Addressing think tank transparency: one of the elephants in the room

26 February 2015
SERIES Think tanks and transparency

It was probably a bit unfair to suggest that the #TTIX2015 was not going to address transparency. On the last day, a group of think tanks from the UK, Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe (as well as funders from Eastern Europe and Africa) got together to talk about think tank transparency.

Only a few days earlier, Transparify had published its second annual report. Several think tanks present had been rated (some with rather encouraging results).

The discussion centred on 5 key issues:

  • Reasons for not being more transparent
  • Reasons for being transparent
  • What do we mean by transparency?
  • What can think tanks do about it?
  • What can funders do about it?

Reasons for not being transparent

It would be unfair to suggest that think tanks who do not publish all their financial information are trying to hide something. The group identified four main reasons for not being transparent and each requires to be addressed on their own merits:

  • Freedom: This refers to the freedom on a think tank’s funders to remain anonymous. This can be because they do not want the general public to know who they support, that they have money to ‘give away’ (linked to the security reason), or simply that they do not want other think tanks to come knocking for money. So it is not that the think tanks do not want to be open, it is just that they respect the freedom of their funders to choose to remain anonymous.
  • Security: This reason relates, mostly, to the safety of the think tank and the researchers who, in some countries, would expose themselves to State (or other groups’) aggressive efforts to control and silence them. So it is not that they do not want to be transparent but they must also be smart and safe. This may change from sector to sector, and it may, in fact, be acceptable for some think tanks, working in certain counties and sectors, to keep their funding sources ‘less-than-public’.
  • Capacity: Many think tanks, unfortunately, appear to be opaque not because they wish to protect the privacy of their funders or protect their staff. They are opaque because they are not very good at communicating. Their websites and annual reports are poorly designed and out of date.
  • Credibility: Then there is another group that is opaque because being transparent would hurt their credibility. Without core funding or endowments think tanks have to seek out funding from a great deal of different sources. In many developing countries corporations (including those in the extractive sector) have stepped in to provide them with funds through, mostly, consultancy arrangements. They would argue, then, that publishing this information would simply damage the think tank’s reputation and undermine the otherwise excellent work they do in projects not funded by the private sector. In other cases this risk comes from think tanks receiving too many funds from the very ministers or governments they are supposed to be influencing.

Reasons for being transparent

Among the reasons to be transparent we could identify the following 3 broad categories:

  • Transparency as an ends in itself -a principle: For some, transparency is a principle. A think tank must be transparency because it is a good thing, not because it serves other purposes -even if it does. And it should be transparent even if it my backfire. The point made here is that if think tanks, who are political actors, are supposed to be trying to improve policy (including they way policy is done) then they should led by example.
  • Transparency as a private means -a strategy or tactic: For others, transparency can be used as a tool to gain credibility (for instance, if a respectable funder supports the think tank or if the think tank can present a grand list supporters from across the political spectrum) or to counter attacks (for instance, attacks that may rely on the opacity of the think tank: who is funding them? what hidden agendas do they have?).

Of course, transparency can be a means and an end.

  •  Transparency as a public means: This third category describes transparency as a means to achieve a outcomes outside the think tank. For instance, to help the public understand the work of the think tank, to encourage a more open public debate about ideas and their origin, to encourage others (other political actors) to be transparent.

What do we mean by transparency?

Transparify has focused on financial transparency but there are other aspects of the think tank that we ought to know about (there may be others):

  • Research: Quite clearly, think tanks could do more to present their research to the public. Investing communications to make their work more public and more accessible (both in format and in content) think tanks are being more transparent. They could also be more transparent about their methods and the tools they use. They could clarify the way that different research outputs are peer reviewed (or not). Often one finds reports that refer to surveys but there is little information about the survey’s population or its significance. And the data that would allow others to replicate the work is nowhere to be found. They events, too. Some think tanks pride themselves for organising public events while other prefer more private ones -with guest-list only participation.
  • People: Think tanks are made up of people. Think tanks could be more transparent about the roles different individuals play from the board all the way to junior researchers and communicators. Knowing who they are, their backgrounds, their affiliations, etc. could also be seen as sign of transparency. Should it be possible to reach them, too? Few think tanks make it easy to reach out to the authors of reports or their reviewers.
  • Ideology: There was a consensus at the #TTIX2015 (and I think this is a significant improvement from the #TTIX2012) that think tanks are political actors and that ideology cannot be left out of the equation. But few think tanks are clear about this and instead try (very hard) to present themselves as entirely ideology neutral. Shouldn’t they outline, from the outset, what they believe in? Do they believe in a big state? Market forces? If there are internal debates on more specific issues, could they not share those with their audiences, then?
  • Practices and policies (including transparency policy): Think tanks could also be clearer about their own practices and policies. There was a case recently of a very popular think tank whose union threatened it with closure unless a number of practices that were affecting staff wellbeing were changed. Are think tanks careful of their treatment of women? Are they inclusive of all political, economic, social groups? And what about their transparency policy? If they do not report all their funders in detail, do they explain why?
  • Internal versus external: Finally, we should not forget that transparent could (and should) very well start at home. If think tanks appear opaque to the outside world then the chances are that they are even worse inside. How many think tank directors meet their staff at least once a month to update them on how the organisation is doing or plans that are being developed for the future? How many senior management teams follow up their meetings with one to one discussions with their own teams to communicate any decisions made? How many have intranets that would allow anyone in the organisation to find out more about the work others are doing? Are decisions on accepting money from controversial made by a small group of leaders or is this something that all researchers could have a say in.

It may be worth noting, as Sonja Stojanovic reminded me on a comment to this blog post, transparency is not the same as accountability. But it is a good step in the right direction.

What can think tanks do about it?

This, of course, depends on 1) the reasons they have for being or not being transparent and 2) the definition of transparency we use -because this will have a big effect on, 3) their capacity to be transparent.

Reason Narrow ($) Holistic
Privacy  They could seek to include, among their funders, those who do not want to remain private.They could also attempt to explain this argument more clearly in their own sites and reports. They could make a greater effort on the other categories.
Security  They could consider transparency as a tactic to avoid attacks based on their funding sources -if it is all public then they have nothing to hide. But they could choose to limit information that could put individual researchers at risk. Explaining their board make up, their own work, the researchers’ backgrounds, publishing data, etc. they could draw attention away from financial transparency.
Capacity  Improvements in communication would go a long way  Improvements in communication would go a long way
Credibility Establish and publish clear policies or rules related to how much they can accept from certain funders (or sectors), or publish the Terms of Reference of the contracts to show that the think tank retains its right to publish, etc. All of the above

In any case, one thing that think tanks can do is to start a conversation about these issues. This is the best way for them to take the initiative and own the reforms that will be expected of many of them. So, to focus on:

  • They have to think of transparency as an ongoing process and not just something to do at the end of the year in the annual report.
  • They need to consider all these elements of transparency, not just financial.
  • And what is clear is that think tanks should attempt to communicate the “About US” with the same effort that they communicate their research (although in some cases there is still a long way to go on this … so maybe their current levels of comms should not be considered as an adequate standard).  This better communication of transparency also means explaining their policies and practices on transparency better.

What can funders do about it?

Funders can help along. International development funders are under pressure to be transparent themselves. This may translate into pressure on their grantees to do the same.

  • To begin with, though they could support those who are willing to be transparent by providing them with the technical support necessary: a better website could go a very long way.
  • They could also establish minimum standards for their grantees. There should be no shame in doing this. This is not an interventionist attitude. After all, many think tank funders are public or multilateral agencies bound to be transparent themselves. These standards should of course consider the whole spectrum of transparency elements. And they could balance each other out.
  • Support a conversation among their grantees and other think tanks. Encourage them to take the lead in the debate and to be at its forefront or they will be surpassed by the public’s own growing demand that public policy (and politics) are more open and accountable.

The group’s ideas can be summarised in this slide, which we can call “The Istanbul Principles of Think Tank Transparency”:

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