Interviews with think tank representatives

Although useful in providing a snapshot of particular values and intentions, documents alone fail to account for think tanks' actions that precede or follow as part of the health policy and planning process (Shaw, 2010). We therefore undertook a series of narrative interviews with think tank representatives (four informal and ten in-depth, see Shaw, 2015) allowing us to examine interviewees' accounts of the health policy and planning process.

We had already begun to examine the language that think tanks use in their work, informed by our theoretical interest in rhetoric and argument (Shaw, 2010; Russell and Greenhalgh, 2011). Interviews allowed us to extend this work, examining the language and arguments that think tank actors employ to account for the work they do.

Initial examination of documents and our auto-ethnographic account highlighted how think tank actors tend to use particular language to emphasise the work that they do and how they do it (for instance, Extract 4). We were particularly struck by think tanks' use of the terms 'independent' and 'independence' which think tanks cited in publicly accessible documents (such as strategic plans, mission statements, annual reports, website pages and research publications), situating themselves as, for instance, 'an independent, charitable, non-party think tank whose mission is to set out a better way to deliver public services and economic prosperity'.

We used interviews as an opportunity to explore with think tank actors how and why they use such terms. We found that all four think tanks (to varying degrees) undertook a range of neutralising work as a way of situating their work as value-free. For instance, think tank actors situated themselves as politically neutral by using spatial metaphors ('bang in the centre', 'there's no overt line', 'the centre of expertise', 'even handed', 'doing the middle path') drawing attention away from contentious areas of policy talk such as competition to more neutral and disinterested areas ('like data, like the right kind of leadership, the right kind of regulation'). This served to situate think tanks as working in a neutral and independent space, free from political agendas, financial interests, and values, and therefore making them well-placed to improve health and healthcare.

When we asked interviewees to describe their work to us in interviews, they frequently reverted to describing what they were not as a means of situating themselves in an unclassified and neutral space. Take the following extract from an interview with a senior executive at one think tank discussing what independence means:

Extract 5

So one of the things that's ... sort of positive, but actually quite challenging is - we are independent, we therefore don't have a constituency, therefore we don't have a particular voice to represent and we don't have an obvious position to take on things. You know, actually if you're representing an interest group, you often have probably quite a strong basis for taking a position because it's what's in the interests of the group that you're representing. So the way in which [we] come to a position, we don't, it's not dictated by any interest, has to be, in my view, much more based on a reasonable assessment where possible, of the evidence.

This senior executive avoids framing their organisation in specific terms and instead describes the organisation as not having 'a constituency', 'a particular voice' or 'an obvious position to take'. In doing so he reinforces his organisation's position as value-free ('we are independent', 'it's not dictated by any interest'). Whilst values do enter the conversation ('[we] come to a position'), this interviewee defends their own intellectual ground by emphasising that any position is grounded in objectivity ('based on reasonable assessment ... of the evidence'). This position was reflected throughout our interviews with think tank actors, with an emphasis on instrumental approaches to policy and planning that foregrounded neutrality through rigorous analysis and production of objective, independent evidence (see extracts 1, 4 and 5).

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