History of TASC

TASC - Reflections on the first twenty years

By Paula Clancy, Founding Director of TASC
September, 2019

Context and a Brief Chronology
In the late 1990s, a number of people began to put in place the necessary building blocks to create the first ever independent think tank in Ireland. When TASC was established in 2001, think tanks of any kind were a rarity in Ireland and more generally there were few alternatives to neoliberal discourse in the public sphere. At the time, policy-making tended to be reactive, a largely technocratic-managerial concern rather than a political one, strongly influenced by the institution of social partnership and by powerful vested interests, wealthy individuals and elite groups. Public engagement with politics was relatively low with little substantive discussion or debate on matters of public policy. Largely driven by the global influence of the economic right, strong neo-liberal orthodoxies shaped the thinking of those responsible for the making of Irish public policy. As a consequence, few genuinely ‘progressive’ or alternative socio-economic policy debates had been generated over the decades prior to TASC’s arrival on the scene. Thus, even though the 1990s was one of unprecedented economic growth in Ireland, the persistent level of economic inequality and other negative social indicators showed that there was an urgent need to develop a persuasive and coherent intellectual counternarrative.

This then was the environment in which a number of people who had long been critics of the neo-liberal narrative decided to establish a think tank. Along with myself, those who were involved at the earliest stages included Proinsias deRossa, Des Geraghty, Jim O’Donnell, Fintan O’Toole and Prof John Horgan. From a series of conversations over a period of months, the shape of the initiative came into focus as key decisions were taken. One of the most important of these decisions was that the new think tank should be independent of all political parties, albeit clear in its founding statement that its values were those traditionally associated with the political left. We felt that if there was to be a space for genuine new thinking, that it must be possible to involve those who would have an important contribution to make but would not wish to be associated with any one political party. A second important decision was that the organisation should have a formal organisational structure at its base.

Following a planning period, in June 2001, TASC was formally incorporated as a not-for-profit limited company. The original name for TASC was The Foundation for Policy Alternatives. In 2002, it changed to TASC– A Think Tank for Action on Social Change. It is registered in the Companies Office as TASC Europe Studies Company Ltd trading as TASC. I resigned from my position as an academic to take up the full-time role of Executive Director, accountable to a board of three non- executive directors chaired by Des Geraghty with Prof John Horgan and John Curran. A Steering Committee comprised of the three Board Directors together with Fintan O’Toole who chaired an Advisory Council to TASC (around 20 people drawn from political and policy sectors including trade unions, NGOs and academics), my two co-founders, Proinsias deRossa and Jim O’Donnell and myself, met regularly for the first five to six years of TASC’s existence and were the critical group overseeing its development in this period. As TASC evolved, this group gave way to a larger Board of Directors which included people who were drawn to TASC’s objectives and impressed with its early achievements.

At its inception, the financial resources available to us were such that it was possible to put in place a professional organisation. This was skeletal, however, and we relied to a huge extent on voluntary input. We had early on determined that our contribution to public debates and attempts to influence policy would be evidence-based and this meant that time would be needed to prepare the basis for such interventions. Thus, the first couple of years were largely about building necessary infrastructure. By 2003, TASC brought out its first publication ‘After the Ball’, a searing analysis of Irish society by Fintan O’Toole. It has maintained a constant flow of research and commentary since then . From the first, TASC tackled serious socio-economic issues including housing, pension provision, transport and privatisation. Work was also undertaken on related democratic issues of participation, accountability and transparency, with a suite of in-depth research reports on democratic accountability.

A step change occurred in 2008, when The Atlantic Philanthropies (who along with the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust funded much of our work on democracy over the years) provided us with a grant to cover our core costs for a five-year period, a grant which was renewed for three further terms of three years taking the organisation to the end of 2019. With this funding, TASC was able to put in place a more sophisticated structure of expert policy staff along with much enhanced communications, funding, governance and administration.

The receipt of this grant occurred just at the time of the cataclysmic economic collapse in Ireland. The recession, combined with the related failures of public governance and regulation, meant that we decided to narrow our focus to address the critical issue of economic recovery, a recovery which we believed could result in a society which was much more egalitarian in nature than anything Ireland had experienced before. In the following years, TASC published a series of papers on macro-economic policy issues and made substantive and costed submissions to the national annual budget process addressing both the fragility of the Irish tax system and the inequalities it generated. We also continued our work on issues of democracy believing that it was essential to demonstrate the connection between democratic accountability and transparency on the one hand and resulting economic outcomes on the other. In 2011, following the publication of a major empirical study of overlapping directorships in Ireland called ‘Mapping the Golden Circle’, I stepped down as Executive Director although I continued my direct involvement with TASC as a member of the Board (and ultimately its Chair) until end of 2018.

A further step change occurred for TASC in 2012 under the leadership of Dr Nat O’Connor who took up the position of Executive Director in early 2011. In the context of a much more challenging external funding environment than had been hoped for, it became necessary to restructure the organisation and to radically reduce the number of staff. Despite the huge challenges which this restructuring created both for individual staff members and for the organisation as a whole, this was a critically important move. Because of it, TASC was able to continue to do innovative and impactful work while allowing the organisation to be sustainable into the medium term. During this time of transition and in the years since then up to and including the present, TASC continues to publish a significant number of research and policy outputs on an annual basis. Over the last two years, TASC has undergone a major period of renewal. Following a long period of Board stability under the leadership first of Dr John Fanning and subsequently of Proinsias deRossa, in 2017 the Board began a process of renewal.

Over the following year or so, many long-standing members of the Board including myself resigned and were replaced by a new generation of directors with the skills and commitment needed to chart TASC’s next steps. In 2017 also, the Board appointed Dr Shana Cohen as its full time Director. Under Shana’s direction TASC has maintained and developed its focus on economic inequality - starting in 2015 TASC publishes an annual report on the status of economic inequality in Ireland - identifying trends and highlighting critical areas for the attention of policy makers. As well as building on established areas of expertise, such as TASC’s work with the Brussels-based think tank FEPS on labour market issues, developed under the leadership of Prof James Wickham, and its work on health inequalities, Shana is taking TASC into a number of new areas of focus. At the same time TASC continues to expand its work on related democratic issues of accountability, often working with other organisations both nationally and internationally.

Reflections on TASC as part of Irish public policy-making
When we began the work of establishing TASC, we were entering relatively uncharted territory. It is true that a number of organisations across the political spectrum were in the business of policy-oriented research and/or policy advice/advocacy, but the term think tank was not used in relation to any of these bodies and neither were they associated with a particular ideological orientation in the political sense. Thus, in creating TASC we were establishing a particular organisation and at the same time, without overtly intending to do so, we were beginning the work of establishing the think tank as a recognised actor in the field of public policy in Ireland. Twenty years later, it is fair to say that there is now a recognisable think-tank sector here, although in contrast to the maturity of the field in the US, UK and Europe generally, its emergence in Ireland can at best be described as nascent and still fragile.

What makes TASC different to other think tanks in Ireland?
Globally, there is huge variation in think-tank structure, size and methodology. In establishing the particular think tank format that would apply to TASC we looked to replicate some aspects and reject others.

A public space
The first and in my view the most important feature of TASC was our ambition to provide a space for new thinking which we hoped would lead to practical and effective policy solutions. Specific policy proposals are important at particular junctures, but the notion of a ‘public sphere’ is constant and enduring. For me, the extent to which TASC has contributed to the public sphere is the most meaningful test of its value. Large numbers of people have participated in the many public events that TASC organizes each year, many of whom have made clear its value to them as an outlet for public engagement with serious social, economic and political issues. Uniquely, a large number of people engaged with TASC in more substantive ways, many providing policy-oriented analyses of their particular area of intellectual expertise. TASC created a number of structures to facilitate this work, four of the most important of which I outline here.

From 2003 onwards, there has been a steady stream of high quality research and policy output from TASC, much of which came from the voluntary intellectual work of a significant number of academics and public intellectuals under the umbrella of the TASC Economist Network. From the beginning, this Network has been fundamental to the TASC project. Paul Sweeney, an economist then working with Ireland’s largest trade union SIPTU and subsequently as Chief Economist to the ICTU, approached a number of economists in 2002 and invited them to join a network of economists who would collaborate on work consistent with TASC’s mission. More than forty economists, including acknowledged leaders in their field, held their inaugural meeting as the TASC Economist Network on 27 June 2002 in a Dublin hotel. Although a number of meetings of the whole Network were held in the first couple of years, it quickly became apparent that its biggest benefit to TASC was that it provided a pool of people sympathetic to associating their areas of research interest with TASC. Many of the Network members were also keen to have an opportunity to influence public policy by having their work made more publicly available in a more popular format. Because of our publishing partnership with an established publisher, we were able to offer such an opportunity. TASC published a number of substantive books on a range of socio-economic issues, authored mainly by members of this Network, members provided the speakers to many conference and seminars organised by TASC, TASC was able to call on individual members for advice and peer review of its outputs and others provided the intellectual content for TASC projects discussed below. Individual members have also engaged with or led TASC project groups issues as varied as pension policy and health, on labour and on industrial policy. Thus, the Economist Network has been critical to TASC in ‘the battle of ideas’, particularly in the aftermath of the Great Recession. In an Ireland where the mainstream neoliberal economic analysis was rarely publicly challenged, it was invaluable to have so many expert voices, many acknowledged leaders in their particular discipline, who were ready to articulate an economic analysis that represented a major challenge to the existing hegemony.

The second of these structures was the TASC Advisory Council. Immediately following legal incorporation as a not-for-profit charity, our first initiative was to bring together a group of twenty progressive individuals who were leaders in the fields of politics, media, communications, academia, trade union movement and other civil society sectors. All of these people agreed to sit on an Advisory Council to TASC, chaired by the journalist, critic and author, Fintan O’Toole, widely acknowledged as one of Ireland’s leading public intellectuals. The inaugural meeting of TASC’s Advisory Council, held on 12 October, 2001, defined a programme of work, around two themes, economic inequality and democratic accountability. We developed and implemented this two-pronged programme over the subsequent years and, while this group has now given way to other structures as TASC evolved, these two themes have been at the centre of TASC’s programme of work right up to the present day.

A third source of broader public input came from the work of The Democracy Commission. The Democracy Commission was TASC’s first substantive and innovative project. Initiated in 2002 as a joint project with the then Northern Ireland think tank, Democratic Dialogue, it met for three years and its work culminated in a major published report in 2005. Funded in the first instance by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (JRCT), this was a voluntary independent commission of eleven members drawn from all areas of Irish life. The brief of the Commission was to make public engagement the cornerstone of democratic participation in decision making, with a particular emphasis on increasing participation from those who were not engaging. Its membership was impressive: David Begg, the then General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) was Chair, the former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, acted as its International Counsellor and the other members included academics with acknowledged expertise in their field, NGO leaders and representatives of the three (at the time) biggest political parties. The Commission pioneered a broad consultative approach – holding open public consultation sessions across the Island of Ireland as well as meetings with representative groups and inviting written submissions from both members of the public and representative groups.

Finally, a fourth example of TASC’s creating greater access to the public sphere comes in the form of a project called Open Government Toolkit. First published in 2015, the online toolkit, available on TASC’s website, provides information tips and resources on how government works on where to look for information and on how those interested can make their voices heard.

A focus on getting the message out
For those of us who decided to establish TASC, the point was to develop and share new and alternative thinking which would weaken the stranglehold of neo-liberal ‘common sense’ ideas on public policy making. In a very real sense, the story of establishing TASC is a story of engaging with the holders of cultural and economic capital: academics, journalists and others in the media industry, state agencies and political parties as well as the trade union movement and representative bodies for business. It is also the story of how we had to simultaneously persuade these target audiences of the value of think tank type interventions in general and the value of TASC specific interventions.

Since those first years, the focus has been to gain as much media attention as possible. From 2008, with a full-time communications officer in house, TASC’s presence on mainstream media increased substantially, including on high profile national TV and radio programmes, and TASC’s print media profile was also enormously enhanced. This level of media coverage made the task of getting a hearing for our proposals that much easier. Part of the fallout from the radical restructuring programme which circumstances imposed on TASC in 2012 was the loss of our in-house communications specialist. Alex Klemm had spearheaded the TASC publications and events programme across a whole range of platforms and had also developed a substantial media presence for the TASC’s spokespersons during her tenure. Her legacy included an ongoing capacity of the remaining staff to pursue these advances. TASC is continuing to grow its presence in non-media fora, nationally and internationally, where public policy is debated and influenced and it has also built its present on the various social media platforms. Ongoing resource constraints has inhibited TASC’s capacity to develop its mainstream media profile, a challenge which is an ongoing priority for the Director and Board of TASC.

A very valuable source of support to TASC in the early years, both strategically and operationally, was that provided on a pro bono basis by the not-for-profit Dublin-based company, Public Communications Centre (PCC) and particularly its CEO John Sutton. Of the many services they provided, one of the most valuable was their active assistance in helping us to establish the TASC@NewIsland imprint. With the help of John Sutton, TASC established a partnership with New Island Publishing, which in the era just predating widespread internet access, provided a crucial outlet for dissemination of TASC materials in retail outlets throughout Ireland. From 2010 onwards, TASC has primarily used its website to provide widespread public access to its work, while continuing to publish some of the major outputs in hard copy formats.

TASC principles: evidence, independence and values
From the outset, TASC has three core principles which it brings to all its work. First, it is a cornerstone of its approach that the research it produces, from which the arguments and policy proposals flow, is rigorous conducted and evidence-based.

Second, maintaining independence from any particular group or sector is key. TASC has protected its independence at all times and has actively sought to address any perceptions of inappropriate influence wherever these arise.

Third, TASC is non-partisan but it is not neutral. TASC has been clear in all its statements and activities that it operates with a clear ideological orientation, that is a commitment identifying solutions to move Ireland towards a more equal society. The capacity of the organisation to produce high quality evidence-based output is enhanced by this clarity. Adherence to this core principle, essential to what TASC is about, can, however, make it more difficult to get a hearing for TASC’s work and can also make it more difficult for the work to be accepted as it deserves to be, i.e. the output of an organization which is independent in its choice of topic and of the conclusions it reaches concerning that topic.

The ongoing challenge of funding an independent think tank in Ireland
From the outset, identifying sources of funding for TASC has been a major preoccupation for staff and Board of directors. In the early years, at almost every meeting of the Board of Directors and the more informal Steering Group, we discussed the fact that we had sufficient money to cover just three to six months of activity. This was not unusual in NGOs but it meant that the need to raise funds was ever present and a huge amount of time and effort went into identifying potential sources, preparing tailored explanations of what the organisation was about and trying to be persuasive to sometimes sceptical outsiders as to why they should believe that such an untried entity could deliver.

When in 2008, the Atlantic Philanthropies provided TASC with core funding, first for a period of 5 years and subsequently for three further periods taking the organization right up to 2020, there was a step change in the evolution of TASC as a think tank. It is hard to overstate the importance of this grant to TASC’s survival and development. As TASC approaches 2020, the question of sustainability continues to be central. Domestic funding sources, always scarce, have decreased in the last number of years and this factor, combined with unwillingness to compromise independence, means that a very large portion of the quantum of energy available to TASC has to be devoted to the quest for adequate funding. Moreover, prudent management of existing financial resources means that there are constraints on the organisation’s capacity to grow back to the scale achieved in 2008. TASC must strive in the medium term to keep alive the fact that there are alternatives consistent with a more egalitarian society available to Irish society, at which point it is to be hoped that new sources of funding will more readily be available.

2020 and beyond
TASC is now approaching its twentieth year of operation and the core task of moving Irish society to a more egalitarian one continues to be the dominant challenge. If TASC is to be judged on how successful it has been in moving Ireland to being a more equal society, it is clear that it is very much a work in progress. Persistence in contributing to the narrative is key. To quote Joseph Stiglitz, the current state of play is ‘…both depressing and hopeful. Depressing because you can have a really bad idea sold for a very long time. It’s hopeful because you can always hope that somebody will come along and tell a different story, and win a better contest of ideas’. Over its nearly twenty-year history, as an organisation TASC has been forced to reset its course many times. While remaining true to its founding mission it has had to find new ways to finance its activities. In the last couple of years, new staff, new projects and new alliances national and international all provide optimism that such will be found. As it prepares for the next twenty years, under the direction of the tireless and innovative work of its current Director, Dr Shana Cohen and with a highly experienced and committed Board of Directors under the Chair of Mike Jennings, I am more than confident that TASC is well-placed to make an important contribution to telling a different story and to winning a better contest of ideas.

 

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