Will the next generation of thinktanks be more NGO-friendly? Geoff Mulgan on ‘do-tanks’ (sorry)

November 1, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

I don’t often listen to lectures online – in these ADHD times, a 4 minute youtube video is usually my limit (unless it’s Breaking Bad or The Wire, of Geoff Mulgancourse). But I’m glad I made an exception for this lecture on ‘how do thinktanks think’ by Geoff Mulgan. No tricks, no powerpoint, just a lot of brainpower. Which is what you would expect from a serial policy entrepreneur who currently runs NESTA, set up the Demos thinktank and ran Tony Blair’s Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit.

There’s a lot to talk about in here – for example, the application of evolutionary theory to ideas (variation, selection and amplification, with different kinds of thinktank and other policy organizations specializing in different stages).

Mulgan notes that the numbers of thinktanks is growing rapidly. Why? Partly for lack of alternatives:

  • Political parties are no longer seen as being good at research (in the UK they used to have large research departments. No longer.)
  • The permanent civil service is not good at generating ideas and policies
  • Universities, previously decisive (1940s-70s) are less able to deliver these days. What happened to them? A dramatic expansion of their teaching role and an economic boom has coincided with a decline in their legitimacy as a source of new ideas.

He also has a nice line in kiss and tell:

‘One of my jobs in government was reviewing the Private Finance Initiative. This was an example of public private partnerships, which had spread all over the world. What was striking was that they were introduced with no way of showing if they worked or not. When we did do a review, it was pretty clear that the majority of the PFIs  were not were value for money. I was then phoned by the then Deputy Prime Minister and the Chancellor, demanding that any of this analysis be suppressed and not reach the public, because it was too threatening. Fortunately the policy did change. The key point was that a set of new ideas was introduced  on a large scale with no evidence, no evaluation and no scrutiny. And the same was true of most of the policies which came out of the neoliberal thinktanks.’

But where he is at his most interesting is in discussing the shift from thinktanks to ‘do tanks’ (an appalling expression, I know, but bear with me).

‘Previous generations of thinktanks fell down on demand – they produced lots of clever, but largely ignored, papers. So the UK government’s Social Exclusion Unit (which he also ran) and then the Strategy Unit moved towards problem-based projects, with decision makers involved from the beginning.’

300px-thinktankMulgan cites today’s UK Behavioural Insights Team, which runs experiments, assembles innovation teams on particular problems etc as an example of a 21st century do-tank. Intellectual predecessors include the Young Foundation, which (you guessed it), he also ran for several years. The Foundation incubated new organizations including the Open University, the Which consumer magazine and more recently, Studio Schools.

If you think about this from an NGO perspective, it gets pretty interesting. We may not always be that great at abstract/conceptual thinking, but we love doing stuff. So could organizations like Oxfam get into the do-tank business? It seems to me we are pretty well placed, in that we have programmes around the world, working on a range of issues, and established systems for measuring impact and learning lessons. In some ways we’re doing this already, but the focus is usually more on the doing than the thinking (or testing research findings in the field). Our global programmes, like Raising Her Voice (on women’s empowerment) or the Enterprise Development Programme (supporting small and medium enterprises) could provide an entry point for do-tank style simultaneous think-and-test across several countries and continents.

Maybe it’s time to set up some do-tank partnerships, working with local partners and academic institutions (South or North), and start looking for funding? I’m off to Delhi next month to discuss a proposed programme to do pretty much this, looking at governance in fragile states. Watch this space.

And here’s Geoff:

November 1, 2013
Duncan Green