From Philip Schlesinger, Professor of Cultural Policy at the University of Glasgow, comes a fine paper on think-tanks as cultural and policy institutions: “Creativity and the Experts: New Labour, Think Tanks, and the Policy Process.” It’s published in the January 2009 issue of The International Journal of Press/Politics, 14(3): 3-20.
This enviably well-written article looks at the phenomenon of UK think-tanks specifically from a creative industries perspective: an important topic, given the vast influence exerted by institutions like Demos and the Institute for Public Policy Research on the Blair and Brown governments.
Those who work in think tanks, as policy advisers or consultants, are a tiny and select segment of the university-educated intelligentsia. They operate within elite circles where the costs of entry to knowledgeable policy discussion are high. Their exclusivity — or as Pierre Bourdieu (1986) would put it, their “distinction” — is based in the claims to expertise made by the ‘thinktankerati.’
Schlesinger then goes on to discuss the influence of three public policy think-tanks – Demos, The IPPR, and The Work Foundation – on New Labour’s policies and governance. He looks at the careers of significant new Labour cabinet figures, who often started in think-tanks or in policy roles in the party machinery, and then moved from and between these to senior posts in the UK government.
Finally, in perhaps the most enlightening section of this fine paper, Schlesinger outlines the tortuous process of policy development which led to the publication of the Brown Government’s creative industries strategy paper, Creative Britain: New Talents for the New Economy. This paper, which began with substantial input from Will Hutton and The Work Foundation envisaging the placing of creative industries in the centre of UK government policy thinking, eventually morphed into a far safer and more constrained collection of bite-sized concrete policy proposals:
The Work Foundation had envisaged a radical new conception of an economy with creative activity at the core. What emerged instead was a plethora of stitched-together policy proposals already in the machinery of DIUS, BERR, and the DCMS [the relevant UK government departments].
Schlesinger draws five conclusions:
1: “At any one time, there are preferred suppliers of ideas and evidence” – in other words, policy is driven by relatively small ginger groups inside governments who then “act as the effective protagonists of a policy.”
2: “creative industries policy making has been characterised by turf wars, so what emerges is an outcome of interdepartmental compromise.” Schlesinger contrasts the Creative Britain strategy with The Work Foundation’s very different Staying Ahead.
3: “ministerial ‘ownership’ of policies is important for the focus achieved by particular areas of activity” – and that this phenomenon is often hostage to the vicissitudes of political fortune, ministerial reshuffles and personal ambition
4: small and typically less influential government departments like DCMS struggle to advance their agenda in the broader government bureaucracy, particularly with powerful “central” agencies like Treasury and the Prime Minster’s staff: “The DCMS had to manage the scepticism about its initiatives that abounded in larger and more important ministries such as DIUS, DTI/BERR, and the Treasury.”
5: the creative industries policy debate is still immature. Former policy advisors who once entertained grand schemes are now government ministers, subject to the brutal realities of everyday politics: “some of those involved in policy advice—who began their careers in think tanks—have now taken their distance from them, and while they do not necessarily deny their origins, they may disparage their previous occupation from a position of insider influence. “