Good idea, but poorly executed

December 17, 1999

Virtual think-tank Nexus bore all the hallmarks of new Labour. So why did this academic brainwave fail? asks Harriet Swain

When virtual think-tank Nexus was set up three years ago, it seemed to symbolise all the newness of new Labour. Run by young dons - one from Oxford, one from Cambridge - itching to bring their bright ideas to policy-makers, it promised new relationships between academics and politicians, forging these links through innovative use of new technology.

Developed after a seminar organised by new Labour journal Renewal early in 1996 and attended by Tony Blair, Nexus offered the vision of a changed political world, shaped by ideas born of online discussion groups. Now, two-and-a-half years after the Labour election win that was supposed to herald that political world, Nexus is dormant. What went wrong?

The answer says as much about the mechanics of this government and of academia as it does about the relationship between them. However new the aspirations of both, they still work within age-old systems. "Nexus was in many ways a spectacular success but it ran into problems not of its making," says one co-founder, Cambridge lecturer David Halpern.

The first problem was financial. Nexus was supposed to be a cheap way of running a think-tank, but even virtual thinking needs time and resources for administration. For a while Nexus was attracting so much attention that in spite of its difficulties Halpern hoped to expand it. This seemed a real possibility when Lord Sainsbury offered "a huge amount of money". But when he pulled out, reportedly after criticism of his close links with Labour, the idea died and enthusiasm began to wane.Close Labour links were to blame in another way, too. Oxford fellow Stewart Wood, another Nexus founder, says the intention was for anyone, left or right, to tap into the network. It just happened that Labour got in first. "It was new at the time, and anything new was picked up by Labour in opposition," he says. "Blair liked us, and Gordon Brown, and Robin Cook, but that gave us the image of being a new Labour rallying point." This invited the suspicions of many academics, worried about impartiality.

Starved of resources, Nexus had little choice but to trade on links with high-profile names to attract academics to debates. But these very links undermined its credibility. Nexus's involvement with some of the lobbyists fingered in last year's "cash for access" controversy did little to reassure academics. But Nexus was never really on the Labour inside track, Wood says. "There are these satellites around Blair and Downing Street, such as the think-tank Demos. They bring outside people in and it was clear that we were not going to be brought in. No one from academia really is."

The looming presence of the next research assessment exercise did not help. For Halpern, the RAE's bias against policy-based research was a big cause of Nexus's decline. "Senior policy-makers (in government) were very frustrated that academics were not getting involved even when they were opening the door to Nexus," he says. He told politicians the RAE was a barrier but it did not register with them. He has persevered and is now confident that the RAE will be restructured to reward policy-based research.

Another problem was that relationships change once a party comes to power. In opposition it is keen to use any dialogue available because it has so few resources, but governments can access lots of thinking power.

Labour can turn to experienced civil servants and, if it wants to tap new ideas, bright young political animals such as Ed Balls, who absorbed the latest academic thinking as students. It can also commission research. Ben Lucas, a director of left-centre lobbying company Lucas, Lawson, Mendelsohn and a former Nexus contributor, says: "You could argue that a lot of groups the government has commissioned have involved the sort of people who would have been in Nexus."

Iain McLean, professor of politics at Oxford, who convened Nexus's online discussion group on devolution, is less charitable. Once in power, Labour simply chose those ideas, in particular the "third way", that it wanted and discarded the rest, he says. Academics like himself who felt the "third way" had no substance were disillusioned. "My advice to policy academics who don't want to be disappointed is to stick to the policy area they know about and not to be deflected."

Wood says academics are better suited to this anyway. "New Labour's idea of a good idea is more like an advertising company's idea of a good idea," he says. "It is a concept that is saleable. Academics are useless at coming up with that kind of thing."

This kind of communication problem became apparent even during Nexus's period of success. Influential policy-makers appeared to find some of the issues discussed too divorced from reality. "The academics disappeared into a self-referential world in which they could think only of their own abstractions and the politicians retreated into day-to-day problems," says Pat Gray, a senior lecturer in public policy at the University of Luton and former Nexus convener.

To tackle this, Wood wanted Nexus to be a brokering service with a list of academics that government could call on. But once in government, he says, politicians seemed to prefer tried and trusted advisers, whom they knew through personal contacts.

Favoured Blair thinker Charlie Leadbeater, who devised the white paper on the knowledge economy, says the government is still eager to involve specialist academics. He blames Nexus for being too diffuse. "Academics are not listened to on big themes. But if you look at social exclusion units, neighbourhood renewal, specific policy action under this government, ministers are always holding seminars to bring in academics to advise them. You don't have to go through Nexus."

Leadbeater also suggests that although the idea of an online think-tank was a good one, virtual communication needs to be supplemented by face-to-face contact, and this demanded resources Nexus lacked.

Attempts to relaunch Nexus are afoot with discussions under way with a possible funder, one of the large internet service providers. If successful, there could be an announcement within weeks. The organisation would still be called Nexus and would fulfil some aims of the original, but with a slightly different focus. Halpern would like to see it become a vehicle for agenda-setting to give it a niche in a crowded think-tank market. This would mollify academics, who became uncomfortable with Nexus's closeness to power, while letting it retain political impetus.

"The danger with evidence-based policy-making is that it looks like we are trying to de-politicise policy-making. Basing policy-making on evidence means that it just comes to be about what works," Halpern says. "What remains political is setting the agenda in the first place."

Membership of a revamped Nexus would include the major think-tanks, academics, fundraisers and senior people from Downing Street. As well as online discussions, it would hold meetings a few times a year to discuss the political agenda. "If we thought the government was not pursuing things thought to be very important by the wider academic and research community, we would draw attention to that - not only directly to government but also more widely," Halpern says.

But forums for political thought have moved on. There is the creation of the New Policy Network, run by Mark Leonard, director of the Foreign Policy Centre. It is an overtly political and policy-oriented network of political thinkers across Europe. Leonard, 26, who graduated from Cambridge in philosophy and social sciences, has the big-picture slogans that new Labour is looking for.

And the Economic and Social Research Council has set up a Pounds 2.5 million evidence-based policy initiative. It involves a national coordinating centre for specialist research groups that are expected to provide an independent "brokering service" for governments here and abroad. Former ESRC chief executive Ron Amann, who is now director-general of the centre for management and policy studies in the cabinet office, is a useful link.

Both initiatives draw rather more on the old-style think-tank and research council model than Nexus. But maybe the old model makes for an easier relationship. The fate of Nexus appears to show that academic research rarely moves as fast as politicians want and new Labour is no longer quite as new as it was.

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