Think Tank, Policy & Governance Articles

After Covid-19 necessitated many government services to go digital what is most important when planning for digital government services in future.

As COP26 comes to a close what are some of the changes we can make in cities that can help with the net zero agenda?

As the United Kingdom celebrates its 100th year in its current reconfiguration we asked how power should be shared going forward.

The growth and extent of world trade is staggering. In 1950, trade accounted for just 8.6% of world output (GDP). By 2008 it accounted for an astonishing 60% of world GDP, involving $20 trillion in goods and over $5 trillion in services. Despite setbacks — financial crises, wars (including Trump-style trade wars) and even pandemics — trade seems set to expand, bringing yet greater interaction between the world’s peoples, ideas and cultures.

Trade has always existed. That is because, as Adam Smith noted in The Wealth of Nations, both sides benefit from it: they wouldn’t bother if they didn’t. David Ricardo went on to observe that by specialising on their ‘comparative advantage’, countries can overcome the bounds of geography and climate. It’s why we can enjoy bananas in December.

Like all progress, the long-term impact of trade is positive; but in the short term all change produces winners and losers. Thus, people in rich countries complain that cheaper foreign workers are taking their jobs, while developing countries complain that their fledgling industries cannot compete against transnational giants. But consumers everywhere benefit from greater choice, and from the competition that bids down prices and bids up quality.

And the boom in trade since 1990 — brought on by reforms that brought China and South East Asia, India, Eastern Europe and South America into the world trade network — has produced history’s biggest and fastest rise in prosperity, particularly for the world’s poorest. It has taken roughly a billion people out of $2-a-day poverty. And it has made the world culturally richer than ever before.

Yet governments still face fierce lobbying from producers who see foreign competitors eating into their markets. Tariffs, quotas and other trade barriers are the result. But while these might give temporary comfort to a few producers, there is a cost. The imported goods that their consumers want, and the inputs their manufacturers need, become more expensive or even unavailable. That is why almost all economists agree — uniquely — that protectionism is a mistake.

Realising how two world wars had stifled trade and prosperity, the major trading countries sought, through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and its successor the World Trade Organization (WTO) to limit protectionism and promote, easier, freer trade. And indeed, though high tariffs do remain (the EU, for example, imposes taxes up to 30% on imports of agricultural products), average world tariffs have been brought right down.

As a result, value chains today have become truly global. The iPhone, for example, is assembled in Taiwan and includes parts from South Korea, India, Brazil, the UK, China, Singapore, the US, Switzerland, Indonesia, India, France, Japan — and others.

The gains are not just economic. There is good evidence that trade promotes international trust, cooperation and understanding. It is also associated with political freedom, the rule of law, honesty, free speech and other liberal values. It helps defuse nationalism and ethnic conflict, and promotes peace, fairness and equality. After all, if people are to reap the many benefits of trading with each other, they have to cooperate.

Of course, the expansion of trade has thrown up new issues. One is a rising focus on security. For example, the US and UK ban mobile providers from importing new Huawei 5G equipment, fearing it could be used to spy on their networks. Another issue is the export of counterfeit and pirated goods, including clothes and shoes, electronics, perfumes, toys and medicines, which the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates at a chunky 3% of world trade. Services (such as banking, accountancy, legal services, healthcare and education) have become a much bigger part of world trade, leading to questions about whether the qualifications of one country’s lawyers, bankers, doctors and other professionals should be accepted by others. Another big concern is the environment, with countries resisting imports with high carbon footprints or banning the importation of certain fertilisers and pesticides. And more generally, the growth of ‘emerging’ economies (such as Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Morocco, the Philippines, South Africa and Turkey) is tilting the traditional economic balances between regions across the globe and bringing new challenges of its own.

However, most policy on trade is driven by domestic politics rather than economic logic. To work well, therefore, trade needs an international framework, and a global rule of law. This is no easy task, given the many pressures on countries to protect their own industries and raise barriers against others. But we have no way of knowing where trade will take us, or the new benefits it will bring in quite unexpected areas.

Ahead of the Spring Budget we look at how Universal Credit could be reformed in the recovery from Covid-19

The coronavirus pandemic has been defined by data. How that data has been communicated and presented has really mattered. There have been some great examples of how to do it – think the early representations of ‘flattening the curve’ and charts from the likes of the Financial Times, Our World in Data and others – but also some great ones of how not to do it, not least from the UK government.

Of course, data visualisation – a broad term covering charts and graphs, tables, and infographics, often shortened to dataviz or data vis – wasn’t invented during the pandemic. William Playfair, an early pioneer, stated why it matters: a number in a table might be unmemorable, ‘like a figure imprinted on sand… soon totally erased and defaced’, but charts make ‘a sufficiently distinct impression… to remain unimpaired for a considerable time, and the idea which does remain will be simple and complete’. Last year’s bicentenary of Florence Nightingale’s birth reminded us of her dataviz innovation and the impact her charts had on government policy – they can convey key information to busy policymakers eye-catchingly, concisely and quickly.

The interest in ‘data journalism’ over the last decade and the ability of think tanks to communicate directly to their audiences thanks to the internet and social media means many research organisations are thinking about how to use data visualisation in their work. I ran the Institute for Government’s Whitehall Monitor project – which analyses and visualises the size, shape and performance of government – for seven years, and helped develop data and dataviz capability across the Institute. Here are some of my top tips for visualising data as a think tank.

Be clear about the story you’re trying to tell, and work out the best way to tell it

If your starting point is thinking at the end of a project, ‘we want a fancy chart that will look great on social’, let me humbly suggest you don’t start from there. Good charts allow you to communicate important analysis from your work in compelling ways, and that should be your starting point. Readers will often only spend a short amount of time on a chart, so you should be careful not to overload it – what’s the key thing you want them to take away from the chart? Be clear about this – if you’re not, throwing charts at the problem isn’t going to help.

Once you know what story it is you’re trying to tell, think about the best way to tell it. You wouldn’t throw letters randomly onto a page and expect them to land in crisp paragraphs and perfectly formed sentences. Similarly, don’t throw numbers into chart software and expect the first thing that comes out to be the best way of conveying what you’ve found in the data.

Think about the right chart type

There are a lot of different chart types – you may already be familiar with bar charts, pie charts, line charts, scatter plots, tables and maps, but there are many, many more and many, many variations within types. There is a wealth of online resources to help you navigate your way through and understand what chart types work in particular circumstances (try the Data Visualisation Catalogue, the FT’s Visual Vocabulary, or the Graphic Continuum by Jon Schwabish and Severino Ribecca for a start).

There is often nothing wrong with keeping it simple – sometimes, a simple line chart going up or down can be the most effective way of making your point, and your audience is likely to be familiar with how the chart works. (Though beware the false promise of pie charts, which are often not the best way to present data. And just because data is about a location doesn’t mean a map is the best way of displaying it.) But don’t be afraid to experiment – sometimes more unusual charts which tell a number of stories can draw the reader in (this was one of our signatures at the IfG).

That said…

Don’t distort the data, or let bad design distort it

Obviously, when we talk about telling a ‘story’ with data we’re not talking fiction. It should go without saying that you shouldn’t be bending the data to fit a preferred narrative. You should make sure that any caveats that would fundamentally affect the reading of the chart are clear, as is the source of the data (so others can go and dig into it if they wish). You will always be making choices and trade-offs in designing dataviz – but be careful with them.

Bad design can distort the data too. The chart may be so cluttered it lacks any clarity in what it was trying to convey. You might compress the range of the axes in a way that makes things look more dramatic than they are. You may get so caught up in the aesthetics it makes the analysis difficult to grasp (this upside down chart is a classic of the genre). In delivering dataviz training, I sometimes use the Star Wars prequel trilogy as a cautionary tale – in getting so caught up in what you are able to do with the tools at your disposal (computer graphics, in the case of a galaxy far, far away) you can lose sight of what really matters (narrative, dialogue, characterisation).

When it comes to clarity, attractiveness and accuracy, you may want to think about two Twitter tests: would someone seeing the chart be able to understand its key message in 15 seconds (or be sufficiently drawn in by it that they’ll study it for longer), and how would you feel if your chart image were shared without any further context?

Details matter

What you do with labels, axes, gridlines, ordering the data and everything else on a chart area also helps with your storytelling (it’s instructive that one dataviz expert has an entire series on ‘the little’ of dataviz design). Axis labels taking up so much of the chart area that the data gets squeezed? Gridlines so bold they distract you from the data? Then you have a problem. A decent rule of thumb is that you want most of the ink on the chart to be spilt on the data itself (or things which actively help your reader understand what it’s showing) – minimise the ‘chart junk’, as it can sometimes be called.

Think about your audience, what you’re trying to achieve, and how you’re presenting to them

You’ll have been in the weeds of a particular subject, and engaged on the finer design points of the chart displaying information about it, for a while. Your audience won’t. Will they understand the abbreviations you’ve used and all the assumptions you’ve made?

Who do you want to reach and what do you want them to do? Social media can get very excited about whizz bang interactives which may help increase your reach, but simple static charts that the right civil servants can easily download and drop into presentation slides for ministers may be what you want. And you’ll be able to do different things with a single graphic for social media, versus a chart in a longer form piece, versus an interactive, versus presenting in person where you can take more time to talk your audience through what you’re showing them and build up the story.

There are lots of great dataviz tools. Microsoft Excel is one of them

There are some great online tools – Flourish, Datawrapper, Highcharts, Tableau (many others are available) – and lots of visualisation software packages. If you have the right expertise, you might be coding things directly. But any tool is only as good as what you’re doing with it (see all of the other advice above).

Don’t write off Microsoft Excel. Nearly every IfG chart to date has been made in Excel. It’s a powerful tool, you’ll be surprised at just how much you can do with it, there are digital reams of advice on how to get the most from it, and (crucially) it’s something that most people are likely to have some familiarity with, so it’s a brilliant starting point if nothing else. But move away from the default colours and fonts; use your corporate ones instead, and don’t be afraid to play around with the other chart junk. It’s amazing how much more professional your charts will look with a little tweaking.

Build on what you’ve done before

Every new dataviz created, every new dataset explored is a learning experience. You don’t want to have to reinvent the wheel every time you publish a new chart – build on what you’ve done before. Develop a style guide, a portfolio of charts and a process of getting from the dataset to a finished product (at the IfG that was getting charts from Excel into a template in some free graphics software) that you can go back to. Your existing knowledge is what will help you innovate and is good for branding, understanding (you’ll be going back to things that work) and ease (save time by using something that works).

Are there particular data releases that your think tank can ‘own’, and datasets you want to keep going back to? For example, I live-blogged government reshuffles for 6 years at the IfG and there’s no way we could have produced numerous data-informed annual reports without these building blocks. The Resolution Foundation and IFS have a strong focus on particular government fiscal events. These are worth investing in – both in terms of the plumbing as well as the finished product.

You’re not running a dataviz project. You’re running an organisational change one

One of your most important audiences is going to be your internal one. To do dataviz right is to do data right – to build it into your research and comms processes and think about it throughout a project, not as an afterthought as the press release is about to go out. ‘Data’ can still be intimidating and/or boring to many – you will need to bring people with you in supporting them to develop the right skills, in showing how better use of data and dataviz can help them in their work, and in making it interesting (and less intimidating) and fun as well as functional. (My weekly newsletter started as an internal effort to do some of this.)

You have to start somewhere

The best thing to do is give it a go. What starts with a simple dataset in Excel today could lead to an all-singing, all-dancing interactive dashboard with APIs spitting out data in time. You’ll never know if you don’t try.

You’re going to make mistakes – that’s not to be cavalier with accuracy, merely to say that you’ll publish the odd chart that doesn’t quite sing the way you want it to– but you’ll learn from them, and from the mistakes other think tanks, data journalists and others have made along the way. The freedom to experiment (take some time to get things wrong internally) is vital, and another reason to get others in your organisation on board: they’ll be your most useful critics.

The dataviz expert Alberto Cairo has described data visualisation as a ‘functional art’. Both words are important. Don’t get so carried away with the artistic possibilities that you forget its function: to communicate stories you’ve discovered in data. But equally, if it is so functional as to become dull and have no art, it’ll cease to be functional as no one will want to look at it.

President Biden arrives in office with a full foreign policy in-tray, albeit one that will have to compete for attention with myriad domestic priorities from tackling run-away virus to repairing the foundations of its own democracy. Most of America’s traditional allies will let out a huge sigh of relief that his predecessor has left the building, with Biden and his team known quantities with more similar values. Their number will include the UK despite the well-known scepticism of the Prime Minister within Biden world. However for some of America’s Middle East Allies who have been the recipients of Trump’s largess, there will be more nervousness with the US returning to play a somewhat less overtly partisan role in the Israel/Palestine conflict and taking action against Saudi behaviour in Yemen and on human rights.

The pandemic response will clearly be the primary short-term goal, reintegrating the US into the global coordination structures and seeking opportunities to demonstrate restored American leadership. However it is not as if the world is short of things to worry about right now. A brief tour of the global risk map might include: increased tensions in the Pacific as strategic competition between China and the US and its allies intensifies, particularly as attempts are made to hold Beijing to account for its abuses of the Uighurs and in Hong Kong; uncertainty in the Middle East over whether Iran reengages on a nuclear deal or lashes out over the assassination of its officials while the Saudi’s and Emiratis fret over what Biden’s approach means for the balance of power; potential flash points around North Korea after the failures of Trumpian personal diplomacy; the risk of Hungary and Poland’s deteriorating relations with other EU member states over their slide towards authoritarianism paralysing European institutions; the possibility of further escalation in border tensions between India and Pakistan spiralling out of control; and potential disputes between the global north and south over the rollout of Covid vaccines.

Biden will seek to use two international conferences this year in particular to fulfil domestic political priorities and reset America’s global leadership: 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow and his own proposed ‘Summit of Democracies’. The international community has a brief window of opportunity after Joe Biden is inaugurated to kick on after years of delay to address both the climate crisis and rising authoritarianism, the two challenges that may define foreign policy for decades to come.

The Taiwan Straits maybe the most volatile point in the Asia-Pacific. Even if this thin strip of water, separating Taiwan and China, is not the site of a great power collision this year it nevertheless will be a source of tension between Beijing and Washington.

The Communist Party of China claims Taiwan as “an inalienable” part of its own territory and has refused to rule out using force to make this a reality. Taiwan conversely wishes to continue governing itself and the island’s transformation into a vibrant liberal democracy, since the 1990s, has only reinforced this desire. While China’s political system has remained essentially the same its rapid economic rise has equipped it with the military might to actually act on its expansionist desires.

America has strong, albeit informal, ties with Taiwan and may aid it in the event of an attack by China. Although Washington is traditionally deliberately ambiguous about this under the Trump Administration America has been edging towards clarity.

Arms sales have been regularised, numerous pieces of pro-Taiwan legislation have been passed by Congress, and last year the White House authorised two high-level visits to Taipei. Not to mention this year’s last-minute ditching of self-imposed restrictions on US-Taiwan interactions by Secretary of State Pompeo.  All of which signal America’s resolve. Yet, China with intensified military manoeuvres into Taiwan’s air and sea space wants to send a message too.

This will be a challenge for the incoming Biden team who already have a lot to deal with vis-à-vis China. Matters in the Taiwan Straits have heated up considerably since they were last all working in the White House. Defusing tensions seems sensible however turning back some of the recent advances made in US-Taiwan relations risks encouraging China to take its chances.



The House of Lords is an extraordinary place, full of gold leaf, ushers in full white tie dress and an imposing throne. Few other countries have legislative chambers quite like it. It is hard to miss as a physical presence but is often overlooked by think tankers and policy professionals promoting new policy ideas. Any campaign or the profile of a report is amplified by ensuring it is raised in both Houses and will ultimately be more likely to come to the attention of Ministers.

Don’t forget Noble Lords

The first (and very simple) top tip for policy wonks and think tankers is simple, don’t forget the House of Lords. If you find that your internal language around parliament tends to just mention “MPs” make a point of changing it to “MPs and Peers”.

Understand how the Lords conduct their business of the House

One big difference between the two chambers, which should catch the eye of think tankers and policy professionals, is the different style of timetabling business within the House of Lords. Unlike the Commons, which is often tightly focused on legislative business and questions to ministers, there is more room in the timetable for responding to topical issues or bringing under-discussed issues to the attention of ministers.

The Lords also have their own committee system which is just as influential, publishing very authoritative reports, and not to be overlooked either.

The business of the House is often planned and made available weeks in advance. Make the Lords Whips website a favourite. It can be used to see who has ‘put down’ to speak in a debate giving plenty of opportunity for helpful engagement. Likewise, Oral Questions in the Lords are effectively mini debates, unlike their Commons counterparts, which can take the form of repeatedly partisan (or extremely local) questions being thrown at the responding minister. The more lightly whipped House of Lords will mean that fewer Noble members (honourable in the Commons and noble in the Lords) will be required by party managers to speak on issues they know little or nothing about.

Build relationships based on expertise

Our ermine clad friends generally have more time to focus on policy interests than MPs with constituency and party demands on their time.  They will therefore often take a deep interest in one or more policy areas and as such are likely to speak with authority on these matters. This might be because they come from a professional background in a particular subject, or they have committed to spending their time in the House focusing on an area of policy. Very often they have the gift of time with which to focus on a subject but, unlike MPs, they have no administrative or research support (unless they pay for it out of their own pocket). You are therefore likely to find Peers very receptive to serious policy engagement on their specialist areas in a deep-dive sort of way and over the long term. They are there for life after all.

Like any political (or stakeholder if we must use that awful term) relationship it is worth putting time into identifying Peers who seem to have an interest in a policy area you’re working on. Use the much underrated Hansard search tool which is like Google for spoken contributions in parliament and Written Questions to find Peers who regularly speak on matters you’re interested in. You’ll soon discover a pattern and Peers who pop up again and again. These Peers will often be recognised by ministers in the Lords for their interest and will become the ‘go-to’ people on any given subject.

Take advantage of the less adversarial and (often) more detail contributions

The upper chamber is typically less adversarial than the House of Commons and contributions can be more data focused. The Government has no inbuilt majority in the House of Lords so a canny think tanker should always look to build cross-party relationships in the Lords, based on a policy area. This includes cross bench and ecclesiastical Peers who take no party whip. Party allegiances are much less pronounced in the House of Lords with members always working ‘across the House’ on a subject area, and members recognised for their interest in a subject. Policy professionals can work very effectively with Peers to provide them with the latest data or evidence to support their parliamentary work in debates.

The House is getting bigger and bigger and spoken contributions are much shorter than they can be in the Commons, often only a few minutes depending on how many people are speaking in a debate. This means tighter speeches which are often uninterrupted and then on the record.

When it comes to draft legislation, Peers have much more freedom to table amendments to legislation, especially through ‘probing amendments,’ and test ministerial thinking. If your work involves legislative change then the House of Lords is often the best place to start.  Improving legislation is, after all, a primary function of the House and peers will likely welcome research which highlights problems with existing legislation or bills coming before them.

Don’t sweat the formality – just be sure to check the protocol

One issue that often comes up and causes many colleagues great anxiety is the formality of addressing the different types of peer, from Dukes and Earls to lowly Barons and Baronesses. It can be very confusing. This page on the website provides a handy guide to addressing them. It is well worth saving to avoid a very British slip in protocol.

Building strong working relationships with Peers will help to promote your work. If you’re working away inside a think tank, make sure you don’t overlook the House of Lords and the work done by Peers across the House in using the latest data or promoting new ideas to challenge all the different parts of Government to do better.

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