This year we judged think tanks not only on their ideas, but also on how much impact they made on policy makers and the public, writes David Walker.by David Walker / October 25, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
As David has just said, it’s been a lively year for tanks, but the judges also registered a large gap: little or no work that anticipated the financial crash and its consequences for fiscal policy let alone the real economy. Have tanks been bold enough, we wondered?
The judges were David Goodhart, myself—until recently the editor of the Guardian’s Public magazine—Rohan Silva, adviser to the Conservative Party leadership, Sir Lawrence Freedman, deputy principal of Kings College London, Kishwa Falkner, a Liberal Democrat peer and David Halpern, former strategy adviser to Tony Blair now at the Institute for Government.
Some brief points as we reviewed your year. The move to “doing” as well as thinking distinguishes some tanks, notably the Young Foundation, now the biggest think tank in Britain with over 60 staff, and Civitas: we look forward to when their respective projects produce practical outputs that call forth fresh thinking. Is the boundary between tanks and producers of academic knowledge shiftin? We noted the work of Richard Garside and colleagues here at King’s, the Jill Dando Institute of crime science at University College; much is expected of the new third sector research centre at the University of Birmingham.
Among “traditional” tanks, judges were impressed by the width and impact of the work done by CentreForum; by the way IpprNorth has assumed its own identity; by such new creations as the Quilliam Foundation working on Muslim identity and radicalisation; by the New Economics Foundation for turning its sustainability commitment into a string of events and reports; by the growth of a think tank culture to match political devolution—witness the work of the Institute of Welsh Affairs in Cardiff; by the perseverance of the Fabian Society in flying the flag for equality; by the solid, continuing performance of Ippr; by the flair and media savvy of Reform; by such individual publications as the Hansard Society’s “Law in the making: Inside Out,” how to keep drugs out of prison from the Centre for Policy Studies and Cities Outlook 2008 from the Centre for Cities.
But to tonight’s main business…
The judges had a welter of pamphlets and booklets before them, but also tried to make some assessment of how well reports had been presented and carried to the attention of policy makers and the public. On those grounds, they selected a publication which actually came out in July 2007‚ but made its mark in a succession of sub reports, launched in Manchester and Birmingham last winter, in Glasgow in February and London in April. It’s a body of work deeply influential within opposition circles, that has “made the weather: for the Tory party. It’s “Breakthrough Britain” from the Centre for Social Justice.
As runner up, the judges selected another tank that has become a byword for impartial, authoritative commentary within a bounded sphere. Masterful in communications and dissemination, building bridges between academic and practical knowledge, this think tank put out important and authoritiative work during the 10 per cent tax band row, and is about to produce, in Sir James Mirrlees’ review of UK taxation, a major study of utmost political relevance, the runner up think tank of the year is the Institute of Fiscal Studies.
And finally, the award for Prospect magazine’s think tank of the year 2008. Just as there has been a flight to safety in financial assets, so you might detect what David Goodhart called a flight to authority in our award. There are other strong performers in the field of security and international affairs but this think tank combines strong focus with global reputation —witness the number and seniority of visitors who have graced its podium in the past. Once aligned with the political right, this tank has moved to the centre ground, deploying expertise, research and a new rigour in an impressive set of publications and policy interventions. Our thinktank of the year is the Royal United Services Institution.