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Can working with think tanks enhance our campaigning?

This was originally posted over at the NCVO Campaigning and Influencing Forum.

Think tanks are hard to define, they’re part academic institution and part lobbying outfit. But however you understand them, I think that they could provide useful allies for campaigns.

That’s why ‘The Global ‘Go-To’ Think Tanks List‘ is an interesting report which tries to rank the ‘best’ think tanks around the world.

It shows that the majority of think tanks are based in the US, but the UK also has it’s fair share of ‘top’ think tanks. While the report doesn’t seek to rank them simply on political influence, it shows those who can be perceived as most credible.

Have you had experiences of working with Think Tanks? Do you think that they provide a place to enhance campaigns and advocacy? 

I’ve got a few thoughts about why they are and aren’t useful allies.

Firstly, they’re the home of future politicians and influencers. A quick look across at whose sitting on the benches in the House of Commons, will show that a significant number have spent time working within think tanks, they’re often the breading ground for politicians who will become the leading thinkers within their parties.

Take for example Nick Boles, now the Conservative MP for Grantham, who was former director at Policy Exchange, where he was said to be one of the most important influences on David Cameron. He might not be a minister in the current government, but you can guarantee that his views have a resonance. If you’re looking for future MPs who are going to be writing future manifesto, a quick look at who’s who across think tanks could be a good place to start!

Linked to the point above, as well as producing future politicians, lots of those working in think tanks have spent time as special advisors or other key influences within Parliament and Whitehall. I short they’re packed full of people who know people in power.

For example, in the last government, The Smith Institute was led by Wilf Stephenson, who was Gordon Brown’s closest friend from University, as such it said to have considerable sway over the views of No10, while one assumes that now The Centre for Social Justice which was set up by Iain Duncan-Smith, now Secretary of Sate for Work and Pensions, has considerable influence in certain part of the government.

But this is also  one of the weaknesses of think tanks. That they can be seen to be politically partisan, and thus rise and fall dependent on those in power at any given moment. While, a few on the list are seen as more politically neutral, most have a political leaning towards one party or another.

That said think tanks can be a useful vehicle for organisations looking to inject big ideas or new thinking into a debate. One of the roles that they can play is to provide a broader platform to spark a debate that an NGO might be more hesitant to initiate.

I wonder if one of the things stopping some NGOs from working more with think tanks is the cost of it. I’ve been on the receiving end of quotes for events at party conference with think tanks mean that they would be little to spare for anything else in the year.

Obviously think tanks needs to raise revenue to keep going, but because they’re not linked to universities they don’t benefit from academic funding. While the premium for the access/legitimacy that they can bring to a campaign is their most valuable selling point and means working with them doesn’t come cheap.

What do you think? Have you seen good examples of campaigns working with think tanks? Do they prove to be useful allies for campaigns?

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