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Giving think tanks a direct policy role is good for democracy

Excluding think tanks of left, right or centre from the policy process is undemocratic as well as impossibly naïve.

Photograph: Getty Images

 

Alan White is worried by the notion of some policy-making being “outsourced” to think tanks. He shouldn’t be.

Fourth on his target list is my Centre for Crime Prevention. Founded in January, it’s certainly a fledgling organisation whose strong media impact may just possibly be down to strong and newsworthy reports - because I can assure him it isn’t owed to big corporate donors or a large staff.

It isn’t immediately obvious why a report saying something true and interesting should be ignored because it has a single author, and I’m grateful that the press seems to agree. But if the Centre grows to the point of attracting those big corporate donors, I’d no doubt face lots of sneer quotes about how dubious that relationship is (for which see White’s examples 1-3). Perhaps think tanks cannot win?

In fact, White shouldn’t worry on either front. Many think tanks do pay the bills because of wealthy donors like Lord Sainsbury, certain trade unions and some companies. But pay-for-print think tanks soon collapse financially for the simple reason that the credibility of their reports depends on the perception and reality of independence. Big companies are perfectly capable of producing corporate brochures without external help.

In theory anyone can publish a report, but if their figures aren’t demonstrably correct and referenced they’ll be ignored even by “three hacks on minimum wage and a couple of kids on work experience”, let alone by policy makers.

There is controversy in any attempt to derive policy from data, but this is inherent to policy-making rather than a problem created by think tanks.

So for example White sees vulnerability in women criminals and clearly believes our prisons include lots of “women offenders who posed no risk to the public”. By contrast, I look at MOJ data showing 11,531 women with 15 or more previous convictions or cautions went before the courts after committing a serious (indictable) offence in the year ending September 2012. I think of their tens of thousands of victims and compare that to a female prison population of less than 4,000 (which includes prisoners from previous years). I think too of White’s excellent book, and its account of “women who’ll take a thirteen-year-old girl over to an estate in order to be gang raped, because that girl’s said something she shouldn’t”. All this leads me to conclude that sending (even) fewer serious, repeat women criminals to prison might harm the interests of the vulnerable.

There’s an argument to be had, then, and it’s inherently political. Given such policy debates must take place in Whitehall, it may just help to turn to those who came up with the policy ideas in the first place.

There’s a serious democratic point to make that governments are elected on a particular platform and agenda, and voters have a right to elect or reject them on that basis. Excluding think tanks of left, right or centre from the policy process in pursuit of agenda-free policy-making is therefore undemocratic as well as impossibly naïve.

White is plainly against scaling back community sentences for serious, repeat offenders and building more private prisons. Likewise, many would disagree with his policy ideas. But stopping governments pursuing particular policies is what elections are for. Long may that remain the case.