Wanted: can-doers in the think tanks

November 28, 1997

ONLY six months ago, "Mr Blair and the intellectuals" was almost as regular a fallback in dinner party conversations among British university social scientists as were house prices and the unrelieved awfulness of students.

Academic policy wonks complained "But they're not listening to us", while politicians and their advisers retorted "But you haven't got anything useful to say". Last May the debate went eerily quiet.

Cynics suggested academics got busy seeking preferment in the plethora of policy reviews, royal commissions, advisory forums, consultative bodies and other boondoggles for the policy world that were announced during the first few weeks and months of the incoming Labour government.

Many ministers took their advisers from opposition into government, but there are prominent academic advisers too. Michael Barber (Institute of Education) is advising the education secretary; Richard Layard (London School of Economics) is thought to remain influential on the "New Deal"; there are likely to be academic members in the royal commission on long-term care; and there are plenty of former academics around government (James Cornford in the Cabinet Office, Geoff Mulgan in Downing Street). If he could not get an invitation to Number Ten before Liam Gallagher, at least Anthony Giddens has been ushered in to expound the politics of the risk society.

If academic intellectuals and policy-makers do not speak different languages, they have dissonant dialects and speech rhythms. Policy-makers' impatience is no longer with academic eschewing of prescription, "on-the-one-hand-on-the-other" equivocation or "and ninthly" hectoring and listing of questions. One even hears the old chestnut "they just don't understand the realities of power" less often. Today the complaint is likely to be about short-term thinking and fatalism in academic policy analysis rather than its irrelevance.

In the name of empiricism and pragmatism, British social science has fought shy of the kind of long-range risk assessment that Americans, Scandinavians and even the best of French business scholars venture. Scenario building techniques, soft systems methodologies and the like remain beyond the pale. The irony is that Britain's intellectuals now have a rather pragmatic, empiricist government that talks often of thinking and governing for the long term, and which looks to them for the tools of long-term policy making in vain.

More frustrating is the deeply ingrained culture in British social science of awarding prizes for showing why some kites will never fly, of saying it has all been tried before, that unintended consequences, "policy fiascos" and "policy failure" will always swamp any beneficial effects, and that it would not work here. A strange misalliance of postmodern relativism, traditional scepticism has been formed as an academic garlic against the devilry of policy fervour and the worldweariness of the professoriat.

The result is neither pragmatic nor empirical, but dogmatic and inward-looking. When last month I published a short tract arguing for more integrated and preventive government, I was met with real interest from reflective public managers and consultants but with groans from academic Whitehall-watchers. I was told you could not start from here, history is but a tale of failed reform, and someone had wanted to achieve something vaguely similar in the 1970s. Suddenly I understood how politicians feel.

But at least politicians and academics are disagreeing about what constitutes good policy advice, rather than whether university social science can help. The problem is a very British one that academic intellectuals tend to exhibit the Dunkirk spirit of orderly mass retreat while politicians want the can-do spirit. This would not matter if academics sought only to counterbalance exuberance. When intellectuals want influence they need to refit not just their values but their craft and toolkits as well.

Perri 6 is director of policy and research at Demos, the independent, cross-party think tank.

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