Lobbying and public affairs campaigns are in constant need of solid evidence. One of the ways of demonstrating that there is a real issue and that evidence of a problem exists is to commission a think tank to write a report.
This has helped turn think tanks into a free-standing industry and has led to a much more crowded marketplace. The political positioning of many is clear for all to see and the think tanks often make a virtue of this. Others prefer to set out a clearly independent line.
What all would agree on is the need to produce rigorous and well-argued research. Without this they lose their credibility both with political audiences and, as a knock-on consequence, those organisations who commission the work.
Politicians often value the role of think tanks as it can help them to explore new ideas and float them with the public. This type of 'arms length' arrangement enables them to adopt the good/popular ideas and distance themselves from the others.
The increasing emphasis on a sound evidence base in policy-making means that any good lobbying campaign has to be backed up – and this is why think tanks are of importance and often where they positioning themsevles. A well-designed report can provide the basis for effective lobbying. It can help with building the case, helping to persuade and also delivering the detail and information required at various stage of policy development, ie when it is examined from a regulatory / red-tape perspective.
So it is not just about how to use the finished product but public affairs professionals also have to be able to use their understanding of the policy-making process and the politics to help inform the design and brief for the research in the first place. They also need to ensure that the evidence base is sufficient and rigorous enough.
Think tanks need though to distinguish themselves from lobbing and public affairs firms. They cannot 'just' be about influencing and supporting campaigns but instead need to look at setting the agenda. The best think tanks do this already but the need to generate income can have an obvious influence on their output. It is rare that a think tank can be more or less self-sufficient through donations, grants etc which would help to maintain an absolute independence and freedom of thought.
There will be an obvious pressure to deliver outcomes balanced against maintaining more serious academic thought. Most though need to raise funds and there in lies an obvious and well-recognised danger. The think tanks need to produce a steady stream of quality reports.
For those looking to work with think tanks this stream of reports can be a problem. They want their report to be considered and listened to but if the think tank is producing several others around that time then does that lessen the impact?
The 'open policy making' discussed in the Civil Service Reform Plan means that there is a further market for think tanks. This could, however, make the problem of not veering into the lobbying sector even more apparent.
There would also be distinct challenges about whether such 'outsourced' policy or research would need to be impartial or follow the line established by the Government, of whatever persuasion it is?
For those working in think tanks there can be more of a revolving door to working in Government, normally in political/policy advisory roles. This looks set to continue as Government seeks to prove that it can maintain the generation of ideas based on solid evidence. The movement of people also helps think tanks to demonstrate that they are influential in policy-making – increasingly important as the civil service reforms go forward.
There is no doubt though that the need to generate an evidence base and ideas means that public affairs firms need to continue to work with think tanks.
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