Think tanks, social care and the 2024 general election

Published: 18/04/2024

Author: Steve Flood

How do think tanks inform and influence government policy around health and social care?

… a think tank is in essence: an organisation providing research on policy issues for government and centres of decision-making. In many cases, it creates links with academic research by providing interpretations of academic research and concepts which are of practical use in solving policy problems.

What are think tanks for? Policy research in the age of anti-expertise

In February 2024, the former Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield launched the Centre for Young Lives – a new think tank dedicated to improving the lives of ‘vulnerable’ children, young people and families through a ‘relentless focus’ on evidence and data-driven solutions.

With an impressive 15-strong advisory board that includes Jo Casebourne (Chief Executive of Foundations), Leon Feinstein (Professor of Education and Children’s Social Care at the University of Oxford and Director of the Rees Centre) and Matthew Taylor (Chief Executive of the NHS Confederation and former political adviser to Tony Blair), the launch adds a potentially significant new player to an already fairly crowded field.

Influence, trust and transparency

While some high-profile economic policy think tanks face persistent criticism for their ideological purpose, ‘clandestine’ lobbying and lack of transparency over funding, many think tanks active in the social policy arena are committed to serious research, evidence-informed argument and complete transparency over funding (the media platform openDemocracy assesses UK think tanks for their transparency over funding and rates them on a five-point scale).

Of course, some of those think tanks are associated with a political stance that may be left or right of centre. But as Canadian economist Rohinton Medora has said, the litmus test of a good think tank isn’t whether it’s right, left or liberal, but ‘whether it’s proposing evidence-based discussion’.

In an election year, it’s worth taking stock of some of the key players whose proposals may have a significant influence on the next government’s policies on social care and public services more broadly. An updated flyer, made in collaboration with the Principal Social Worker networks, includes helpful guidance on how social workers can support people to vote.

Public services reform

Last November, Demos launched a Future Public Services Taskforce chaired by former Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Patricia Hewitt.

Its launch paper argues that underfunding of public services is not the sole cause of the current crisis facing public services: a persistent failure to ‘pivot to prevention’ has left social care and other services overwhelmed by demand.

The taskforce is due to publish its recommendations for a public service reform strategy this summer. Demos hopes that the findings will form the basis for the incoming government to produce the first cross-cutting public service reform White Paper since 2011.

Demos is, of course, a high-profile think tank strongly associated with New Labour. Among other ideas, it has been credited as the source of personalisation in public services, including social work.

The Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) was established 35 years ago to generate and research ‘progressive policy ideas’ as a counter to the ‘cohort’ of right-of-centre think tanks that were pushing free market ideologies.

Last December, IPPR set out proposals for what the next government can do to reform public services. Great government: Public service reform in the 2020s argues that a ‘fix’ needs to move beyond ‘stale arguments’ about a smaller or larger state to a ‘smarter state’ focused on ‘three P’s’: prevention, personalisation and productivity. IPPR also warns of a long haul – a ‘two-term turnaround’ that won’t see public services returning to ‘acceptable levels of quality’ until the 2030s.

As an affiliate of the Labour party, the Fabian Society may have a direct connection with the incoming government. Having begun life in 1884, it is sometimes described as the first think tank. Last summer, the Fabian Society published a ‘blueprint’ for delivering on the Labour party’s ambition to create a National Care Service.

Tagged as ‘independent advice not a statement of Labour policy’, Support guaranteed: The roadmap to a National Care Service sets outs out 48 recommendations for the ‘transformation’ of adult care in England. You can listen to the Fabian Society’s Andrew Harrop and Ben Cooper talk about the roadmap in their podcast.

Other voices

Among other major voices in social policy-making, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) continues to be a major player and is the think tank most often cited in government policy documents according to an analysis by Overton.

The King’s Fund (also in Overton’s top ten) is an invaluable source of analyses of policy developments across health and adult social care. You can sign up for a range of free email policy alerts and newsletters.

The King’s Fund recently published its annual Social Care 360 review, which analyses 12 key trends in adult social care. It has also set out its priorities for health and care at the upcoming election; these include a call to make careers in social care more attractive.

For leaders and practitioners in social care, what other think tanks are worth keeping an eye on?

New Local is an independent think tank and network of more than 70 councils that aims ‘to transform public services and unlock community power’. Over the past 12 months, reports have included:

  • How we lost sight of the point of public services – a call for whole-system reform moving towards strengths-based and relational services.
  • An analysis (published with JRF) of what would be needed to deliver on a mission to ‘design out’ the most severe forms of hardship in a local area.
  • Place-based public service budgets (co-written by former Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government John Denham) argues that by enabling all public money spent within a local area to be used more flexibly, spending could be better aligned with communities and places rather than ‘arcane Whitehall institutional boundaries'.

The Resolution Foundation is an independent think tank whose remit is improving living standards for people on low to middle incomes. Its reports span a range of economic and social policy areas.

  • In January, its briefing Catastrophic caps analysed the impact on families of the two-child limit and the benefit cap. It argues that scrapping the two-child limit (introduced in 2017) ‘would be one of the most efficient ways to drive down child poverty rates’.

The Social Market Foundation is a ‘non-partisan’ think tank that covers a range of economic and social policy areas. Recent reports on public services have included a briefing on prisoner rehabilitation and a report on effective leadership and management in local government.

The Education Policy Institute (EPI), formerly CentreForum, is an ‘evidence-based research centre’ whose mission is to promote good education outcomes for all children ‘regardless of social background’. The EPI is non-aligned but has its roots in the Liberal Democrats (CentreForum was itself relaunched from the Centre for Reform, a Liberal Democrat public policy think tank set up in 1998).

The International Longevity Centre (ILC) describes itself as ‘the UK’s leading authority on the impact of longevity on society’. The ILC is prolific in its analyses – since its inception in 1997, it has published an average of more than one report a month. Reports span a range of issues, including health and social care.

Finally, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) was set up by former Conservative party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith 20 years ago. Its ‘vision’ is for those living in the most disadvantaged communities ‘to be given every opportunity to flourish and reach their full potential’ – a vision it seeks to realise by influencing government to tackle what it sees as ‘the root causes of poverty’. CSJ claims that one in three of its recommendations are adopted by government, which would put its ‘success rate’ not far behind that of select committees.

Steve Flood