The problem with think-tanks: An alternative model

I’ve described so far a number of fundamental problems that I believe prevent think-tanks being as effective as they could be, to be blunt, that prevent them being useful (in the big picture sense). There’s always a risk when you start saying what’s wrong that you’ll get accused of whinging.

So, to try and put some balance into the debate, I want to wrap up this short series of blogs with some thoughts on what an alternative model might look like.

The biggest problem I can see is monetising critical thought. And this remains a problem regardless of the model, so rather than wasting acres of real estate trying to solve this one right now I’m going to state the obvious.

Cost is made up of income and expenditure. As Dickens said, you get these wrong and you’re in trouble.

I would rather be impressed by the intellectual capacity of the product than the offices the think-tank lives in. There’s more than one in London that would do well do dwell on this for a moment.

The other big expense is staff, hence the drive towards junior and low or no-cost interns. But I’ve already said that this affects quality. So I think the answer here should be somewhat self-explanatory, which is to start moving towards virtual think tank models drawing the best thinkers in to solve the problem at hand.

Obviously that’s a simplistic statement and needs more thought, but it can be done – this model works in other disciplines (I know, I’ve done it).

We can draw on ideas of social networks, crowd sourcing and gaming theory to manage the people, process and to produce intellectually rigorous work.

There are well developed models of open publishing that will allow not just finished work but also the underlying thought processes and data to be published so that they are transparent and accessible to anyone.

Transparency can go beyond data to include analysis too.

Balance is an often missing component. This can be achieved through the virtual, socially networked model I’m hinting at above. It is possible to bring together different ideological basis to tackle the same problems.

There are ways to manage this process virtually that can assure the outcome is rigorous and free of overall bias or narrowed thought. A key part of ensuring the veracity and credibility of the work is to be able to unpack any assertions, drill down through what has been written to understand on what the assertion is based – opinion, meta-data, fact.

Surely anyone wanting to really understand all sides of a policy issue would value a product like that and with lower overheads it would also be a more commercially viable proposition too?

About Andy Williamson

Dr Andy Williamson is a Digital Strategist and commentator. His work focuses on digital engagement, e-campaigning and the strategic use of social media. A former advisor to the New Zealand Government, his work influences digital policy and practice in a number of continents, including the UK.
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