In October, TASC (the Think Tank for Action on Social Change) held the first of a number of planned events to mark their 20th anniversary, billed as a reflective as well as forward-looking discussion on ‘the TASC ahead.’
At the event, four panellists reflected on Ireland from very different perspectives: a central banker, a journalist, the director of an anti-poverty charity, and an historian. However, all described similar challenges facing Ireland: climate change, with life-changing repercussions for all citizens but especially for those in poverty; wages which cannot keep pace with the high cost of living; the existential challenge posed on the island of Ireland by Brexit. They noted that things had improved for many citizens in Ireland in their lifetime. That the state’s early history of poverty, deprivation, unemployment and dominance by the Catholic Church had given way to a more inclusive ‘emigration-immigration society;’ that some of Ireland’s rural areas were not being carved out by urbanisation but successfully tempting back graduates; that better financial prudence had had some positive effects in buffering Ireland’s post-crash economy against future shocks.
Yet there was also a clear-sighted recognition that TASC’s mission, for ‘action on social change,’ was not easy. That it is hard, sometimes, to sustain in yourself and in others the belief that political will can be leveraged and progress made against injustices. The director of the anti-poverty charity reflected frankly on how upsetting their visits can be to ‘homes you wouldn’t put a dog in, which have somehow been passed as habitable,’ and the state of desperation in which people experiencing poverty turned, at the end of their rope, to his organisation for help. Similarly, the historian on the panel noted how volumes of past reports and enquiries into addressing fundamental issues such as housing sat gathering dust in government archives - their recommendations half-heartedly or not enacted, their early achievements not sustained and wrongful application corrected.
Panellists observed similar structures standing in the way of change. They described ‘an absence of ideology,’ in much of Irish politics, which perhaps blunted the desire for decisive policy action. A cultural deference towards land ownership placing barriers in the way of building and maintaining stocks of affordable rented housing. The challenge of winning out against powerful vested interests, and, related to the difficulty of building a critical mass for change, the rejection of ‘social partnership’ after the model become discredited by charges of cronyism that fuelled the credit crunch. Many of these challenges are, of course, hardly unique to Ireland.
The event was also a call to action. Think tanks like TASC were seen to play an important role in helping to build conditions conducive for social change and progress. Below are just a selection of ideas suggested by the panel and the audience for how TASC, think tanks and civil society more broadly should respond to the challenges we face.
Think tanks in evidence gathering and advocacy
There was much discussion of the global rise of political ‘populism’. The term is often used imprecisely. Yet one of its defining characteristics may be that it promotes the idea that there are easy solutions to complex societal problems. Faced with increasingly emotional and divisive political discourse, some value was perceived in ‘doubling down’ on evidence-based policy making. However, this would have to be accompanied by a relentless focus by think tanks on making this evidence visible to decision makers and promoting practical solutions.
Think tanks as interlocutors
There was a clear view that evidence is critical, but not enough, particularly when culture change is what is required. The importance of engaging citizens in deliberation was seen as key to changing minds and creating the enabling conditions to overcome the political inertia around complex problems. Citizens Assemblies were seen to have decisively shifted the dial on social issues like reform of abortion laws – could similar approaches tackle issues like lack of housing and public services? For all that many regard poor access to quality affordable public services as causing real harm to people and undermining the social contract, it was noted that any tentative political changes on taxation were often met with public backlash. Could there be a role for progressive think tanks to help support a frank, informed public conversation about the opportunities and trade-offs of different taxation policies, and their role in sustaining quality public services?
Think tanks looking to the future
Horizon scanning has always been an important task of think tanks, to strengthen the capacity for long-term policy thinking against the daily pressures of politics. In addition, think tanks have a degree of independence to lead early thinking and testing out of politically contentious ideas. One of the speakers articulated the commonly held view that the ongoing Brexit fallout will have ramifications for island of Ireland. The pressures on the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, expressed in the constituent nations voting differently on Brexit and calling for different future relationships with the EU, and the implications for peace and governance in Northern Ireland, render Irish reunification a more realistic prospect for many people than hitherto imagined. It was recognised that there were great political sensitivities were the Irish Government to start planning for the possibilities and challenges of a reunified Ireland. However, given the economic and social ramifications there was also a real risk in not undertaking any planning for this eventuality. Could there be a role for think tanks to begin early engagement and thinking on this critical but contentious issue?
Gail is a senior policy and development officer with Carnegie UK Trust