Over the last 6 months or so several people have approached me to talk about how we can create the right opportunities to generate and encourage debate about the key issues in Bristol and how this can be done in a collaborative, inclusive and positive way.Typically for a place like Bristol, there seem to be several groups of people discussing and considering this at the moment without necessarily talking to one another! The interests of the different groups do however seem to be focused on similar issues, that is, how we challenge decision makers and influencers, how we help to inform and raise awareness of issues and challenges and finally how solutions can be developed and discussed.
That’s not to say that these things don’t happen, just that maybe they don’t happen in a coordinated manner, sometimes the approach might be too challenging and negative, or simply that important issues get missed and are not discussed. Equally, there also seems to be a tendency for some decision makers (in our local Councils and the Local Enterprise Partnership) to get too defensive about criticism and challenge, to actively discourage debate and discussion on key issues and to ask for the views of a select group of people and organisations rather than encourage wider engagement.
So it got me thinking about how you could approach this desire for involvement and engagement with the decision making process and decision makers in a different way, as clearly there is a gap that needs to be filled, as perceived by a range of people including politicians, professionals, partnership managers, community activists and academics. As part of some of the recent discussions the term “think tank” has cropped up regularly – one of those terms that often means very different things to different people: “universities without students”, “ideas factories” and “enclaves of excellence” are just 3 of the terms used to describe think tanks. I personally favour the definition used by McGann & Sabatini in their book on Global Think Tanks (2011), which in summary basically says they are about generating policy focused research and advice to enable policy makers and the public to make informed decisions about public policy issues.
So if we were to consider this for Bristol, what would it do and could a Bristol focused, independent and progressive think tank be part of the answer? Traditionally the main roles of think tanks can be grouped into 4 main areas all of which I believe are relevant to what is potentially needed in Bristol:
- Think tanks as educators – informing debate, providing research and raising awareness of issues
- Think tanks as influencers – acting as a clearing house for ideas and helping to develop policy
- Think tanks as networkers – facilitating networks to support and develop the exchange of knowledge and policy transfer
- Think tanks as translators – helping to make academic work more accessible to politicians, the media and policy makers
It is this kind of intervention and independent thinking that Bristol might well benefit from. As an important city region Bristol is clearly successful but equally faces many of the challenges that other cities in the UK face. Surely providing an arena for debate and discussion on a regular basis, from a range of independent experts, academics, interested parties, communities and others will provide us with better solutions to these challenges than continuing to rely on the input of the same people and groups that have always had good access to decision makers? There is an opportunity here for Bristol, and the Mayor, to lead the way and respond to the Centre for Cities “Think Cities” campaign by creating the right environment for challenge, by being open to debate and criticism and by widening the networks for participation. The potential benefit for the Councils and the LEP is they get more constructive criticism focused on solutions and positive policy change rather than negative, angry criticism with few answers and they get a wealth of easy to understand information and research, focused on the needs of Bristol, with clear, simple messages and solutions. What’s not to like?
We already have some of the structures in place that this could sit under, it needn’t mean a big new organisation costing lots of money. A logical starting place could be with the work of Andrew Kelly and the Festival of Ideas/Economics, the main emphasis of which is to engage and encourage debate and discussion. It could be linked informally to the work of our excellent universities – for example at Bristol University we have the School for Policy Studies, which in its research and teaching covers many of the policy issues of importance to Bristol: city leadership and governance; housing policy; poverty and social inclusion; health inequalities; social justice; and economic development. The expertise is already here we just need to tap into it better and use it to help support creative and innovative thinking in a way that is welcomed by local decision makers and that can help us to make positive and real changes.
There may well be many of you out there that say you are already doing some of this, or who want to part of anything that might happen – I welcome comments so please let me know if you think this is an idea that could work in Bristol.
Would you support the development of an independent, progressive think tank focused on the Bristol city region?