political agenda requires the announcement of policies at these exact times. It’s not that the ideas weren’t there earlier, or that the problems weren’t yet acknowledged. But the way the system works is that political need came first, a vacuum into which policies and problems moved (cf. the creation of election manifestos in the months before an election).
  • Can policies exist without problems? It happens. Some policies have a long existence (and gain political support) without it being clear what problem they are supposed to fix. The best example is ID cards: a policy perennially in development but always lacking a purpose. ID cards were at various times a solution to crime, immigration, terrorism, underage drinking, moving between countries more easily, benefit fraud, and improving access to services.
  • Sadly, it is more than easy to define problems that exist without the political will or solutions to tackle them. Should we reform the House of Lords? Everyone agrees we should, right up until politicians try to do it without squabbling themselves into a standstill. Should we fix child poverty, cancer, murder, war and all bad things in general? You go ahead and think up a solution; we’ll be right behind you when you do.

Kingdon’s model is not linear. That’s a good thing. It allows for the fact that these things aren’t always done in the right order or with neat thinking. Nor is the model judgemental – the world is a messy, complex place, and for better or worse our heuristics need to reflect that. The policy streams model best encapsulates my own experiences of how policy gets made.

Back to WonkComms, where Leonara  Merry says that while think tanks might do some of the political work, cheerleading for policies to politicans or the public, they mainly operate in the problems and especially the proposals streams.

Is all thus right in the world? The role of rational, evidence based policy making is saved? Its main agents – the think tanks – are embedded in the noble streams of problem defining and solving? And all the while, the heroic think tanks are insulated from the dark arts of political bastards like McBride…?

Nope. Merry says that policy theory helped her out of her “existential crisis” about how policy is made. Yet, if you dig a bit deeper into what the theorists and historians say, you’ll find they’re more than happy to give think tanks an absolute kicking. Think tanks have political agendas, alright. But they wrap them in the language of science and reason so they can smuggle them into decision makers’ heads.

Does this make think tanks as bad as the rest of them? Are they even the worst of the lot? We find out in part two.