Working in a think tank was something I thought long and hard about whilst still in my job last year, as I missed university. Having the opportunity to while away time researching, analysing and writing about topics that fascinated me all day long was something I honestly loved. I think we have established by now that I am a bit of a nerd.
As policy based institutes, think tanks provide expert advice and ideas on specific political or economic problems; they often cross the boundary of academic and practitioner, to be ‘pracademics’, if you will.
I spent a week in June working with New Local Government Network (NLGN), a think tank which supports local government and their communities to have forward thinking conversations about the sector. They tackle issues thematically, researching and publishing papers on areas like the integration of health and social care, affordable housing and the future of civil society.
Having worked alongside Local Government at a more strategic level from one of my roles in the Civil Service, I could see how badly innovative problem solving was needed, so it was fantastic to see the 50+ NLGN member organisations working together with the researchers on practical solutions to big problems.
Speaking to NLGN’s Director, Adam Lent, it was clear that there was plenty of cross-over with my goals. He spoke of how working in the think tank world is ‘ideas-driven, creative problem-solving and about getting things done, all around a set of core values’. He also emphasised the partnership element, as think tanks are ‘constantly collaborating with partner organisations and individuals, meaning that building successful relationships mattered’, a feature of this career that I’d not previously realised. Above all though, he genuinely felt that he was doing work that ‘made a difference by addressing pressing social challenges’. It differed to academia as researching for a think tank was intellectualism with purpose and impact, rather than for its own sake (though I wonder what an academic would argue…!).
Like any job, there are downsides to it too and the ‘constant need to fundraise’ is a big one in the think tank world – both in terms of individual research projects and for the organisation as a whole.
What Did I Do?
I was fortunate enough to have arrived a few days after the general election result, so the focus of much of my time there was what a Tory government, supported by the DUP, would mean for Local Government and the services they provide. So, for example, I was asked to write a paper on what impact the DUP’s manifesto pledges might have on local government across the country, from council funding to housing, social care and education.
I was impressed (and admittedly a little annoyed, given their other more controversial policies) to find that they actually had some pretty good ideas for Northern Ireland. Things like examining how to apply the most successful programmes of Adult Social Care from around the world, reducing homelessness and greater flexibility in what age children start nursery and school, for example, are policies I’d wholeheartedly support. The DUP also aims to reduce austerity measures, which may create some political space to debate an easing in national level austerity policy, beyond those which have taken place in the interceding month.
Yes, I geeked out – if you want to too, the paper is here.
It reminded me why I joined the Civil Service in the first place and of my passion for politics. Whilst it was all incredibly frustrating as creating actual long-lasting change through Westminster is near-impossible, working for a think tank would allow me to be that one step removed, but to still have impact and make a difference.
I really enjoyed my time with NLGN – it was a small organisation where people seemed to genuinely get on well, how many of us have election parties with our colleagues?!
Working in the think tank world would mean I’d get to write and research for a purpose and have a social impact. This very firmly ticks the ‘making a difference’ box, but also perfectly fits for problem solving, thinking strategically and being intellectually stimulating.
NLGN, in particular, would be great for innovation, creativity and personally adding value, as everyone’s ideas matter and are valued.
There are still a few question marks though, especially over variety and travel, as well as non-desk based work. I was with NLGN during an especially quiet week, where there was no major event organised. A more average week would have included attending events, giving presentations and generally building networks.
You can’t have it all in a job though, as we are all well aware, and again this is where it comes back to the idea of having a portfolio career. Finding a balance between different types of careers that fulfil you in different ways - think tank researcher and forest school teacher, for example.
For anyone that is interested in this sector, though, Adam advised that written communication skills are critical, and are as important as research, as is the ability to network well to continue building and developing partnerships. If you are starting out though, ‘find a specialism to build a profile and name around, and focus in on that at the start, then you can branch out more widely.’ It is important to have a strong social media presence as you need to promote yourself as a researcher, as much as your ideas.