Last month we published our research on public perceptions of think tanks in the US, Forging the Think Tank Narrative. Since then we have had the honour of being invited to a number of think tank summits and round-table events to present the findings.
The conversations we’ve had with think tankers have been just as edifying as the findings. Discussions have revolved around the findings themselves and also more broadly around what a 21st century think tank looks like.
Ahead of publishing the UK data, here are some of the reactions from the US. But first a quick summary of the research.
Our premise: With power comes responsibility
Our first assumption, shaped by the Brexit vote, was that the understanding of complex policy issues among the public is low. This was reflected in the lack of sophistication of the EU referendum debate, with emotion and personal experience trumping fact and evidence.
Our second assumption was that i) the public wants to understand complex policy better, and ii) that think tanks are in an ideal position to fulfil that role given their expertise and intellectual independence.
The research sought to test these ideas. We interviewed n=2,007 US citizens by online survey. The sample was nationally representative by age, gender and region. We also asked respondents to assess their level of political engagement or interest, and created a four-tier scale: The Insider, The Activist, The Engaged, and The Spectator.
A hunger for policy communications – but uncertainty about think tanks
7 in 10 Americans agreed that the general population needs to understand government policy better. This was consistent across the whole spectrum of political engagement, across urban and rural populations, and across regions.
However, the public was unsure about whether they can trust think tanks or not. Of the people who knew what a think tank is, 1 in 3 trusted them (32%), while only 1 in 4 actively distrusted them (23%). This means 45% of the population is undecided. In comms terms, this is an opportunity.
Similarly, only 41% thought think tanks were a force for good, while 16% disagreed – leaving 43% who could be convinced either way.
For most of the think tankers we spoke to, the findings confirmed what they already suspected. The main surprise for them was that as many people reported knowing what a think tank is or what it does (respectively 50% and 46%).
In that regard, a couple of considerations are worth bearing in mind: a) 56% of people said they took an interest in politics, so it is not that surprising that they might be familiar with the idea of think tanks; and b) their understanding of what think tanks do was self-assessed.
The chasm between ‘Insiders’ and the general public
Another surprise to us was the extent to which policy ‘Insiders’ agreed that think tanks were vehicles for elite interests. ‘Spectators’, meanwhile, were far more willing to give think tanks the benefit of the doubt. The think tankers we spoke to thought this sounded about right.
The chasm is further exposed in terms of how the effectiveness of policy communications is perceived. 66% of Insiders think complex policy is communicated well, but only 17% of the public agree. While the extent of the gap was a surprise to US think tankers, the fact that it existed in the first place was not.
Broad agreement on the way ahead – with a sense-check
There was widespread agreement that think tanks needed to raise their communications game. And that the public are an audience which they could no longer ignore.
The demand for policy communications reflects a vacuum that needs to be filled. If think tanks don’t fulfil this role, a plethora of campaigning organisations and interest groups will – including populist forces who would have us believe there are simple answers to complex questions.
A small minority, however, expressed some reservations: Firstly, about the need to communicate to the public. Secondly, about the hype surrounding social media, and the way it is seen as a panacea. These are both important questions.
If we expect social media to resolve everything, we are setting ourselves up to fail. However, it is equally naive to dismiss social media’s impact. Its ability to give ordinary citizens a voice has catalysed a fundamental societal shift – the erosion of trust in authority, the expectation of transparency and accountability, and trust in peers (sometimes above expertise).
Think tanks can no longer take their historical role as behind-the-scenes operators for granted. Their proximity to power means that sooner or later, the public will come for them if they don’t engage them first.
Think tanks’ failure in the EU referendum debate was to hope to influence the public, having invested little time in nurturing a relationship with them. Why should the public trust think tanks over campaigning organisations like Breitbart, who talk to it daily, in terms they can relate to?
The 21st century think tank
The challenge for the 21st century think tank is threefold:
- To build public trust in the think tank sector overall.
- To establish its own credibility, built on rigour, honesty and (financial) transparency.
- To elevate the public policy debate.
This is where digital content and, yes, social media can help. Building trust requires consistency over time. Communicating complexity without compromising on nuance requires imagination and ambition.
It is also simply good communication.
Aidan Muller is a Digital Strategy consultant at We Are Flint