Think Tanks

The role of Think Tanks Link to BBC film

Think Tanks Podcast.mp3

The Politics Shed Podcast Think Tanks

Think tanks are groups of experts from different backgrounds who are brought together to investigate particular topics and to offer solutions to complicated economic, social or political issues. For example, the shift of Conservative Party thinking towards a more overtly free-market-orientated approach in the 1970s owed a great deal to Margaret Thatcher's patronage of right-wing think tanks, such as the Centre for Policy Studies and the Adam Smith Institute.

Think tanks are an alternative source of ideas to the civil service, with more time and expertise than political parties to carry out research. Some have a definite influence on government policy. For example, the Centre for Social Justice was set up by former Conservative Party leader, lain Duncan Smith, in 2004 to look for new solutions to the problems of people living in disadvantaged communities. Duncan Smith's appointment as Work and Pensions Secretary in the coalition government six years later enabled him to implement some of its ideas, notably the 'universal credit' plan that seeks to reduce the dependence of poor people on welfare benefits.

However, in government it is necessary to make compromises, so the less politically practical ideas dreamed up by think tanks are often ignored. The work of think tanks is often said to lack the academic rigour expected in university circles. Typically, think tanks are staffed by young, ambitious individuals who see their time there as a springboard to a political career. For example, David Miliband went from working at the centre-left Institute for Public Policy Research to become an adviser to Tony Blair, then an MP and eventually a senior minister in the New Labour governments.

Think tanks are public policy research organisations that seek to influence government policy.

Key features of think tanks:

    • They are usually identified with particular positions on the political spectrum, such as left, right, green, and liberal.

    • Though some undertake in-depth research into social and economic affairs, the focus is mainly on the political and policy implications.

    • They are not overtly ‘campaigning’ organisations. Their purpose is to influence public policy and public debate rather than directly campaign for policy changes (which is more typical of pressure groups)

    • They use the media and direct contacts with politicians, civil servants and other organisations in the policy community to disseminate their work in an attempt to influence politicians as well as wider public debate.

    • They generally initiate their own work and seek funding for it, rather than working on contract to public or private bodies (though some work may be done on behalf of political parties, or briefings organised covering specific topics).

    • They are generally funded from charitable and corporate sources

The main output of think tanks is the publication of their research and policy work, often accompanied by conferences and seminars. You'll often see pieces from key think tanks published in newspapers and reported on by television and other media.

Examples of think tanks:

"Neutral / Independent" Think Tanks

"Centre-Right-Wing" Think Tanks

"Centre-Left-Wing" Think Tanks

"Liberal" Think Tanks