J.H. Snider argues that the appointment of Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) to head the Heritage Foundation marks a revolutionary moment: but only if it spurs a public discussion that leads to greater transparency and accountability.
Posts tagged ‘Transparency’
This is an old post but still relevant to many think tanks: Lobby transparency spotlight falls on think-tanks. According to the anti fraud commissioner at the European Commission in 2009:
When the scheme was conceived, “we clearly said that lobbying means ‘all activities carried out with the objective of influencing the policy formulation and decision-making processes of the European institutions’,” Kallas told an EPC briefing on Friday.
Think tanks, according to this definition should register. A quick search of the register shows that quite a few organisations that label themselves as think tanks have registered.
Now, why should think tanks register. According to the Commission, think tanks have changed and are no longer just universities without students. They are no longer able to guarantee academic integrity and are in fact driven by values and interests. This is very telling of the view that the EC has of think tanks (very German: more academic and passive than entrepreneurial).
What is interesting is that n 2009 Friends of Europe said it would not register:
Responding to the commissioner’s remarks, Friends of Europe Secretary-General Giles Merritt told EurActiv that “we have no intention of signing up as lobbyists” and expressed surprise at Kallas’s comments.
“I personally object to being called a lobbyist. I have been in Brussels for thirty years and I have never once lobbied. I don’t even know what a lobbyist does,” he said.
“I was a bit surprised that [the Commission] went to another think-tank to single us out,” Merritt continued, adding that he had responded by writing to the EU executive to invite Commissioner Kallas and other think-tank representatives to publicly debate on the issue on Friends of Europe premises.
But it has. Maybe because the lobby register was relabeled Transparency Register. Interesting.
George Monbiot has published a rather interesting commentary on Comment is Free about the damage that secretive think tanks can make on democratic institutions.
I have talked about this before, arguing that direct impact, without public debate, can be damaging to the development of necessary democratic institutions such as political parties (I dedicated a whole book to this), the media, parliaments, etc.
Monbiot here focuses on how ‘secret’ interests are funding public policy influence and the effect that this has on how we conduct politics:
When she attempted to restrict abortion counselling, Nadine Dorries MP was supported by a group called Right to Know. When other MPs asked her who funds it, she claimed she didn’t know. Lord Lawson is chairman of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which casts doubt on climate science. It demands “openness and transparency” from scientists. Yet he refuses to say who pays, on the grounds that the donors “do not wish to be publicly engaged in controversy”. Michael Gove was chairman ofPolicy Exchange, an influential conservative thinktank. When I asked who funded Policy Exchange when he ran it, his office told me “he doesn’t have that information and he won’t be able to help you”.
In other words, if think tanks demand better policy making then they must be ready to achieve this by the right means: they must be ‘better’ themselves. In this blog, Goran Buldioski has argued that think tanks can gain independence if they strive to be transparent. George Monbiot takes it to another level saying that if they do not then their action can in fact be damaging.
I would like to encourage other journalists and researchers to follow on his footsteps and call your local think tanks enquiring about the source of their funding. Paraphrasing Monbiot (I’ve replaced the words in italics):
I charge that the groups which call themselves independent think tanks are nothing of the kind. They are public relations agencies, secretly lobbying for the donors and NGOs who finance them. If they wish to refute this claim, they should disclose their funding. Until then, whenever you hear the term independent thinktank, think of a tank, crushing democracy, driven by the big Aid industry.
Interestingly, though, these efforts are likely to find that it is not unusual for think tanks in developing countries to openly name most of their funders. Many funders in fact demand that they give them preferential space on their websites and corporate communication materials. So is it then that, unlike their British counterparts, they are not undermining democracy?
No. I think that the issue of whether funding sources are disclosed or not is important but not crucial. If all funding was disclosed and all parties were open about the source of their funding -and ideas- then the public policy debate would be richer as a consequence and democracy would be strengthened. We, as citizens, would be better informed (even by ‘paid for by’ evidence that may hold some truth) and capable of make our own assessments and choices. The same applied to newspapers and the media in general. I think it is clear to anyone what to expect from The Guardian or The Times and so would not take what they write about at face value. By reading both papers however, one may be able to get a more balanced view on issues of public interest.
The worrying situation in some developing countries is that the funders of research and influence are foreign. Ideas and influencing efforts then are driven by objectives and targets that have been externally set and not by local interest groups, that exist in any democracy and are eventually accountable to local rules. We should remember too that local interest groups include unions, consumer associations, and civil society coalitions -it is not just large corporations.
A policy maker in Zambia told me earlier this year that he preferred to read the advice from business associations because he knew what they were interested in and could therefore make up his own mind about the reliability of the evidence that was presented to him. With NGOs, he said, you cannot know if it is what they really think or if they are saying whatever their funders want them to say.
Besides funding, then, what I’d really like to know then is how is it that the think tanks in my country developed their research and influencing agendas. Again, it is the question of autonomy that concerns me most.
We have all heard so many times that policy research is not value free. Some critics go one step further by claiming that impartial analysis is rather a far-fetched ideal than an attainable goal in the everyday work of a researcher. In the other camp, more ‘scientific’ oriented researchers claim that it is only about the scrutiny and the quality of the process. Once complied with certain standards, the research would certainly result into an objective account of the problem and the alternative solutions. Given that think tanks (and NGOs) have taken on roles that historically have been part of the state, it will be necessary for a code of conduct to be aligned to the one we expect from the state. The more the think tankers boost of their own impact, the need for their accountability is greater.
The accountability of policy research is thus an aspect that has raised many debates hitherto. Not surprisingly, many of these debates have focused on the way that the research has been carried out. The aspect of who has been carried out the research (who – not only with regard to competencies, but also in terms of values and personal / organizational history) has not been neglected, but somehow treated artificially (including one of my texts cited below).
In the spring 2009 I published an article in the International Journal of Not-For-profit Law in which I advocated for think tanks in Central and Eastern Europe to devise and adopt codes of conduct:
Think tanks do not act alone in the policy environment. Neither are they obliged to be neutral or free of ideology. Many in the region are staunch advocates of certain doctrines and concepts about the development of their own societies. The only position a think tank should avoid is becoming the advocate of a certain client, because that loss of independence undermines the impact of a think tank’s research. It is essential for think tanks to be explicit and transparent about the ethical values underlying their research work and advocacy. At present, think tanks enjoy a reputation as neutral transmitters of scientific ideas and policy analysis. This independence is their key feature well positioning think tanks to promote good communication between state and society. Likewise, the media is also keen on using think tank experts who they expect are serving the public interest.
The lack of a “framework of values” and rules for conduct for think tanks—among the most resolute proponents of government transparency and accountability in CEE—could soon have negative consequences. In spheres of policy where governments are hostile to such organizations, think tanks have to guard against attacks on independent policy research. Defining a proper code of ethics and code of conduct is a way to do that. Think tanks in CEE can only benefit from proposals in this article by being resolute in formulating these essential and overdue codes.
In that text, my framework of analysis included three different pillars: the ethics of policy analysts, the codes of ethics for public service in the transitional democracies of CEE, and the NGO codes of ethics in CEE. If one looks at the full text, it is clear that I have covered more the objectivity (impartiality) of policy research complemented by some organizational safeguards. No surprise then that the text is ridden with values that we should all strive for and calls for more to developed within the think tanks.
This time around, while I stand behind my writing and still would argue for introducing such codes as part of the institutional framework of each and every think tank, I would like to call into attention the second aspect – transparency (which could, but not necessarily needs to, deal with values. The Economist’s Special Report on the News published on July 7th, although focusing on media and not on think tanks, helped me consolidate my thoughts on this issue. In this report, Nick Newman, former future media controller for journalism at the BBC, claims that transparency is the new objectivity in journalism. This catchy line resonated directly with my recent reflections inspired by three real-life situations that involved think tanks (in CEE, but also globally).
Story 1: Over a period of time, a think tank shifts its ideological stance from a proponent of liberal (social and economic) ideas to a zealot for patriot-cum-constructive nationalist agenda.
How transparency kicks in here: I see a need for the think tank in question to put a timeline of its products and a short history/story of its development online. It should mark the change, even if it does not offer a full-fledged rationale behind it. Since analysis is not free from ideology, it is best to let the readers utilize the analysis and recommendations and decide for themselves if the think tank’s ideological change matters to them at all.
Story 2: Few years ago, a gifted and up-and-coming scholar received a slew of scholarships to attain a number of educational degrees from a donor. In the meantime that person became a director of a prominent think tank. Both the individual and partially the think tank in question are harsh critics of the donor – former patron in its current political commentaries.
How this relates to transparency: Not everyone knows that the director has received scholarships in the past. Without entering into any need for justification, the think tank director should simply put his/her CV online and make this transparent. Such move may even result in a higher sence of value for the criticism (since the person does not shy away to criticize the former patron). More importantly, it would allow the stakeholders of the think tank and the public to have a broader picture of the history and context. Nobody needs to make value judgments, only be transparent. (I treat this as if this was a case of conflict of interests.)
Story 3. Many think tanks in Central and Eastern Europe are operating through two parallel legal entities: a not-for-profit organization and for-profit consultancy. I see nothing wrong in this arrangement, especially in the light of complicated and divergent donor practices that includes one of the other legal forms.
[Note: Often the crucial difference is that the consulting arm will work for a particular client producing (at least to some extent) private analytical products (not available to the public, or only available through the client which uses them for its own advocacy, lobbying or other purposes).]
The public (not-for-profit) think tank produces analysis that is publicly available (public good) usually paid for by a donor or from membership fees and other sources of income.
Why transparency is crucial in this case: There is a web of intertwined aspects here. First, the public has to be aware of the duality of the brand; and who the clients and donors that are funding the organization are. Second, the donors need to know that there is no double dipping (often the two entities are staffed by the same people sharing the overall work and costs). Third, the clients have the right ensure that what they pay for on their ‘private good’ has not been turned out ‘public’ on the other end of the organization. Finally, if the think tank engages into political consulting, there should be clear bottom-line about who could appear as a client and who could not (simply jeopardizing the entire concept of analysis for public good). In my understanding, this bottom-line is context dependent and changes from one place to the other depending on different factors (level of political culture, the maturity of the consulting market and other…)
In conclusion, think tanks should do their best in insuring that the data and facts they use are from trusted sources and their analysis is as objective as possible. However, they should not forget to be transparent about who they are and where do they come. Even if at a first look, this information might seem ‘damaging’ it is always better for think tanks (as probably for everyone else in the policy/political arena). After all, it is better for think tanks to put out public the facts about themselves instead of someone else, usually with ill intentions, spreading rumor and gossiping about the same matter.
Grupo FARO from Ecuador has published details about its funding for 2010 on its website. You can also click through to the full auditors report.
The table they have published online, though, is intended to show that Grupo FARO is not dependent on a single funding source and has therefore been published and communicated more proactively than one would usually expect of financial reports (I found out via twitter). The auditors report also describes the projects delivered by Grupo FARO during the same period and it includes information on: the project objective, the funder, the amount provided and spent, and the implementation project period.
There are lots of efforts in the international development community to promote greater transparency of donor policies but not much is asked from the recipients of the funds. This is a good example of a pro-active effort by a think that to be transparent.
Peter Singer hits the nail on the head with an article on the ethics of think tanks and the threats that certain funding sources may create for think tanks’ independence.
On Saturday I blogged about the risks of foreign funding to think tanks in India.
Singer argues that:
Thinktankdom is a field that lacks any universal code of ethics, ombudsmen to hold people accountable, a professional association to regulate, etc. Even more, it is filled with people who are happy to speak about everything under the sun –that is, except their own field and the dirty little part that money plays in it.
And believes that:
thinktankers should not take on private consulting contracts with firms they might research and comment upon in their public work.
John Blundell, former chief of the IEA agrees with this assessment. And, I must say, that so do I.
However, this is not always possible. The reality of many think tanks in developing countries -and certainly in the poorest and most aid dependent countries- is one where the funders of research and influence are a few bilateral and multilateral donors; and more recently global foundations. Even in the developed world, international development think tanks (IDS, ODI, DIE, ECDPM, FRIDE, and other smaller non-for profit and for-profit outfits who portray themselves as source of independent sources of expertise) are almost entirely dependent of bilateral donor funds -even though their research and influence is also focused on these donors.
In the aid sector, funding for think tanks tends to come in the form of consultancy contracts rather than research grants or core funding. This creates, according to Singer’s assessment serious conflicts of interest and challenges the very essence of think tanks’ functions.
Singer’s recommendation, that think tanks and researchers should fully disclose the source of their funds -certainly more so when a particular study has been commissioned by a client- should be taken seriously in these contexts.
Transparency can only been a good thing.