Every week, if not every day somebody questions whether or not we should be working in a particular area. It happens for different reasons. One is, that an independent non-profit organization working on an issue without having kind of political affiliation is very threatening for the people who have a prominent role in those areas.
“Do-tank”, not “think-tank”
Interview with Tom Bentley, director of British think-tank DEMOS by Lolita Čigāne.
What is your explanation why has DEMOS become so influential?
We have stuck to long-term questions and long-term themes, but we have tried to keep a flow of stimulating ideas and make our answers more and more diverse. We have tried very hard to be relevant and connected to political debate, but at the same time always to inject something different and look for fresh ideas. And over time I think that people have responded to that in a way that has given us the necessary clout.
What are your strategies how do you approach the government and decision-making bodies?
We do two things. One, we try to generate ideas and grab their attention. Whatever else we are doing, we are always looking to publish a steady flow of new thinking that adds something new to the debate. As well as having this public stimulant and challenge, we also try to start conversations with these different institutions, which are actually relevant to them. We try to focus as much on the institutional challenge as we do on the content of the ideas.
Are these institutions always open and willing to listen to what you have to say?
No, many of them are resistant and many of them are indifferent. So we keep having the conversations, we invite people to join networks; we make people aware in lots of different ways. And we try to make sure that we only work in places where people want to try out a new approach. So that means we will actually work with a minority of institutions that we could or might. But it is better to peruse authentic relationships than to bang your head against the door.
When do you give up struggling with an institution? If you feel that there is a policy that would need to be implemented but you cannot break through the institution? When is the line when you give up?
We have to make a judgment about whether or not our effort is going anywhere. Very often you can have a sense whether or not working with a specific institution is generating progress.
Most of the issues, that we work on - education, democracy, reimagening government, social impact of technologies, cities, - these are things that you can work on in almost any place. So, we may be able to address the issue by working with a different specific partner. What we have to do is to keep reinforcing our long-term commitment to make some progress on the issue.
Do you also ever work towards the “general public”?
In most of the projects we do, we look for the ways to involve the public directly. For example, the project that we just launched on the future of Glasgow, a city in Scotland, is something that involves institutions, new thinking and academic research, but also an exercise of public engagement. We are always looking for new ways to blend in a direct role of public into the other processes.
How do you define the concept of do-tank vis-à-vis the concept of think-tank?
What it means is that we are working practically with the challenge of implementing things. We are trying to understand the most successful strategies for change alongside our analyses. And the way we have done it, is build up our range of collaborations with the whole set of institutions that are trying to do things. We do this rather than assume that if we influence government policy, the rest will follow.
Can you describe the most successful project that you are most proud of?
Some of our work on community involvement in the schools and changing the relationships between the schools and the other community organizations has had an impact on national policy and has been picked up in the other countries. At the same time we have also influenced the practice of local communities, the head teachers and schools.
It is an example of thinking and doing together, developing long term ideas, changing the basis of education, so that young people have much more direct and community based experience alongside their formal school curriculum. That is something that has had a long-term influence and has worked on a practical level as well as at the policy level.
Can you give me an example of what activities you carried out?
Well, we published reports, we did research projects, we worked with the local education authorities and we worked in the national education agencies, we worked with the Department for Education in England. We also worked directly with teachers and with students talking about how the issues fit together and what are practical ways of solving their problems.
Overall, although this work happened in a quite diffused or indirect way, it has meant a big shift in the way how people think about these issues. There are many examples of that kind of change and one of the things that is most encouraging and exciting is the way that our work feeds into a much wider network of exchange and collaboration, we are starting to work in many different countries.
Why is DEMOS working internationally? Is funding the reason?
The main driver is intellectual. The goal of building the every day democracy is something that can only be done internationally. Many different countries and cities and regions are facing similar problems in tackling these issues.
The second reason is pragmatic that we get better learning and our thinking is better if we are connected to more diverse collaborations.
The third reason is funding. If we want to extend our activities, we also have to build funding strategies. Although DEMOS started in the UK, we never wanted to be focused on improving only the UK. We actually want to build a community of ideas that extends much further. So, building that true network of international collaborations seems like a natural thing to do.
How high on your agenda is improvement of the policy in the UK?
Quite high, I would say it is up there. Sometimes people think that because we have developed an emphasis on practical change we are not interested in long-term policies. But actually we still talk to ministers. We still publish reports aimed at government departments. We still deal with the UK national media, everything that we do have some kind of gearing, some kind of relevance to what is happening to the UK. But what’s changed is that it is not the sole focus.
So many policy institutes in the UK and US operate like they only have one lens, but actually we do not have to analyze or write on behalf of the British Government. We want to try to articulate a public’s case, which may be relevant for many different countries.
Has there ever been an instance when somebody has tried to question your legitimacy or your involvement in policy areas? What argumentation do you give?
Every week, if not every day somebody questions whether or not we should be working in a particular area. I think it happens for different reasons.
One is, that an independent non-profit organization working on an issue without having kind of political affiliation is very threatening for the people who have a prominent role in those areas, whether they are civil servants, public officials, academics or policy specialists. The same goes for industry groups or voluntary organizations. Having DEMOS enter an area can be an uncomfortable experience.
Secondly, many people have valid questions to ask about think-tanks, about how they are funded, about where they get their legitimacy from, about whom they are accountable to. We have to answer these questions through the way that we work, through our constitution. Our constitution is that we are registered as a charity, we are dedicated to working for the public benefit but we are not a public institution or a public structure. We are making ourselves as transparent as possible. We are circulating our material as widely as possible. We never enter into a funding partnership and funding collaboration without guaranteeing our independence first. And we keep widespread partnerships so that to make sure that we are not dependent on only one source of revenue.
DEMOS researchers are also working in Sweden. What are the lessons that you can learn from Sweden?
They are lessons about the longtermism. If you want to build a successful childcare, then you should keep the goal and build it up year by year over a longer time. There are also lessons of how flexible, globally orientated structure can be combined with high level of social investment and a strong welfare state. There are also lessons of how you promote social participation, for example through life long learning. If you give people clear structures through which to take part, they are more likely to make a contribution to the society.
What is your general feeling are people in the UK too socially vulnerable?
Britain is still too unequal a place. It has improved marginally due to the Labor government. I mean many people in Britain are relatively wealthy. There is quite a high standard of living. However, even within that average there are very strong inequalities. So British people are under a lot of pressure, many people in Britain are too exposed to risks and threats to their well being, many of which are economic. We have an unequal labor market and we have a public health system that does not work for everybody. Many people work long hours and have a very stressful existence. So, it is not just about economic fortunes it is also about building a more rounded quality of life and that is something that will take at least another generation.
Do you think that there has been some fundamental failure to address these issues in the past?
I think there are several factors. One is that our social class system meant that creating kinds of inequality and lack of opportunity have been build into our society for a very long time.
Two is that we had a radical investment in the welfare state after the Second World War and that has served Britain very well. But we have not invested enough in updating and developing these institutions. Much of the welfare state has felt like a static framework.
The third is that Britain has been through a huge economic transition over the last thirty years, shifting from manufacturing to a service based economy. We have not necessarily developed social institutions and social practices that allow everybody to thrive in those circumstances.
My feeling is that people who work for European Commission and devise communication strategies are focusing too much on how they can package the European Union. Don’t you think, that this is downgrading the European idea or project as such, if we only think about the packaging?
The idea that Europe has to be sold to people as if it was just a package - a piece of marketing that can later be consumed, is a nonsense.
The European idea is an idea of participation. It is an idea that it is possible to co-exist peacefully and to generate learning and tolerance and mutual benefit from that coexistence. The problem for Europe and the problem for European Institutions is that they are not able to promote that kind of every day participation that is meaningful to people and that people can experience directly and associate with the European identity. So they are reduced to trying to create a package and trying to communicate in one direction rather then looking for other ways to establish a real relationship.
The only way to deal with that is to develop a narrative, which has a moral meaning, a real substance to it and which is relevant to European lives in the 21st century and then try to express that narrative within many different institutions. In particular the ones that have a direct connection to people’s lives.
How would you analyze the statement that media today has become too powerful?
Media has become very powerful. Media organizations have always been very powerful in the political process. I don’t think that the media power is in itself a bad thing because communication is not a bad thing per se. The question is how it is linked to accountability, to pluralization in the society, to the idea of democratic participation. Is the power of media being concentrated in specific hands, is it being combined with vested institutional interests? Where it is, we need to find new democratic ways of tackling it.