Image Sophia

Below is a series of questions posed to me by Sophia Faure as part of an assignment for her Government and Public Policy paper. Sophia is studying a Bachelor of Laws and a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Politics at the University of OtagoI think they are excellent questions that get to the heart of what we do here at the Institute, and I hope my answers will prove informative to those interested in knowing more about our work.

1. How does the McGuinness Institute operate, and how do you select areas to focus on?

At the end of each year we write a list of observations about current and emerging issues. This is usually written as a book review blog post which also includes the books which we think the Prime Minister should read over summer – see last year’s blog post here. In January, we review these observations and our previous years’ work (i.e. what we are most proud of and what we believe is adding value to New Zealand’s long-term future), and we reflect on how we might best contribute in the coming year. These reflections then turn into the year’s work programme – see our 2015 work programme here.

Another aspect that is important to me is ensuring that the Institute team is excited and committed to the work programme. It is essential that the staff believe in what they are working on and believe that it is a good use of their time. Their input is highly valued; they often go on to shape and improve the work programme as the year progresses.

2. What is the McGuinness Institute’s reason for being and what role do you see it playing in New Zealand?

The primary focus is New Zealand’s long-term future. Where possible, we aim to apply futures thinking and foresight tools to public policy issues.

It is so easy to respond to the most pressing issues, those that appear urgent. However, we need to equally focus on the important, those trends or issues that are in the background that are not so often seen or understood. These important trends might deliver an opportunity to manage a risk or create a benefit. Alternatively, if we are not keeping an open mind and taking a long view; the future is likely to deliver some strong punches. Examples of such trends include an increase in youth unemployment, a decrease in youth voter turnout, an ageing population, an increase in talent leaving New Zealand and an increase in ocean temperatures.

The Institute’s role is to create a space and place for an informed discussion about New Zealand’s long-term future. We have moved from being just a think tank to a think-and-do tank. For example, every year we run workshops in collaboration with the New Zealand Treasury. These workshops bring together young New Zealanders to find solutions to complex public policy problems.

3. In New Zealand, what level of influence do you think ‘think tanks’ have overall? Do you think they should have more influence? Or do they have enough?

The Institute’s focus is on public policy; we do not think in terms of politics or political influence. We think about what New Zealand might become and about how young people are the key to our prosperity and wellbeing – and in turn about how good public policy can enable young people to achieve better outcomes. From my perspective, think tanks are successful if they are helping decision-makers make the world a better place for current and future generations. But this definition allows for a lot of subjectivity – it depends on how you define ‘decision-makers’ (e.g. politicians, youth, NGOs, local councils, iwi), ‘generations’ (e.g. the next generation or the next seven generations) and ‘better’.

Overall, I do not believe New Zealand think tanks have as much influence as their international counterparts – for example, Brookings in the US and Chatham House in the UK. These are both old, established and wealthy organisations that have significant connections with parliamentarians and policy analysts in government.

4. How do you measure the successful impact/influence of the McGuinness Institute on New Zealand? Do you keep a record of research pieces/recommendations that have been implemented? Or is implementation not the overall aim?

I think if you ask the chief executive of any think tank this question, they will say they find it difficult to gauge how successful they are. I have asked a number of international chief executives and they have all answered this question with a grin. I think success can and should be measured in terms of the extent research, ideas and information is useful to your chosen audience.

We do not measure the extent to which our ideas are implemented; however, we do listen and watch. I try to replicate what has worked in the past and respond to what has not. As a policy idea evolves, I try to broaden its reach. I try to get as many people to review the idea as possible – refining and stress testing assumptions and suggested practices. My hope is that someone will explore our thoughts and ideas further and ideally implement them.

5. Are you able to provide the data for me on the areas of influence your Institute has?

No, we don’t collect that kind of data – people tell me that what we do is useful, and that has been enough.

6. Why do you think – compared to the United States – that New Zealand has fewer think tanks? Is it because New Zealanders are not as interested in engaging with civil society? Or is it something else?

This is a good question, but a hard one to answer accurately. New Zealand has had a number of think tanks in the past, but they have generally existed under the radar. Many of these have been influential in a non-political sense. See our Report 11: A History of Future-thinking Initiatives in New Zealand, 1936–2010: Learning from the past to build a better future here.

If there is a difference between the United States and New Zealand, it is due to a mix of drivers such as (i) NZ being a relatively small, young country that has been generally governed well, (ii) NZ having a trusted public service, (iii) philanthropy not having been a big part of our culture and (iv) our citizens having a shared set of values (in regard to equality and doing the right thing).

7. How do you provide non-partisan research? I can imagine that could be quite challenging – depending how you see the role of the government in a civil society, your policy recommendations could differ. Or are there mechanisms the McGuinness Institute has in place to ensure this is not an issue?

Another good question; however the first aspect is relatively easy – you develop a research question and you try to answer it based on the facts, setting out your assumptions and limitations. From my experience, the facts set the context and the values determine the recommendations. The goal is to be transparent and engage with a broad range of reviewers.

The second aspect is trickier. We provide all our research to every political party – often this means sending it to all MPs. We also send them a letter every 6/12 months (approximately) outlining the work we have done and what we plan to do. In this letter we let them know we are happy to meet and discuss any of the issues or ideas with them personally. When we meet, what we discuss is in confidence (for example we do not say what another MP said or is thinking of doing). As a matter of principle those discussions are issues- and ideas-based, never about politics and never about a party. So to answer you question – everyone gets everything or no one gets anything. For example, all relevant MPs from all political parties are invited to any events we hold. Further, I work hard to ensure our work programme in election year does not cover topical political issues. We also work hard to engage with select committees as they are designed to deliver a non-partisan approach to decision making.

Essentially, we keep our non-partisan status by focusing on public policy as opposed to political parties.

8. What is your relationship with the media in promoting your research?

This may seem a bit strange but we don’t really have a relationship with the media in the traditional sense. I have tried to build one, but as a general rule I find our approach (prioritising the important) does not align well with theirs (prioritising the urgent). It is a bit like oil and water! However, we do put effort into social media, with a focus on reaching 18- to 25-year-olds and organisations with which we share a similar vision.

9. What is your relationship with political parties and/or government departments? Do you have these relationships to help see your recommendations implemented?

We do not have a relationship with a political party. However we do have working relationships with a small number of MPs from all political parties. These relationships exist because of a shared interest in public policy and New Zealand’s long-term future.

10. What are the effects on your organisation in terms of successfully communicating/having recommendations implemented when the government changes? Or does a shift in power not impact the McGuinness Institute?

We aim to explain our recommendations in such a way that they can be understood, tested and revisited over time – they are not party-specific. Many of our reports do not date but rather continue to provide history and context. Therefore, shifts in power do not impact on the content of our work programme – unless you consider our efforts not to cover political issues in election year, which are often hard to predict.

11. How important is the ‘workshop’ element of your organisation?

I was trained in public policy by Des Glasson in the 1980s. In his view, public servants should come to the same or similar answers, as they should have the same tools, values and disciplines. I am of that school. The workshop element of our work programme is one way we aim to develop universal talent in public policy, by exposing young people to the machinery of government.

The workshops have become increasingly important. Not only do they enable a public policy issue to be examined and explored, they also enable a range of participants to sharpen their policy skills on a real issue facing New Zealand. Further, we hope participants will provide some leap into a new way of exploring and resolving a policy problem. This has happened already.