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Posts tagged ‘Transparency’

Transparify: Donors need to reveal their funding to think tanks abroad

Till Bruckner writes about the importance of demanding more openness from think tanks. He argues that their funders should expect them to be open about their sources of founding and the amounts the receive from them. In doing so he introduces a new and exiting initiative: Transparify. This new collaborative effort aims to rate the level of transparency of think tanks across the world.

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The Brookings Institution: What Do Its Numbers Tell Us?

Looking at Brookings to argue that we can learn from think tank budgets, and that think tanks should be transparent about their funding.

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Politics, money, and think tanks: is it really a game changer?

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.

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Should think tanks register as lobbyists?

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.

Official post from Prospect’s Think Tank Awards 2011

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about the Prospect Think Tank of the Year Award 2011. Here is Prospect’s own account of the event; some extracts below:

Assessing the value of a think tank cannot be done without considering the context. A think tank may be a fantastic producer of papers and events but these are useless unless they are relevant (and this often means preempting events):

We live in extraordinary times. The past year has been one of drama: the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan in March; the Arab uprisings; the killing of Osama bin Laden; phone hacking; swings of 400 points in the FTSE index; the eurozone crisis.

Those events provided rich material for the candidates for Prospect’s 11th Think Tank Awards. So did the fierce, continuing debate about the age of austerity: where cuts should fall, how to stimulate growth, how big the public sector should be, and how to reshape it. Think tanks have taken on some of the biggest intellectual challenges for years.

I like this model because it is transparent. Prospect is open about who judges the process:

Bronwen Maddox, the editor of Prospect, chaired the panel of judges, which included Baroness Vadera of Holland Park, adviser to governments, companies and funds, and former minister; Nader Mousavizadeh, chief executive of Oxford Analytica, previously special assistant to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan; James Crabtree, Financial Timescomment editor; James Elwes, deputy editor of Prospect and former editor of Financial World; and Andy Davis, associate editor of Prospect, and former editor of FT Weekend.

I am not going to reproduce the whole post here but I think it is worth giving you a taste of what you will read -and what we heard at the event. The decisions were, as in the world of think tanks, not straight forward. Multiple factors, often not comparable, need to be taken into account and their importance are inevitably subjective to each judge (hence why it is important to know who they are). On the think tank of the year category:

The shortlist of five included the Resolution Foundation,  founded in 2005, which has made a hugely impressive start under Gavin Kelly’s “very intelligent and clear” directorship, producing original and important papers on the “squeezed middle,” the minimum wage, and social mobility. Judges complimented the Institute for Fiscal Studies, always a towering presence in the British think tank landscape, for the “Mirrlees Review” on making tax fairer in the 21st century, but felt it had not been the organisation’s best year.

The panel gave a special note to Policy Exchange for strength across a broad range: housing, education, crime and energy. It also has excellent access to policymakers and a lively events schedule.

The runner up for Prospect think tank of the year award was The King’s Fund, the large health policy research unit. It was forthright in claiming a direct influence on public policy—a claim with which the judges at least partly concurred. In its submission, the King’s Fund noted that: “Our work helped prompt a number of significant shifts in government policy [on NHS reform] and the decision to undertake the listening exercise during the ‘pause’ in the bill’s passage through parliament.” The judges felt that most credit for the government’s shift should, properly, go to the Liberal Democrats for their threat of rebellion, but agreed that the King’s Fund had pressed its views home in a highly effective manner.

However, the economic crisis dominated British and global political debate in 2011. The submission that stood out was from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR). The British government has decided that it should best deal with the country’s budget deficit and debt by a period of fiscal austerity. NIESR has been outstanding in challenging this strategy; as one judge put it, in “doing Ed Balls’ job a bit better than Ed Balls.” It has argued that “the pace of fiscal consolidation was too fast,” and that the cuts have checked Britain’s growth by too much.

Not all the judges agreed with NIESR’s analysis or conclusions. But they felt that the institute’s output was always worth close attention. Much of that was due to its director Jonathan Portes, who was appointed in February and who has reinvigorated the institute. For its scrutiny of the government’s economic strategy, it was felt that NIESR was the rightful winner of the 2011 award for think tank of the year.


A new think tank model for higher quality, independence and transparency

Lately there has been a rather lively discussion about the role and value of think tanks in the UK. George Monbiot, a journalist who often writes for The Guardian, has challenged their transparency. Prospect Magazine only recently announced the winners of its annual think tank award. And there have been some discussions on the way think tanks behave in relation to their funders’ own interests -are they nothing more than PR vehicles?

An article by Dr Andy Williamson takes this forward by challenging the current dominant model for think tanks in the UK. He argues that if think tanks are to have greater impact then they must embrace three principles:

  • Quality

The nature of many current think-tanks means that work agendas are driven by funding rather than the need (or desire) for good quality research. Funding also restricts the quality of staff available. Critical thinking is becoming critically endangered.

With a background in commercial consultancy, I know how the ‘big firm’ model works; send in the partners to pitch then, on day one, a two-days-in-the-job graduate walks in the door with a manual under their arm. Are think-tanks any different? In a word… No. They are over-reliant on low-cost junior staff to do a lot of the heavy lifting. This means either junior researchers or, more often than not, interns. Think-tanks are staffed by a sea of young, eager researchers all keen to make careers in government and politics.

Williamson is very critical of think tanks overeliance on young staff to do the work. He argues that they lack the most important thing required for critical thinking: experience. And this lack of experience means that they are unable to translate thought into action. I agree. But at the same time, I think that think tanks can be a place where young researchers can gain experience, provided that they are given the right support and that this is not rushed. I cringe at 25 year-olds with Fellow or Senior on their name cards. There is no rush.

  • Balance or independence
More insidious, more dangerous because it’s about direct funding (the latter point is ultimately about indirect funding), research funded by government departments, through commercial sponsorship, donations or from trusts presents a danger. How much does the need to maintain a funding stream impact on one’s ability to be totally honest in research? I can certainly say I have felt pressured to dilute findings that might be seen as critical of a funder. Something I refuse to do if the data supports the argument I’m making but this position needs to be made clear to the funder in advance.
Williamson is right in demanding greater upfront transparency. We know that the reality of think tanks is not the romantic ideal of the large endowment that lets them do as they please. But independence (or autonomy) comes from being transparent about it: up-front. As Goran Buldioski argued in this blog, if a think tank is being objective then why would it not want to disclose who is funding it? I share his concern for government funding, too. Particularly if it is tied to conditions and not long term enough to be free from political and personal influences.
  • Transparency

It is important to be upfront and honest about why research is being undertaken; who commissioned it and why. It is equally important to be clear and open about how data has been collected, not just from where (and who) but how the data was derived. Issues of method and analysis are important to us understanding what research is trying to say.

Publicly funded academic research usually requires the datasets to be published in an online repository. How many think-tanks do this too, even when their research has been publicly funded? Some do, but more should consider it. It might be as simple as publishing raw survey data in Excel or SPSS file formats for other researchers to use. This can also be useful for checking the veracity of the findings – this is not something to be concerned about if you have followed good principles; just because I’ve re-analysed your data and come to a different conclusion it doesn’t mean your own analysis is wrong, it just means I’ve interpreted it differently.

Surely this is a good thing as it adds to the intellectual debate?

CGD has started to publish the data it uses in its work. They even have a policy for it. They’ve even published the policy online.This is a good example of think tanks making themselves accountable and recognising that while they might have arrived a particular conclusion, others may arrive at another. Research, as Williamson argues, is subjective.

As a good thinktanker, Williamson puts forward an alternative model for us to consider.

  1. Dump the Georgian architecture and draw in the best thinkers to solve the problems at hand: in other words, he argues for more funds being allocated towards attracting the best minds and worrying less about the think tank’s offices, its meeting rooms, its branding, etc.
  2. Embrace the digital world for collaboration and transparency
But the recommendations, I think, do not go far enough. One thing that I believe think tanks must be willing to do, and that few ever consider, is close. If think tanks were willing to close if, say, the funding they received was not free from political or ideological meddling, or if the work they were able to do was not of the highest level, or they were not allowed to focus on long term issues, etc., they would not feel compelled to walk down the path that Williamson is describing in his article. Independence comes from being able to walk away.

Think tanks transparency and Twitter accounts

A few weeks ago Goran Buldioski published a post on transparency and I commented on an article by George Monbiot on think tanks’ transparency. Monbiot’s article sparked some debate on twitter and led Brian Dean from News Frames to put together a list of British think tanks’ twitter accounts to encourage the public to tweet asking them to disclose the source of their funding.

I have taken the liberty to use the list to put together a Twitter list of British think tanks.

I am not sure if as a consequence of this but Unlock Democracy already replied by publishing all their funding over £5000. 

When influence can be a bad thing: “think tanks are crushing our democracy”

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 counsellingNadine 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.

Transparency should replace (strive to) impartiality in policy research

By Goran Buldioski,  Program Director of the Open Society Institute’s Think Tank Fund. His post addresses the persistent issue of how to ensure or review think tank’s independence.

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.

Center for Global Development: A new transparency policy

David Roodman from the CGD has published a post on CGD’s New Data & Code Transparency Policy. The whole post is worth reading (and if you have time make sure you read the policy itself) but let me quote a key section below:

Fundamentally, then, the new data and code transparency policy is about putting the pursuit of truth first. We believe that this step is both right in itself and strategically smart. In statistical analysis, as in software, bugs are the norm. So placing more of CGD’s work in the public domain will inevitably expose mistakes. That can be a daunting prospect for an organization that prizes its reputation for high-quality analysis. But transparency serves the public good. And serving the public good is what CGD, as a charity, should do. Moreover, the success of open source projects such as Wikipedia and Android reassures us that doing the right thing is wise. The flip side of catching more mistakes is better work. And that should lead to greater impact.

In the name of transparency I would suggest also sharing information on funding (particularly, who is funding) and who is involved in peer reviewing the work.



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