Behind the Thinking: Part 5

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What is the role of think tank, Policy Exchange?

Last week, I wrote a provoking blog which raised an important issue: the transparency of Policy Exchange. The post has been read by thousands of educators across the UK and further afield.

Think tanks are a body of experts providing advice and ideas on specific political or economic problems. It is somewhat troubling that Policy Exchange, a think tank that wields formidable influence on British government policy, falls right at the bottom of the Transparify report (table ranking here / report here); funded by a group of undisclosed donors who, in return for their donations, influence the political decision-making of the UK.

The Role of Policy Exchange: Part 5

Following this post, I was contacted by an ex-teacher and Fulbright Scholar who wanted to share her academic research with me. @RachellBull said: “I really enjoyed reading your blog post – think it’s a critical issue across the board with think tanks. Funding is worrying, but also the self-affirming ‘epistemic communities’ that make up think tanks.”

Rachel Bull has provided consent for her paper to be published here.

The series:

Below is part 5 in a series of 7 posts:

  1. The Role of Policy Exchange
  2. Choice, Academies and Free Schools
  3. A Rising Tide
  4. A Legacy of Thinking
  5. Behind the Thinking including trustees
  6. Issue one and two: who is Paying for the Thinking? Who is Doing the Thinking?
  7. Conclusion.

V. Behind the Thinking

Disclaimer: this was written in April 2015, and therefore several things are now out of date. Everything was accurate at time of writing, and of course, the core argument still stands.

We must now turn to consider from where these [policy] ideas come; without this it is difficult to conceptualise how we can fully understand the role of PX in creating policy. Here we shall consider the founders, staff, and collaborators at PX, then the think tank’s trustees, and finally its funders.

“… millions of pounds are pumped anonymously into the research. Increasingly it becomes harder to see them as the “completely independent” body that they claim to be on their website.”

shutterstock_311075006 Guy who is wearing a pair of geek glasses squinting cause he can't see.

 … the harder you stare at them, the more [think tanks] look like lobby groups working for big business without disclosing their interests.” GeorgeMonbiot: “Think of a Tank”, 12th September 2011.

Image: Shutterstock

 i. Founders:

PX was established in 2002 by three dominant and important members of the Conservative Party.(21)

  • Nicholas Boles – Director of PX until 2007. Since then he has been Chief of Staff to Conservative Mayor Boris Johnson, and Parliamentary Private Secretary to the School’s Minister. Currently he is Conservative MP for Grantham and Stamford, and Minister of State for Skills and Equality.
  • Francis Maude – long-standing member of the Conservative Party who, before they entered office, was a dominant member of the Shadow Cabinet as well as Chairman of the Party. Since 2010 he has been Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General.
  • Michael Gove – First Chairman of PX. Entered Parliament in 2005 as MP for Surrey Heath. He was Shadow Minister for Children, Schools and Families, and then enjoyed a prolific and controversial four-years as Secretary of State for Education. He is now Government Chief Whip (at the time of writing this research).

ii. Staff:

The current education team (and authors of A Rising Tide) are Jonathon Simons and Natasha Porter. Simons had a career in the Civil Service and worked in the private sector for FTSE 100 company, Serco, while Porter was a teacher for several years before starting King Solomon Academy in London as part of the ARK academy chain. Previous members of the education team include:

  • James O’Shaughnessy: Was PX Deputy Director 2004-2007. As Visiting Fellow he authored the 2012 report Competition meets Collaboration advocating both for-profit school management, and increased powers for academy chains to take over failing schools. Is active member of Conservative Party, serving 3 years as Director of Policy and Research (2007-2010), and 18 months as Director of Policy to the Prime Minister.
  • Daisy Meyland-Smith: Was a Research Fellow at PX 2008-2009. Professional Director of Conservative Party 2011-2013, and previous Conservative Party candidate.(20) These positions were correct at time of writing, however with the General Election taking place on Thursday 9th May 2015, these are subject to change.
  • Sam Freedman: Was Head of Education Unit at PX 2006-2009, and previously Head of Research at the Independent Schools Council. Left to become policy advisor to Conservative Secretary for Education, Michael Gove 2009-2013.

iii. Collaborators:

Many of PX’s publications are written in partnership with outside consultants, and edited by PX staff members. Some of these consultants have notable connections:

  • Rachel Wolf – Was previous policy advisor to Michael Gove, and founder of the New Schools Network (NSW) in 2007. Wolf was a co-author of the 2010 publication Blocking the Best which advocated for reduced restrictions on setting up free schools. Her company is the leading provider of support for people wanting to set up free schools; it was the only company named in A Rising Tide, with the recommendation that it should evolve its role and “become more responsible for sustained capacity building”.(21) NSN has previously received criticism for refusing to reveal its funders, and for being awarded £500,000 in public money by the Department of Education while Michael Gove was in charge.(22)
  • Andrew Laird – Public policy specialist who is Director of Mutual Ventures, a company that supports social enterprise groups who deliver public services. He was lead author of the 2012 publication Social Enterprise Schools that, recognising the political difficulties with for-profit education in the UK, designed a model that would be more palatable to the British public.

iv. Trustees:

PX currently has a board of 15 trustees. The majority of these own businesses (including consulting companies, banks, and hedge funds), however they also include a couple of journalists, and the co- founder of an arts charity. The Chairman of the Board, David Frum, is a Canadian-American political commentator who was previously a speechwriter for George W. Bush. Several have links with the Conservative Party:

  • Lord Simon Wolfson – Chief Executive of clothing company Next, and a Tory peer.
  • George Robinson – Co-founder of hedge fund company, Sloane Robinson. According to Electoral Commission records, between 2004-2012, he gave a total of £417,600 to the Conservative Party.(23)
  • Simon Brocklebank-Fowler – Executive Chairman of Cubitt Consulting who donated to theConservative election campaign.
  • Previous PX trustees includes Tory peers and MPs (Baroness Patience Wheatcroft, Edward Heathcoat Amory, and David Mellor), staff (Rachel Whetstone and Danny Finkelstein), and donors (Theodore Agnew and Andrew Sells).(24)

v. Funding:

As a registered charity, Policy Exchange (as with 7 other UK think tanks including Civitas, Demos, the IPPR, the Institute of Economic Affairs, the New Economics Foundation, Reform, and the Social Market Foundation) receives many tax benefits. It is required to release its income (which, until this year, was the highest of this group, with a little over £3.2 million(25), but is not under any obligation to provide information on its donors.

Individual reports have not included details of funders since 2004, the majority of the publications, including A Rising Tide, merely offering vague acknowledgements to people and corporations.

This is a largely unscrutinised area.

In 2011, the Guardian journalist George Monbiot begun an investigation to demand greater transparency from “free market think tanks”, which he described as a “threat to democracy”. He got in touch with 15 think tanks in the UK and asked them to reveal their funders, providing a score out of five for transparency and accountability. PX was one of the 9 groups contacted who refused to provide any information at all, causing Monbiot to give it a score of zero.

The leftist journalist wrote in his blog, “the harder you stare at them, the more [think tanks] look like lobby groups working for big business without disclosing their interests”.(26) A prototype project “Who Funds You” has tried a similar programme, awarding PX a ‘D’ on its scale (A-E) of transparency, only avoiding the lowest category by merit of declaring its total annual income.

A report published by Transparify was the catalyst for these series of posts.

According to the project’s website, PX told them, “In line with Charity Commission rules we respect our supporters’ right to privacy and do not disclose their details unless they wish to be publicly acknowledged. Many supporters are thanked in our reports which are all free to download from our website.”(27)

Transparency Think Tank Opaque Policy Exchange

Source: Who Funds You?

An Independent, Tangled Web:

When we look closer at PX, we see a tangled web of connections underpinning their “thinking”. Vested interests become confused, as key players shift between think tank, politics, and business. Meanwhile, millions of pounds are pumped anonymously into the research. Increasingly it becomes harder to see them as the “completely independent” body that they claim to be on their website.

All of the above is a step forward, but as Rachell Bull says, “bringing all this info together took a lot of digging – certainly not crystal clear.”  There are trustees listed here, but no donors.

Part 6 is due to be published later today …

End of part 5.

Rachel Bull is a former teacher who is now a Fulbright Scholar and Leadership Development Officer at Teach First.

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