Worth a second outing: How well does a think tank think?

Welcome to a series where old posts are revived for a second outing for reasons such as their subject has become topical again, they have aged well but were first posted when the site’s readership was only a tenth or less of what it is currently or they got published and the site crashed, hiding the finest words of wisdom behind an incomprehensible error message.

Today’s is 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.

Demos logoFor 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 from Amazon.

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3 Comments

  • On the Net, similar predictions were made about the Phone, the Phonogram, Radio & Television. The same mistake is being made now about Space Industries.

  • Matthew Huntbach 27th Aug '10 - 1:03pm


    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.

    Yes, this is perhaps the most urgent question in politics now. I wish the current government gave me the confidence it had some clues on the answers, but it doesn’t. It’s stuffed full of millionaires who are clueless on life as it is lived by most ot those using and providing public sector services, and they are bringining in more millionaires to advise them instead of people who might actually have an answer! Here in our party we have plenty of members with huge and relevant experience of public service delivery through local government involvement, and has Nick Clegg chosen to appoint any of them to his inner circle of advisers? No, he’s appointed the ad-man responsible for our rotten election results, and a few wonkish types I’ve never heard of. Danny Alexander has public service experience, yes, but rather limited compared e.g. quite a large number of people in our party who’ve been leaders of successful councils. Does Mr Clegg have a clue on how to make best use of what the party he is supposed to be leading could provide him?

    Ask anyone in public service, and they will tell you a huge part of the problem is all the management and targetting brought in supposedly to make it efficient. It bloody well hasn’t worked, and yet here we are again and the first instinct of this government is to bring in yet more re-organisation, which will be expensive, involve endless rounds of meetings and consultants and the like, will cause a big drop in productivity as people try and adapt to the new situation, and then we have to see if it works in the long run …

    It’s well known that putting pressure on people by over-use of targets and by threats through cuts causes nervousness and a conservative “keep my head down, do what I’m told, hope no-one notices” attitude. Millionaires don’t understand this because they’ve got enough money not to know the fear of loss of job, so loss of house, loss of family etc. So they may feel threatening people in the way cuts and threats through targetting will be a good incentive to productive work. It just ISN’T!

    What is really needed is to restore pride and stability in public service, so the people there can get on doing their jobs as they understand is best rather than get their morale smashed by all this endless over-management which we have had since it was imposed first when trying to implement the Thatcher cuts, and then by this idea that top-down government management through loads of targets and silly piecemeal initiatives is the way to run things. How much effort and time is wasted desperately trying to co-orindate a myriad different funding streams for really quite small projects?

    Look at the management costs of PFI and weep. Yet this was brought in as supposedly improving costs through some magic fairy dust “private sector know-how”.

    Apart from this, there are hugely many over time-development factors which mean public services have to provide more just to keep still. An obvious one is the huge growth in very elderly people due to medical developments. People ask why is it that public secor costs are rising much faster than inflation, but that ought to be obvious. Look at where all our products are made now – I still have some old M&S clothing from the days when it was made in the UK, but none of it is now, so inflation on things like that has been kept low by moving production abroad. But the public sector can’t do the same for most of what it provides.

    Why can’t we have a government which understands things like this and so can talk about them and deal with them sensibly?

  • Keith Browning 27th Aug '10 - 9:25pm

    What we need in ‘think tanks’ is bright, innovative people but with absolutely NO vested interest in the results – either financially or for influence of themselves or friends and family.

    Its a big ask but surely possible – there are some decent honest people out there.

    Many of the world’s greatest ideas and discoveries have (allegedly) been bought up by big corporations and looked in a deep vault – engines that need no oil, the ever lasting light bulb, unbeakable glass etc etc.

    ……………. even social policies that dont need politicians to either propose or implement them.

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