During the first few weeks of lockdown when our work programmes, events and projects were paused while we moved the office online, I had the rare chance to step back and reflect on my work. I have been working for the Police Foundation, a think tank, for a while but I never felt that I’d completely grasped what a think tank is, how they create change and my role in making it happen. For this reason I’ve gathered my insights into this blog to help others understand too.
Many people who aren’t familiar with our work are naturally confused about the Police Foundation’s purpose and identity, particularly as the organisation is a registered charity as well as a think tank. Aside from mistaking us for the Police Federation, some people assume we’re a charity with direct beneficiaries (ie people we directly help) or even that we’re a benevolent fund. Neither apply. ‘Think tank’ is another stumbling block. Not everyone knows what that means, aside from vaguely understanding it has something to do with thinking.
It is broadly understood that think tanks work to solve society’s challenges through undertaking research and coming up with proposals for public policy change, however the origin of the term ‘think tank’ is uncertain. Encyclopedia Britannica claims it was first used in military jargon during World War II to describe a safe place where plans and strategies could be discussed. Wikipedia says the term is slang for ‘brain box’. Rather than describe what we do, it might also help to define what we’re not. We’re charitably funded but we don’t operate as a traditional charity. We produce research but we’re not a university. We seek to create change but we’re not a pressure group. If you want to read about what think tanks do in more detail I can recommend Julia Slay’s excellent article.
I can’t progress further without acknowledging the negative perceptions surrounding think tanks. They are often accused of being political party-aligned (some are, though many are more generally ideologically aligned rather than strictly partisan), agenda-driven or removed from the people and issues they are seeking to change. In reality, no two think tanks are alike. They are a collection of very different identities with more than 160 in existence in the UK. Some are very large organisations, some much smaller. Some are generalist and others are specialist (the Police Foundation is the UK’s only policing think tank). Some think tanks even describe themselves as ‘think and do’ tanks, meaning that they don’t just seek change through research and policy development but also seek to instigate practical interventions off the back of their research. There are of course ‘political’ think tanks, for example those set up by current and former politicians to finance and develop political ideas which influence the direction of their party. The Police Foundation sees itself as a ‘research-led’ think tank – all of its policy recommendations arise from its own independent research or from its application of research undertaken by others.
The issue of funding is another important area for discussion. The Police Foundation is independent of the police service, the government and party politics. We believe transparency is important for think tanks and our donors are listed on our website. Most of our funding comes in the form of charitable grants and donations but we also carry out some consultancy work for police forces and other partner organisations. In common with other think tanks and charities, we often work with private sector organisations who want to promote independent research or who wish to facilitate public discussion about policing through our events programme. We value our relationship with all our partners, although it is vital that everyone understands that our work is always independent of those who fund us. We retain exclusive editorial control over all our work and that is vital to our integrity. This issue is explored in depth in an On Think Tanks article.
So why does the Police Foundation choose to call itself a think tank rather than a charity or a research institute? Foremost, we want to create change through new ideas which is fundamentally what think tanks are all about. As we say on our website, ‘Our mission is to generate evidence and develop ideas which deliver better policing and a safer society. We do this by producing trusted, impartial research and by working with the police and their partners to create change’.
How do we create change? It helps to remember that change isn’t just about having a direct impact on policy and practice but also involves changing mindsets, cultures and awareness. The Police Foundation aims to do this in several ways, first by producing academically rigorous evidence-based research which is at the heart of our work, second through providing a platform for debate through our conferences, lectures and policy forums and third by providing consultancy and training. Over the years the Police Foundation has cast light on subjects not previously investigated by anyone else, for example we have looked at the local impact of organised crime and fraud, including understanding the under-recognised but devastating impact of pension fraud. We have also sought to change police practice on the ground through working with police forces to introduce locally tailored approaches to crime reduction as part of our Police Effectiveness in a Changing World project. Additionally, we have worked directly with the public to understand their priorities for policing as part of our work with police forces.
As well as conducting research, think tanks have an important myth-busting and fact checking role. Our Perspectives on Policing series and blogs have questioned a number of assumptions about policing and crime and looked deeper into contested issues such as progress in diversity in the police service, the value of crime targets and the story behind crime figures. Police Foundation-hosted debates have included discussions on what’s happening to crime, whether policing can be bought and sold and the idea of harm reduction several years before it became dominant in policing. A few of these discussions paved the way for full research projects.
In some cases we can point to the direct impact of our work on the government, for example last year we contributed to the Work and Pensions Committee inquiry into protecting pension savers which mentioned our research quite extensively in their final report. We have also completed a number of our own inquiries including into the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (the Runciman Report) which led to the reclassification of cannabis in 2004 and our 1996 inquiry into the role and responsibilities of the police which paved the way for the introduction of Police Community Support Officers. We are currently hosting the Strategic Review of Policing in England and Wales, by definition a deliberately ambitious project which will be making recommendations for a modern police service capable of meeting the challenges of the 21st century.
Ultimately impact is hard to measure. Change isn’t linear and it may take many years for concrete changes to arise from a piece of research. Sometimes an issue of concern simply needs to be brought to light and discussed; a single research project may lead to bigger and more influential research and change happens in ways we can’t anticipate. These are issues we’ve grasped in our Impact Review which we will publish shortly on this website. Watch this space or sign up to our newsletter.