Free Thinking? Part 6

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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 6

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. They are her own views.

The series:

Below is part 6 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.

In Part 5, we could finally publish and acknowledged people who were behind the report: A Rising Tide.We can also locate the trustees on PX’s website, but not their donors. It would be polite of me to ask, but in the final parts of this series, I simply remind readers as to why I started this topic from the outset. For a think tank that wields formidable influence on British government policy, why do they still fall right at the bottom of the Transparify report? (table ranking here / report here)

VI. Free 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Disclaimer: this was written in April 2015, and therefore several things are now out of date.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.

When we look closer at PX, we find 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.

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Image: Shutterstock

This tangled web cannot help but taint the way we view this organisation and others like it.

… the general public cannot help but be exposed to these ideas; in many ways, they are even targeted by them.”

The role of think tanks – which barely existed 30 years ago – has grown exponentially. Now they are an important feature of society, both in way that they are directly used to shape policy, and in the way that they influence what Andrew Denham and Mark Garnett have called “the climate of opinion”.(28)

There are three main groups whose ideas may be influenced by think tanks such as PX:

  • Politicians: Political academics have argued that British politics “is more open to outside advice than ever before”.(29) In a recent Ipsos Mori Survey of British MPs, think tanks (or “evidence from experts, e.g. think tanks”) were their most highly prioritised source of information and advice, with 50% of survey participants believing that they should pay attention to these sources above all others when deciding “what should be done”.(30) The influence of PX (which was once described by The New Statesman as “Cameron’s favourite think tank”(31) on Tory policy is particularly prolific. Beyond the Rising Tide report, in April 2015 PX proudly announced the 13 policies that it had suggested which had been included in the Conservative Party 2015 Manifesto.(32)
  • Media: On an almost daily basis, newspaper will produce stories directed by the publications of various “influential think tanks”.(33) These are often included without any reference to partisan leanings, let along specific reference to authors or funders.
  • General Public: Propagated by the media, the general public cannot help but be exposed to these ideas; in many ways, they are even targeted by them. Stone has explored the ways in which think tanks offer “condensed arguments”, palatable to the general public and imbued with rhetoric and metaphor, intended to “enhance the political potency of ideas and mobilise support”.(34)

However, this paper argues that this is dangerous when we consider that the origins of this information and advice, and the motivations of those producing it, are, at best neither discussed nor made clear to non-specialists, and at worst, purposefully hidden from them.

Issue One: Who is Paying for the Thinking?

The funding issue is paramount here.

A recent report by Transparify, a non-profit initiative in Georgia identified the UK as less transparent on think tank funding than any other European country, contending that its proportion of “highly opaque” think tanks dramatically reduced the European average transparency rating. As such, they called for the UK to start a “national debate” about the value of financial transparency in policy research.(35)

Without information about PX’s donors, we can only speculate about the impact of funds on the “thinking” that it is producing. While there is every chance that their funding is sourced from impartial, non-lobbyist groups, without the details (which they are so reluctant to reveal) (36), there is no proof. If, however, some – or all – of the money is being provided by corporations with vested interests in the topics of their research, then PX might be guilty of astro-turfing, whereby corporate funding is hidden under the guise of being from independent grassroots sources. This caused controversy in 2013 when two of the UK’s biggest free-market think tanks (Adam Smith Institute and the Institute of Economic Affairs) – who had both criticised government plans to introduce plain packaging for cigarettes – were discovered as having received tens of thousands of pounds from big tobacco companies.(37)

This kind of behaviour has been somewhat prolific in the US, where, since the 1970s, large corporations have poured money into organisations such as the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute to mass-produce “research” which favoured their interests.(38) Beyond this, academic scrutiny has fallen on the power of think tanks – funded by conservative corporations and foundations – to spread doubt about climate change and lead the environmental scepticism movement in America.(39) And yet still, in spite of the fact that Transparify noted that, as of 2015, half of US think tanks are now considered “transparent” about their funding (if not without vested interests), publication after publication is turned out, prompting countless uncritical news stories relaying their findings, under the guise of the think tank as an impartial and highly trustworthy source of information.

In the US it would appear that this cannot be guaranteed, and – without clear evidence about funding sources in the UK – we cannot be sure that the problem is not just as acute across the Atlantic.

Issue Two: Who is Doing the Thinking?

Putting to one side the matter of fiscal opacity, there is another, more complex issue in the openness of think tank culture in the UK, related to what Stone calls the “epistemic communities” that underpin British and American policy-making.(40) Epistemic communities are groups of people from a variety of disciplines who share common ideological principles and similar world views. Within these groups in policy-making are politicians, civil servants, academics, newspapers, and – of course – think tanks.

When we look at PX we see not only an epistemic community made up of Conservative politicians, civil servants, corporate businesspeople, and think tank fellows and employees, but one in which the different roles are not set in stone; instead, key players either straddle multiple domains, or shift between them. In many ways this is to be expected; people are of course attracted to organisations that share their ideals and political leanings. However, in this situation there are two significant risks.

Firstly, there is the danger that an epistemic community might lead to the creation of an inward- looking institution whose close-mindedness self-confirms and fuels their own “innovations”, as a lack of non-partisan objectivity limits the production of critical research. Secondly, and possibly worse than this, it also risks the influence of vested interests influencing research – even without the direct influence of money. To this degree, it was noted by one education commentator as unusual that the Rising Tide report, despite advocating the competitive benefits of the market, specifically called on only one social enterprise that should be expanded to help groups.(41) That enterprise was the New Schools Network, founded by Rachel Wolf (who authored previous reports for PX, see above), and home of several employees who had previously worked for PX (Natalie Evans, Fred Burgess), not to mention Diana Berry, NSN Director of Development, and Trustee of PX.(42)

Wolf held a research post for Boris Johnson working on his mayoral campaign. This swiftly lead Wolf to a post with Michael Gove writing education policy whilst he was still in the shadow cabinet. (Meet Education’s Power Couple – not part of the original paper shared here.)

VII. Conclusion

The influence of PX in both directing and legitimising the Conservative policy of educational choice through free schools is strong, although without further information about the relationship between these two policy players, it is difficult to speculate as to its exact nature.

Nonetheless, with the Rising Tide report, PX extend their 13 year record of producing high-profile “empirical” publications advertising the potential and benefits of free schools, even as the Department of Education demands that it is too early for such results, and elsewhere in the world, similar models garner increasing scrutiny and criticism.(43) Meanwhile, although the quality of their research does receive some analysis and critique (granted mainly just in the margins of the educational cybersphere), the origins do not. Instead, PX remains underneath the radar, as one of a group of think tanks whose lack of funding transparency and intellectual openness cannot help but compromise the “complet[e] independen[ce]” that they claim to have.

PX might be guilty of astro-turfing, whereby corporate funding is hidden under the guise of being from independent grassroots sources.”

If it, and other think tanks like it, are to continue to influence both policy and the “climate of opinion” in British society, we must demand a reevaluation of how their finances managed, their vested interests are regulated (or at least made transparent), and their findings are reported.

End of part 6.

All of the above is a step forward, but as author 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. You will be able to read the conclusions and download the full paper, published tomorrow in Part 7 …

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

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