Think tanks claim to influence the ‘climate of opinion’ - but do they, and how publicly? In the latest in our series on the political class, we look at the public profile of think tanks - or in some cases, their relative lack of profile.
To get a first impression of public profile we used Google Trends. Based on Google Search, this shows how often a particular search-term is entered relative to the total search-volume across various regions of the world and in various languages, if desired. There are many tools that can be used to capture and analyse the profile, reach and influence of individuals and organisations of course, but Google Trends is useful because of the ubiquity of the company’s search engine, how easily the popularity of search terms can be compared, and the historical data it can provide. In this way, it can provide an interesting starting-point for examining the profile of issues and organisations with the public, and their profile relative to each other. It’s certainly not a proxy for influence or credibility, but some of the results are somewhat surprising - especially when you consider that think tanks often promote themselves as effective vehicles to influence and inform public opinion.
First, which is the most searched for rightwing or centre-right think tank? We looked at the five most well-known think tanks that publish reports on social policy (our area of interest), in terms of web searches only in the UK: Policy Exchange, the Centre for Social Justice, the Adam Smith Institute, the Centre for Policy Studies, and the Institute of Economic Affairs. (The think tank Reform was excluded because the word ‘reform’ is also a regular term, hence it would be difficult to differentiate which searches are for the think tank and which related to another subject; similarly, ResPublica, although it is a much less common word.) The results suggest that Policy Exchange has a considerably higher profile than its ‘competitors’; meanwhile, older think tanks associated with Thatcherism such as the Adam Smith Institute and the Centre for Policy Studies have lost profile in comparison. The Centre for Social Justice has a surprisingly low profile, given its perceived influence on the current Government’s welfare policies.
For leftwing or centre-left think tanks, the overall story is of declining profile. (We looked at IPPR, the Smith Institute, the Fabian Society, the Young Foundation, and the new economics foundation; for the same reason as Reform, the think tank Demos was not included). This declining profile is perhaps not that surprising given that we have a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, but actually the decline started well before 2010. IPPR has the highest profile, with the Smith Institute and the Fabian Society following up.
In terms of non-aligned think tanks, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and The King’s Fund have by far the highest profile, with (perhaps surprisingly) the regularly-cited and respected Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Resolution Foundation trailing some way behind (the Institute for Fiscal Studies result is depressed by the need to remove ‘IFS’ as a search term, given that this includes a number of other organisations with the same acronym).
Here’s a combined chart for the most popular think tanks (Policy Exchange, the Centre for Social Justice, IPPR, the Fabian Society and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation). Again, there is a slightly surprising picture of declining profile, at least by this one measurement.
This impression is reinforced when you compare the most popular think tanks to other campaigning organisations, such as 38 Degrees and UK Uncut.
What about the ‘big ideas’ that think tanks help to develop and ‘popularise’? The only one that stands out (because it became a government programme) is the ‘Big Society’; ‘one nation’ (a phrase used across the political spectrum, though previously most associated with the centre-right) has not begun to spike in a similar way (at least so far).
Think tanks claim to be skilled in developing catchy phrases that embody a broader political, social or economic argument, but comparing two such phrases associated with selected think tanks - the ‘broken society’ (the Centre for Social Justice) and the ‘squeezed middle’ (the Resolution Foundation) - suggests that such phrases don’t necessarily break out much beyond the political class, compared to other words or phrases used by politicians (for example, ‘scroungers’ and ‘strivers’).
This is especially the case when you compare these phrases with more specific phrases that have been (rather effectively) used to promote or denigrate specific policies, for example the ‘living wage’ or the ‘bedroom tax’. This might suggest that if think tanks want to shape public opinion (and through this party and government policy), they should forget about big ideas and focus on framing and naming policies that impact directly on people’s lives.