“Highly Opaque” or “Highly Transparent”: if you want credibility, you should aim for the latter

31 July 2016
SERIES Think tanks and transparency

On June 29th, Transparify put out their 2016 think tank transparency report, detailing the levels of financial disclosure of 200 think tanks located in 47 countries worldwide. All in all, there has been significant levels of transparency in the think tanks evaluated, compared to previous years: more than 60 of the 200 think tanks are now highly transparent. To see the results, download the 2016 report.

Transparency is one of the main issues discussed at On Think Tanks and, in light of Transparify’s new report, we have published a new set of articles on the topic.

In the run up to the report, Keith Burnet, Chatham House’s Director of Communications and Publishing, wrote The road to transparency is not entirely straightforward: the Chatham House experience. Keith discusses the importance of not engaging in a quid pro quo relationship with their financial backers. This, he says, is essential to their independence and credibility. However, a much good-will as there has always been for greater transparency within the institute, it’s not always an easy endeavour, particularly given the size of the organisation and the scope of their work. “In the end, our method includes an overarching rule that recognises funding as it is spent and accounted for rather than as it is received.”

In The Value of Transparency in 21st Century Think Tanks: the Stimson Center approach, Brian Finlay, President and CEO of the Stimson Center, writes about the context in which think tanks emerged in the United States: “Think Tanks were more than just a business. They were born in an era of public service and were dedicated to the betterment of society as a whole.” Their place in today’s development of public policy, though, has raised some skepticism about their impartiality, “As a think tank, it is clear that progress — measured by the impact of our ideas and actions— is only possible through trust. Transparency, particularly financial transparency, is vital to ensure public trust that institutions ‘practice what they preach,’ and live up to the highest standards of integrity and independence in their work.”

In, Assefa Admassie, Principal Research Fellow at the Ethiopian Economic Association, Open Policy Research’s founder, Jaime Gonzalez-Capitel, interviews Assefa Admassie, the Executive Director of the Ethiopian Economic Association and Ethiopian Economic Policy Research Institute (EEA/EEPRI), which has made one of the largest improvements in financial disclosure of any think tank worldwide this year. In the interview, Assefa shares information about the institute, their work, and their funding model. As to their approach to greater transparency, Assefa says, “EEA strongly believes that it should have prudent financial management systems. We have an external audit every 6 months, not just annually. So every December and every June we make sure the rest of the world can know we’re not hiding anything.” In Transparify’s 2014 rating, the organisation had only earned one star- a disappointment to them. Although they had never intended to be opaque about their finances, they had not published them. This changed for the 2016 report, when they obtained 5 stars and the status of “highly transparent.”

CEDOS, a Ukranian think tank, also scored highly on Transparify’s report. CEDOS works under the believe that in the age of information only information about processes and rules and the active participation of citizens can bring about change. As for leading by example, Yrina Shevchenko, Communications director at CEDOS, writes– “we cannot demand transparency and accountability from institutions and government without being transparent and accountable ourselves.”

Regarding current events, Tom Jeffery writes UK think tanks are transparent, but they need to show leadership during Brexit. In this post, Tom frames the importance of transparency in light of the UK’s recent decision to leave the EU. To avoid their alliances being questioned, think tanks must be able to proof that they remain independent and do not act as lobbyist for their funding partners. He quotes Dr Hans Gutbrod, Transparify’s Executive Director: “Transparency is a core democratic value. Taking money from hidden hands behind closed doors raises concerns about possible stealth lobbying, and is simply not acceptable in a modern democracy.”

As to the urgency of transparency today, Steve Goodrich, Transparency International UK’s Senior Researcher Officer, comments on the role of think tanks in today’s society and the responsibility that is attached to them. For this, he argues “[think tanks’] impartiality and expertise gives them an authority – entrusted soft power, if you will – that can be abused to favour private interests. Therefore, as with all parts of our democracy from government to business, think tanks need to be open and transparent about whose interests they are representing.”

As for reasons to embrace transparency, Assefa says:  “Organizations that want to be credible and faithful to their cause, they need to be transparent. Transparency is one of the elements, one of the variables in the equation. In order to build  trust among stakeholders, to create a proper and credible institutional image, think tanks should take transparency and accountability very seriously.”