Brian Lamb: Campaigning charities must now take more note of the think tanks

The challenge for the sector is to ensure that we are part of the conversation and not merely following it, writes our columnist

Brian Lamb
Brian Lamb

Campaigners need to think harder about who their targets are, now that the government is planning to contract out more of its policy-making. It has announced that 'centres of excellence' will be set up to guide social policy in areas including health, crime and ageing.

The What Works Network will comprise six organisations, including the Educational Endowment Foundation, and will gather evidence to inform and influence decisions on more than £200m of public spending.

Many assume that it is the think tanks that will pick up the mantle from the civil service, but few have realised the scale of the shift - or its implications for charity campaigning.

Significant traffic

There is already significant traffic between the offices of senior politicians of all parties and think tank leaders. They already provide many of the ideas that make their way into government programmes. Reports drop regularly into the inboxes of officials and these are backed up by conferences that give ministers and advisers platforms from which to gain currency for and acceptance of their ideas. Governments regularly commission work from them, generating wider policy thinking but also affording them deniability if solutions are not acceptable when they are road-tested.

In much of the terrain that the third sector might once have thought its own, the debate is now framed by think tank proposals and reports. Look at headlines on policy issues in the national press and at commentators in the media to see their ever-growing impact. Many voluntary organisations have also commissioned work from think tanks in order to burnish their own policy credentials.

Frame the debate

Service experience backed by policy nous has served the sector well as a platform for campaigns, but the targets hitherto have been government officials. Now it is the think tanks themselves that might need to be targeted, or they will be the ones that frame the debate for us. The days when it was enough to look upstream to government policy departments - and occasionally across to the think tanks - are giving way to a time when think tanks will need to become a major target for lobbying, especially as government reduces its central policy capacity to the bone and focuses more on delivery.

The What Works Network is essentially good news if "what works" can really be translated into "what government funds", irrespective of how uncomfortable the results are for political masters of whichever persuasion. The sector needs to get sharper at ensuring that we are at the centre of think tanks' concerns and can demonstrate evidence about the effectiveness of our solutions. Without this we will miss out on directing how the money is spent.

This will undoubtedly lead to further questions about the independence of some think tanks and whether they can justify their charitable status. While transparency about funding and clarity about their independence from political influence would be welcome, it's not in the sector's interest to see the diversity of the debate restricted. The challenge for the sector is to ensure that we are part of the conversation - not merely following it.

Brian Lamb is a consultant and chair of the NCVO's campaign effectiveness advisory board

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