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Posts tagged ‘Transparency’

Is too much transparency a bit of a problem?

Do we really want to know who funds or funded think tanks and researchers? Do we want to know all about how they get their funding, who they've worked with, or for in the past? In this post, I play devil's advocate and present some arguments against complete transparency. Would it make it impossible for the system to function?

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A quick and dirty “Transparify-like” assessment of TTI think tanks

Transparify has just published an excellent report in which it reviews the financial transparency of over 150 think tanks across the world. Inspired by this effort I have rated the group of think tanks funded by the Think Tank Initiative. For no other reasons that it is a fairly clear set, not too small and not too large, and representative of three developing regions. In this blog post I argue that Transparify has opened a door that other should follow.

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Think Tanks transparency: a new opportunity thanks to Transparify

Over the next few weeks I will be reviewing the transparency of think tanks in different programmes using Transparify's approach. I hope this analysis will contribute to greater openness among think tanks as well as their supporters. This post outlines the approach taken and links to the ratings themselves.

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Corporate interests and think tanks: an overview of current debates

To be sustainable think tanks have to court the private sector (this is where the money is, after all), whether directly or indirectly by means of their foundations. But, as any half-baked economics think tanks would know: there is no such thing as a free lunch. So: how to get funded and remain independent (or at least intellectually autonomous)? Tranfarify offers some answers (and a lot more questions).

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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.

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