The year in think tankery

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The year in think tankery

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David Walker, chair of the panel of judges for this year’s Think Tank of the Year awards, on the state of British think tanks

This is an edited extract from David Walker’s speech at the Prospect Think Tank of the Year award ceremony, held on Wednesday 10th October in the Great Hall of King’s College, London

You’ve all been busy. We don’t keep a tally of publications or events, but the past year has seen what feels like increasing volumes of pamphlets, seminars, statements.

And the menagerie of thinkers-cum-doers-cum-campaigners that nestles under the think tank label has got bigger and more diverse. This year we noted a number of new creations (in Edinburgh), spin-offs (in Newcastle-upon-Tyne) and geographical spread. UK tanks are active in Brussels and Beijing; Demos in Wellington and Melbourne and now Paris; the Stockholm Network reaches across old and new Europe; and the influence of the likes of the International Institute for Strategic Studies spreads far across the Atlantic.

We note, too, revivals—under Matthew Taylor the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts may well take a place among leading tanks.

Exercises like this may miss the willing workhorses of the think tank world, organisations that maintain a consistently high level of output without being flashy—the Work Foundation, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Social Market Foundation.

We—I chaired a panel of judges consisting of David Goodhart, Lawrence Freedman, David Halpern, David Willetts and Kishwer Falkner—thought energy levels were higher on the right of the political spectrum. Policy Exchange, last year’s winners, had another strong year, growing in size and notching up an impressive strike rate, expanding its interest to health and security; judges were impressed by the pamphlet “Living Apart Together.” Reform coined the “IPOD” generation—young people who are “insecure, pressured, overtaxed and debt-ridden.” Other right-of-centre tanks have been active—Politeia, Civitas, the Centre for Policy Studies, the new Centre for Social Justice. But might policy impact be higher if the various smaller outfits on the right banded together to get critical mass?

Should tanks face towards policymakers, whether in government or opposition, or seek to influence the public? In “Facing Out,” an excellent and courageous pamphlet from the Fabians about the Labour party’s future published this summer, Tim Horton and co-authors made this point: “Right-wing think tanks tend to be engaged less in policy development than in campaigning work and outward-facing propagation of conservative principles, those on the left a more inward-facing kind of policy criticism, as if we have forgotten that directly influencing government is not the only way to achieve long-term progressive outcomes. Where is our counterpart to the Taxpayers’ Alliance?”

The Young Foundation might answer that by pointing to its community engagement, from its base in Bethnal Green. And if the local and global now run together, it was appropriate that, as one of our judges reported visiting China, that the Young Foundation’s work on social enterprise was much discussed.

Among think tanks with an outwards orientation, judges esteemed the Foreign Policy Centre and looked forward to what was to come from the Royal United Services Institute, under new leadership, and the newly created European Council on Foreign Relations. The solid work of the Overseas Development Institute—almost a sort of NGO—was commended.

The runner-up in the international think tank of the year category is a long-established think tank. After the vicissitudes of recent years, judges felt it is on its way back to making an impact commensurate with its intellectual resources and international reputation; its website was especially praised. It’s the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

The winner was praised specifically for its work on higher education in Europe, the EU constitutional treaty that isn’t a treaty, and for being an island of sobriety in the midst of Eurosceptic froth. Judges lauded Charles Grant’s leadership and this think tank’s ubiquity on a shoestring. International think tank of the year is the Centre for European Reform.

Runner-up as think tank of the year is a relative newcomer, which has had a good year—with excellent publications on Britain’s demographic future, early-years education, planning and social care—and which has muscled its way on to the scene with a first-rate set of seminars and events. Liberal Democracy may not be enjoying the best of political fortunes, but its intellectual base has been regenerated thanks to CentreForum.

The winner of think tank of the year is, in this world at least, a household name which sometimes, paradoxically, gets overlooked because of the sheer consistency and size of its effort—not just in addressing policy but in such publications as “Politics for a New Generation” and “States of Reason,” teasing away at the capacity of modern government and the nature of progressive politics in 21st-century Britain. Judges were impressed by “Freedom’s Orphans,” by Guy Lodge’s work on the civil service and its outreach activities—the think tank supplying the research for a recent hard-hitting Dispatches programme on the costs and benefits of migration. It’s the Institute for Public Policy Research.

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David Walker

David Walker is director of communications at the Audit Commission 

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