Think-tankery and digital policy power: two perspectives

By Simon Barrow
April 22, 2014

Two independent researchers whose work is greatly valued by Ekklesia are among the presenters at the British Sociological Association conference 2014, ‘Changing Society’, taking place at the University of Leeds from 23-25 April.

Mary Houston (University of Southampton) is looking at ‘Whitehall's role in shaping digital technologies: power, participation and policy agendas’.

She writes: “For nearly 20 years UK governments have sought to use digital technologies to increase democratic engagement in government. However, despite technological optimism and stated political intentions, opportunities for online participation in policy making continues to be sporadic, variable in its effects and limited in scope.

“While existing research has explored the value and social composition of citizen participation and has looked at the effects of the Internet on the political system, we still know little about the role of civil servants in shaping the outcomes of online democratic initiatives in policy making. Drawing upon data from interviews, participant observation and documentary analysis, I investigate civil servants' perceptions of public participation, their understandings and uses of digital technologies, and navigation of organisational processes, structures and culture.

“Alongside the empirical data I consider how theories of democratic participation, the study of institutions and the social shaping of technology can be used to explain what happens inside government organisations. I argue that civil servants' interactions, practices and behaviours influence government initiated e-democracy to an extent not previously widely recognised.

“Emerging findings from my research suggest the relationship between civil servants, citizens and digital technologies is evolving, complex and dynamic. I conclude with some thoughts on new directions for e-democracy and questions for future research.”

Meanwhile, Jordan Tchilingirian (University of Cambridge) will tackle the topic ‘Think-tankery, policy research and contemporary intellectuals: A personal network perspective’.

He explains: “Research about think-tanks has mainly focused on certain, mainly partisan, organisations and on a small set of interests; namely the attempt to ascertain a think-tank's impact on a political party or policy domain.

“Rather than continuing this tradition, this paper moves away from a clique of ideological think-tanks towards and questions related to sociology of intellectuals.

“Unlike traditional authoritative experts who intervene into policy, think-tanks lack the recognised cultural and symbolic capital derived from being located within an established profession (e.g. academia). Instead think-tanks are located within an interstitial and ill-defined 'space between fields' (Eyal, 2010). This space is both constituted and divided by the worlds of science/academia, politics, bureaucracy, journalism and business (Medvetz 2012). As such, to make credible intellectual interventions into policy debates a think-tank must construct knowledge which is amenable across fields/professions. This paper considers how a think-tank researcher achieves this balance.

“I suggest that it is the actual interactions and ties researchers form across professional fields that enable them to access the resources, knowledge and preferences needed to make policy knowledge. I focus on the personal/ego networks or researchers I studied as part of my doctoral research on British think-tank researchers from across the organisational and ideological spectrum. Using quantitative personal/ego-network analysis I compare the form and structure of the networks researchers, paying attention to density and homophily.

“Through narrative accounts I elucidate how the act of policy research requires discursive positioning and reconciling of actual relations and differing community standards to produce policy relevant knowledge.”

* More on the BSA conference (*.PDF Adobe Acrobat document):

Posted by Simon Barrow, co-director of Ekklesia.

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