Why Think Tank Review?

Think Tank Review is intended to solve a problem – and for me this problem is personal. I first encountered it when I was working as a policy researcher for Matthew Taylor at the RSA.

At the time the government was developing its employer pensions scheme, what eventually became Workplace Pensions. My job was to research and challenge the received thinking about pensions, in particular the way pensions are invested. If, through our pensions, the general population owns most of the companies in the FTSE 500, then why aren’t we able to influence their behaviour?

That was the argument, anyway. We conducted citizens’ juries, held roundtables of bigwigs, and generally did all the things think tanks do when they’re engaging with an issue.

We published our findings in a report: Tomorrow’s Investor. It generated quite a bit of interest. The Times and the Evening Standard featured the report, working off our highly extrapolated headline figure. The newly ennobled Lord Mandelson, then at the height of his “Prince of Darkness” media love-in, spoke at the launch. He didn’t mention Tomorrow’s Investor directly, but his appearance gave the signal that this was something to be taken seriously.

There was just one problem. For all the noise surrounding the report, no-one appeared to be reading it. They read the press reports, or at least they were made aware of their existence. They skimmed the Executive Summary, or skipped through to the Recommendations. But almost no-one read the report through, from start to finish, the way I’d hoped when I was writing it. If anyone did, they certainly didn’t tell me.

I couldn’t blame people for not reading it. After all, this was a 48-page document, printed in size twelve font, with very little in the way of images. But at the same time it was sad and demoralising. It was as if, in some postmodern way, the report existed to have been written – so that we could we could point to it and say, “There you go, look at our report.” People would nod and take us seriously and newspapers would be able to run stories that began, “according to a report by think tank the RSA.”

Think tanks exist to find the best ideas for the good of society. How can they do that if no-one reads what they are producing? Or if their only metric of success is the amount of coverage they generate? Think tanks are much more than publishers, but reports are one of their principal outputs – and right now they are not working.

This is the problem Think Tank Review was created to solve. We ask experts to assess think tank reports in the style of a non-fiction book review. Not just think tankers, but experts in education, local government, social welfare and urban planning — the subjects the reports address. Does the report make sense? Are the recommendations practical or even desirable? Is it – to take one recent example – an attack on Local Planning Authorities that just happens to be sponsored by Barratts?

We also go through the mountain of material produced by think tanks to select the best bits and present them in an accessible form. One of the most popular posts on the site is a piece called 8 Things Every Prime Minister Complains About, taken from an Institute for Government report on the powers of prime ministers. This fantastic insight into the inner workings of government was buried in Chapter 7 of a hundred-page pdf. After our piece was published, the Head of International Economics at the Treasury got in touch to say how much he liked it – which just goes to show that everyone likes gifs.

Think Tank Review is an experiment, conducted in the spirit of (literally) free debate. If you’d like to help, or tell us what to do, we’d love to hear from you. Get in touch: thinktankreview@gmail.com or @thinktankreview.

Rowland Manthorpe is Editor of Think Tank Review. Follow him: @rowlsmanthorpe

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Posted in Opinion
2 comments on “Why Think Tank Review?
  1. Hans Gutbrod says:

    Thanks for sharing this, this looks like a fantastic idea. Essentially you are also helping to introduce checklists – typically widely derided at first, but in my understanding a tool that has had a great positive impact in reducing mistakes in the medical profession. One of the great advantages of what you do is that it will hopefully remind think tank researchers to get all the basic things right.

    Two small items came to mind:
    I looked at a few of your posts, and for example on the one on housing, at the end you say “Think Tank Review rating: 5” — that left me unsure. Is that 5-star? Or one star from each of the categories? How about using a Likert rating, like a box going from left to right, from red to green? That would make it instantly visible.
    Very small item: the link to the 8 Things all Prime Ministers Complain About actually leads to your housing post.

    I look forward to following your work, I really think this is a great contribution to the sector.

  2. As someone who doesn’t work in a think tank, but who works with people who do and who often wants to keep abreast of think tanks’ research (and who encourages others to), I very much welcome such an initiative.

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