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Why Wales needs its think-tanks

August 1st 2018

In the first of a series of articles to mark the launch of the Bevan Foundation’s new strategy, Victoria Winckler looks at why Wales needs its think-tanks.

Think tank. The very word is a turn-off, prompting comments about policy-wonks and fish-tanks to name but a few. But if devolution in Wales is be meaningful, it really needs its think tanks.

What are they?

Think-tanks come in all shapes and sizes, and all shades of blue, red and green too. Some even try to avoid the label, styling themselves as ‘think-and-do tanks’ or even ‘do-tanks’! But at their core they all aim to generate policy ideas that someone, usually government, takes up.

What think-tanks want to achieve through their ideas varies hugely.  Some are focused on a specific topic or are driven by specific set of values. Others are generalists, covering a wide range of topics and claiming a breadth of view-points. Some are more transparent than others too, publishing full details of their funding, while others have been described as ‘deceptive and opaque’, to quote Transparify.

But whatever their mission, and indeed however they are funded, think-tanks add to the diversity of policy ideas. They also help to hold governments to account through undertaking critical research, and most create space for sharing ideas and debate. It won’t come as any surprise that I think that think-tanks are a good thing.

Think-tanks and devolution

Devolution exposed a gaping void in Wales’ policy capacity. Not only were there half the number of staff in the new National Assembly for Wales in 2000 compared with today, but most civil service functions were administrative rather than policy-making. It was a real challenge for officials to support politicians’ wish for ‘made in Wales’ policies. I saw any number of documents in the early days of devolution in which the word ‘England’ was literally Tippex-ed out and replaced with ‘Wales’.

Wales’ policy capacity has undoubtedly grown since devolution, but it is still relatively weak. Many organisations’ agendas continue to be set by direction from London HQ, and many others follow Welsh Government priorities, sometimes because they are government-funded but also because the Welsh Government sets the agenda. There’s been an increase in the number of Welsh organisations using the think-tank label, although it is a moot point whether government-funded or university think-tanks are the genuine article.

But despite the increase in capacity in Wales, it is still falls far short of that found in, say, London or Edinburgh. There, there are an estimated 200 plus think-tanks, mostly in London, and new outfits are being set up at an extraordinary rate – there’s Onward, FREER and Bright Blue to name but a few. So even with the new think-tanks on the Welsh block, Wales is strikingly under-powered.

What next?

Having think-tanks that can generate new ideas specific to Wales’ circumstances remains absolutely crucial to good government, to devolution and to democracy.  In many ways, the more genuine think-tanks Wales has the better. Those think tanks must not follow the herd or group-think, should challenge government policy and outcomes on the ground, and should create space – whether online or physical space – for discussion and debate.

Despite their value, Wales’ think-tanks are fragile.

Unlike the London think-tanks, there’s no big corporate interests supporting think-tanks in cash or kind.  The few Wales-friendly trusts and foundations that exist tend to prefer to support hands-on charities rather than think-tanks. So Wales’ independent think-tanks face a somewhat hand-to-mouth existence.

The Bevan Foundation is running on a deficit budget this financial year, and as Mr Micawber would have told you, you can only spend your reserves once. We are not alone in doing so.  We don’t have an endowment, a sugar-daddy or a slush-fund, nor any government or EU money either. So if you want good government, devolution and democracy, it is really is time to put your hand in your pocket and support at least one of Wales’ think tanks.

Victoria Winckler is Director of the Bevan Foundation. Check out our strategy for the next three years here.







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