How well does a think tank think?

Welcome to an update of a review I wrote back in 2006 of a Demos publication from 1997. (Can you tell I was trained as an historian?). The main message of the piece has stood the test of time pretty well – thinks tanks (and others) are frequently pretty awful at getting big picture predictions right. The one part that hasn’t is the picture of Demos as an organisation whose best days were behind it. It has recently had a resurgence, with Richard Reeves moving from being its director to one of Nick Clegg’s top aides and in total 11 of its 25 advisory board members now have government roles.

For no particular reason other than I recently found a second-hand copy on sale cheaply, I have just finished reading Demos’s 1997 collection, Life after politics.

Although these days Demos – with its reports on the crucial importance of hairdressers to modern society – tries a little too hard to be different and thought provoking, it was in its heyday one of the most successful think tanks in the UK. Leading lights such as Geoff Mulgan – the editor of this collection – went on to exercise significant real political power under New Labour; he spent time as Director of Policy at 10 Downing Street and also headed up the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit for several years.

A staple stock in trade of think tanks is analysis that ends up concluding that other people have got things wrong, aren’t preparing for the future correctly and don’t understand what is coming. Yet think tanks rarely look at their own record. So – nearly a decade on – how does Demos’s work shape up? Where they really right in what they were foretelling? Or would a government that followed its recipes ardently ended up getting things horribly wrong?

The verdict on reading the book certainly is not a good one for Demos’s ability to foretell the future. And remember – this work was produced by one of the leading think tanks of the time with a list of authors that oozes stature. The problem is that most of the predictions for the future in Life after politics fall into one of three camps: those that have turned out to be irrelevant or wrong, those that have been overtaken by events and those that are still as visionary now as then (i.e. the big “next thing” still hasn’t happened).

In terms of politics, there were two basic errors made. First, the over-riding assumption through the book (so strongly assumed that none of the authors felt the need to make the case explicitly) was that the days of high-spending big government were totally over. Yet less than a decade on, huge sums of extra money were being raised through taxation and poured into public services (and, contrary to the firm prediction in the book, the public sector has continued to be a very significant source of employment growth). The issue now is much more where the money has gone and why it does not appear to have brought commensurate improvements in public services rather than their being a continuation of the Thatcher-era emphasis on trying to cut, cut and cut again. The whole basic assumption of the political outlook on tax and spend has turned out to be completely wrong.

Second, and perhaps more understandably, the book gives no hint of the increasing importance of the crime and civil liberties agendas. Crack down on crime, prison (does it work? does it not? are high number in jail good? or bad?), anti-terrorism legislation, the Human Rights Act – all these ongoing causes of political controversy frequently dominated the UK domestic political agenda – barely feature in the book.

Even where events have come to pass, the outcome has often been very different. For example, the book gives a very positive account of the possibilities for technological change improving democracy – electronic voting, greater interaction etc – yet when we have actually had such technology come into use it has rapidly become apparent that it is not some magical cure. Being starry eyed about the technical possibilities resulted in people glossing over the question of whether they were really tackling the cause of problems.

Only in a few areas do the predictions strike a real hit. The clearest example is the description of Visa – a hugely successful financial organisation, but based on a very small central operation that links to together the activities of a large number of participating organisations through good use of technology. As predicted, this way of organising business has indeed become increasingly popular. Though marked against this accurate prediction must be the failure of imagination which produced the thought that internet access might well never exceed 40% and would remain a minority, niche activity. (It is already over 60% in the UK and still growing).

There are some good nuggets of information scattered through the book – such as the description of the very word-based culture in the civil service (with the resulting emphasis on literary rather than computational, oratorical or other skills) and the figures for the large numbers of competing companies in Asian in fields where in the UK only one or two firms survive. This diversity of companies generates innovation and ideas that help the sector as a whole. And for a brief description of the muddle over what being British and English means in the UK, the description of the variety of different combination of areas in sports teams is hard to beat (one nation, four nations, four nations plus others, or some other combination of all the ingredients depending on the sport).

Overall, a cynic might just conclude that the advantage of think tanks is that they rarely are held accountable for the quality of their predictions, whilst politicians are held to account every four years – and so think tanks self-confidently describing the future and lecturing politicians on what to do generally get off rather lightly.

You can buy Life after Politics here.

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