Nothing new under the sun? Originality and think tanks

I enjoyed this from Stian Westlake at Nesta:

As a policy wonk, I get a sinking feeling when I’m reading a terrific non-fiction book and find there’s a “policy recommendations” chapter.

In a postscript he highlights that feeling applies not just to experts who have written books but to wonks writing think tank reports as well, bringing it firmly into our sphere of interest at arbitrary constant.

Stian notes the two mindsets that lead to dull policy recommendations. The first is the “adviser’s approach”, which:

involves trying to write down the best set of measures to tackle a particular problem. It’s the kind of answer a government expert would use when writing a white paper on the subject that was actually going to be implemented.

What’s good about this from Stian’s point of view is that it provides a good programme for actual action, though a downside is that it lacks originality.

The second mindset is the “wonk’s approach”, whose main attribute is that it is original.

In the postscript, Stian concludes that think tanks in particular should focus on the wonk’s approach through

Produc[ing] fewer me-too policy recommendations, and instead to either come up with original ones, or not to bother with them at all.

Stian’s reflections put me in mind of a few things. The first was an insight from Jeremy Shapiro in the FT:

To the senior official, an outside idea is like a diamond on a desert island: abstractly valuable but practically useless. She feels penned in by politics and resource constraints that outsiders do not acknowledge. As she nods appreciatively and appears to hang on every word, she is, in fact, hiding tired familiarity with ideas she views as either politically impossible or already being attempted (or both).

The next is the third of Fukushima’s four conditions that have to be in place for political change to happen:

While government reform reflects the material interests of the parties involved, ideas are critical in shaping how individuals see their interests

My final reflection is on the idea of a Basic Income. The RSA has done some fantastic work on this recently. In itself, this is great, but what I find most interesting is that (1) this was a key part of the Green Party’s 2015 election campaign — during which it was, essentially, ridiculed; and (2) there is a very long history associated with the idea of a basic income, stretching back to the 16th century.

What these three reflections sum to is that ideas and originality are only necessary conditions for change, but not sufficient ones.

I’ve noted a personal scepticism before regarding “innovation” (and so originality). My personal predilection is for how to take and use good idea ideas to further public policy and service reform, rather than the originality of ideas per se. To this end, Stian’s penultimate point regarding think tanks is the one that works most for me:

[T]hink tanks add value by framing problems and diagnosing situations rather than by the specific solutions they propose.

Originally published at arbitraryc.wordpress.com on January 29, 2016.

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