There are over 120 think tanks in the UK. You can find their details here.
A core goal of many of these organisations is to publish reports and make recommendations that influence government policy.
With so many think tanks competing for attention, how can they write recommendations that have a chance of influencing real decision makers, like special advisers, civil servants, and ministers?
While there are many different factors involved in the art of influence, when it comes to writing the recommendations themselves, I suggest focusing on IMPACTS.
By this, I mean think tank policy recommendations should aim to be:
There are a number of common and intellectually lazy categories of recommendation that should be avoided. The Hall of Think Tank Cliché Shame includes recommendations to:
– Include a topic in the national curriculum. The burden of addressing all manner of society’s ills has been delegated to teachers by think tankers. If schools tried to teach everything policy wonks have recommended over the years, children would never leave their classrooms and teachers would need to be the world’s greatest polymaths.
– Appoint a tsar. Almost any problem can seemly be addressed by creating a new post for a dynamic individual to lead activity. While there may be some benefits to making it someone’s full time job to focus on a given issue, most policies require implementing change across more organisational barriers than one person can realistically influence. The tsar model can also backfire by giving the impression to everyone else that it’s no longer their responsibility to do anything.
– Move responsibilities to a new department. This is the policy equivalent of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. For all its silos, government is actually quite flexible as to who does what across the Civil Service. If something isn’t working well, there are likely to be much bigger issues than that a particular issue is simply handled in the wrong place.
– Set up a commission or conduct further research. What’s the point of a think tank researching an issue if the best it can come up with is to suggest that someone else researches the issue?
– Create a tax break. There are already hundreds of loopholes and points of complexity in the tax system. Do we really need more? A policy suggestion is unlikely to be effective if the only way to motivate new action is to pay someone to do it.
Beyond these specific examples, think tanks should also veto making utterly uncontroversial recommendations. If no one could possibly disagree with a statement, frankly, it probably doesn’t say much at all. The value of a think tank is providing evidence and good arguments for choosing one hard option over the others available.
Think tanks should avoid all these lazy options, have confidence in their analysis and suggest something intelligent.
Think tanks need to frame their recommendations as solving a problem the government actually has. Policy wonks must consider what language will be most persuasive and easily digested by those they seek to influence. If the government’s priority is to reduce budgets, a recommendation might best be worded by highlighting its ability to save money. If the priority is social mobility, the aspects of the same idea that reduce inequality might be emphasised instead. Politicians, spads and civil servants rarely have the luxury of time to work on issues outside a particular set of government priorities. Think tanks seeking to influence policy would do well to show how they are helping to address them.
A recommendation that effectively asks politicians to commit political suicide or make a career limiting move is a nonstarter. Politics is the only industry where updating ideas in light of new evidence is considered a negative (see all government U turns, ever). If a think tank makes a recommendation that is politically impossible for a department or minister to endorse, they shouldn’t be surprised when it fails to be adopted.
Many think tank recommendations describe a sentiment more than a concrete action. Recommendations along the lines of: “Government should help startups to scale to improve regional economic growth” are so ambiguous as to be almost meaningless, provide no guide to action, and do not pass the NSS (“No S#!& Sherlock”) test.
Vagueness is the enemy of action. Recommendations should therefore try to answer the who, what, why, where, when and how of a policy.
Who should conduct the action? If government, then which department? Which team in that department? And who specifically should they act for – i.e. which groups of people, businesses or organisations should benefit?
What exactly should be done? Instead of saying “government should support start-ups”, recommendations must be focused. Should government give funding support, export advice, publicity, or something else?
Why should the policy be implemented? This is the part where a rationale that ties into the government’s own narrative and priorities should be inserted.
Where should it happen? Is this a policy for the whole country, or just a few parts of it? Will it be done in collaboration with local government, city mayors or EU officials?
When should the policy be executed and what’s the deadline for completion? Is the recommendation intended for the next budget? Should it be phased in or launched as a big bang? How long should it last?
How should it be done? If there are three steps or ten steps, think tanks must spell them out and make it as easy as possible for decision makers to understand the process that would lead to the outcome described.
Politicians cannot rely on magical money trees and nor should think tanks. If a recommendation comes with a multi million pound price tag, that figure should be spelled out, together with where the money could come from to pay for it. Governments could do a lot of great things if only they had enough money. Think tankers must put in the hard graft to demonstrate a plausible route to get it.
The government’s development and adoption of new policy ideas goes through fairly predictable stages, from concept gathering to drafting specific bills. If think tanks want their recommendations to influence policy, timing is everything. There’s little point publishing the most earth shattering report on the future of the rail industry the day after the government has published its own five year strategy on the subject. There’s likewise little value in focusing on issues where the government has already made up its mind (except in the hope that a future administration may open the debate once more). The most effective policy wonks ensure their ideas feed into the process at a point in time where they have the greatest chance of being considered seriously.
Think tanks have an unhealthy addiction to writing long reports. That can be fine for some purposes, but the key is to write recommendations and briefing documents that match the time available to those they seek to influence. If think tanks are trying to encourage the government’s most senior officials or ministers to take a particular course of action, sending them a 60 page report is likely to be 59 pages more than they have time to read.
When it comes to writing recommendations, my preference is to make sure the main idea of a recommendation can be summarised in Tweet length, followed by no more than two paragraphs of explanation answering the specifics listed in the ‘actionable’ step above. Keeping things short is not being lazy – it requires greater focus and clarity of thought. As Blaise Pascal, and later Mark Twain, famously put it: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead”.
The evidence, context and vision do not need to be in the recommendations themselves – that can all be covered in the body of the report. Rest assured the government will dig into the detail if the recommendation is sufficiently compelling.
So there you have it. To influence policy, focus on I-M-P-A-C-T-S.
For lots more ideas and information on how UK think tanks operate, my book Working for a Think Tank, offers the following content:
Chapter 1 explores the current landscape of UK think tanks, defining what they do and how they differ from one another. Discover the many functions that think tanks perform and how they distinguish themselves from the world of academia.
Chapter 2 provides an insight into day-to-day think tank life, including a deep dive into the activities that policy professionals perform as part of their roles, from fundraising to designing policy events, and from blogging to networking.
Chapter 3 investigates the core challenge for policy wonks: how to come up with ideas and insights that haven’t occurred to people who work at the coalface of a particular policy area. Discover the tools and techniques think tankers use to think about old problems in news ways.
In Chapter 4, I share my observations about what makes the best in the business so effective at shaping the policy agenda, detailing the methods and behaviours they use to have impact.
Chapter 5 outlines the steps you can take to secure your own job working for a UK think tank. Learn about the different job roles, understand where to find the latest job adverts, and read about how to best prepare for an interview.
In the Appendix, you’ll find details of more than 110 UK think tanks, including their descriptions, Twitter handles, and links to where they advertise their latest job vacancies.