OPINION: How to tell if the tank thinks

LISA HARKER, deputy director of the Institute for Public Policy Research

It seems think-tanks are all the rage and now the competition is on for the best name. So far the Tories' C-Change has the edge on the more easily mocked Forethought - the Labour Party's new centre for policy research. What's next? L for Leather?

Of course, as a member of "Britain's leading independent think-tank

(we like to think), it's flattering to discover that you're in vogue.

But you have to worry that the term will go the way of all other fashion trends and eventually become an embarrassing, cringe-worthy no-no.

We can but hope that the attraction of think-tank label has something to do with the combination of academic rigour with political savvy, the mix of heady ambition and pragmatic realism and the willingness to be both authoritative and outspoken. But real think-tanks are more than places where good policy influencing skills can be found.

So here's your guide to the difference between the genuine article and the poor imitation.

For a start, think-tanks are neither part of the academic community, the media, government or voluntary sector. They have no customers, clients or practitioner base. In sitting somewhere between these groups, think-tanks can often broker the kinds of discussions that others can not. And while they are undoubtedly value driven, they do not represent a fixed cause or group. If they are successful they can aspire to bridge the intellectual divide between academics and policy makers and the cultural divide between the policy-making establishment and the citizen.

Many voluntary-sector organisations devote plenty of time and resources to exactly the kinds of activities that think-tanks undertake. Most of them share the aspiration to change the world through reasoned policy debate. But as organisations that have a particular cause or constituency to represent, those in the voluntary sector can never entirely replicate the work of think-tanks. And think-tanks will continue to look to voluntary-sector organisations for the knowledge and expertise they lack.

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