[This interview was conducted by Marta Guasp Teschendorff of the Observatorio de los Think Tanks (Spanish Think Tank Observatory) and originally published on the Observatorio’s website in Spanish language. Some minor updates have been made to the original interview.]
As a warm-up to the second rating of think tanks in Spain by Observatorio de Think Tanks, Till Bruckner answers our questions about the core arguments that structure Transparify’s mission, the financial interpretation of donor transparency, and the global progress towards more open and credible policy research institutes, even in difficult political settings like Pakistan or Ethiopia.
Marta Guasp Teschendorff: In the complex and dynamic world we live in today, what is the relevance of think tanks as actors in the sphere of public policies and debates?
Till Bruckner: Imagine a world without think tanks. The state, state-funded universities and (maybe) political parties would have a virtual monopoly on conducting policy research and advocating for solutions. I don’t think many people would want to live in a polity like that. At their best, think tanks expand and deepen the range of policy options under consideration, and stimulate public discussion of these options. They are a vital component of modern democracies.
MGT: Are think tanks lobbyists for foreign or corporate interests?
TB: The frequent focus on foreign or corporate donors is misplaced. Every funder has interests, including government agencies, trade unions, foundations, and private individuals. The question should be whether think tanks can avoid being misused as lobbyists by their funders – any and all of their funders.
Well-respected major think tanks usually manage to avoid this. Arguably, for them, the personal activities and conflicts of interest of staff and (especially) affiliated scholars present the greatest risk to research integrity, intellectual independence, and institutional reputation.
Some lobbyists seem to have discovered a niche market in setting up “think tanks for hire”. These are not really think tanks, but by abusing the label, they damage public confidence in the whole sector.
MGT: Transparify claims for greater transparency in the think tank community. Why do think tanks have the responsibility to be transparent?
TB: Hidden funding can create the appearance or actuality of hidden agendas, and undermines the credibility of the think tank community as a whole. By being transparent about its funding, a think tank can show that it has nothing to hide, and that it has full confidence in its intellectual independence. Our project assesses how transparent think tanks currently are about their sources of funding, and challenge them to bolster the credibility of their policy advice by publicly disclosing who funds their research.
Also, think tanks strive to influence democratic debates and decision-making. In modern democracies, power comes with the responsibility to be transparent. Citizens expect that.
MGT: What are the specific benefits of transparency for think tanks?
TB: First, they can use transparency to signal their credibility to policy-makers, the media and the wider public. Many think tanks’ websites make reference to their positive Transparify rating; we encourage that. Second, they can use it to distinguish themselves from opaque ‘fake tanks’ that are just lobbying shops in think tank disguise. Third, as noted above, they can demonstrate a commitment to playing by democratic rules.
Finally, and this is rarely discussed, transparency is also an insurance policy against reputational damage. When questions are raised about whether a think tank crossed the line into lobbying for a given donor, secret funding creates a worst case scenario. If you took that donor’s money behind closed doors, whatever happened next will be seen in the worst possible light. Conversely, if you disclosed the financial relationship from the outset, at least nobody can accuse you of pursuing “hidden” agendas.
MGT: Is Transparify’s initiative setting a higher global standard for transparency in the think tank community?
TB: Yes, definitely. Over half of think tanks in the United States and the UK are now transparent. Dozens of others around the world have also disclosed their funding. Transparency has become the norm throughout the sector.
To give an example, only a few years ago, the Atlantic Council initially balked at releasing a list of its foreign donors to a group of Congressmen. Today, the Atlantic Council lists the names of all its major donors – not just the handful of foreign ones – online for everyone to see.
Understandings of what is a “normal” level of disclosure have radically shifted. The trend towards greater transparency in the sector predates Transparify, but we certainly managed to accelerate the pace of change.
MGT: Your framework implies an economic interpretation of transparency. Why? Have you considered rating other aspects such as conflict of interests, academic standards, etc.?
TB: We have consistently argued that financial income transparency is a necessary, but not sufficient, precondition for overall transparency. We considered rating other factors too, but these are often hard to assess and objectively measure. As it is, we have a clear, transparent and readily comprehensible scoring system that measures one very important dimension.
Regarding the other dimensions, we organized a workshop on reputational risk management in London this month where UK think tankers concerned about research integrity could exchange best practices in areas such as conflict of interest policies, internal peer review, etc. You don’t need to quantify and publicly rate everything to make a positive difference. Sometimes, quietly facilitating dialogue between people who share our concerns is the best way forwards.
MGT: If transparency leads to higher credibility, does this also make transparent and thus credible think tanks more influential?
TB: Yes, that is the guiding premise of our work. Why should a politician or civil servant trust policy advice from an organisation that conceals its financial backers? Journalists in particular immediately grasp this argument.
MGT: As there is lack of transparency, can there be too much transparency?
TB: How think tanks disclose their funding on their websites is up to them. We don’t ask anyone to fill out forms or jump through other administrative hoops. If they list all their funders online, plus the exact amount given by each donor and the purpose of each donation, we rate them as 5-star or “highly transparent” – full stop.
Dozens of think tanks have become more financially transparent over the past few years, and virtually all of them have remained more transparent ever since. Clearly, most think tanks don’t consider disclosing their income “too much transparency”. Interestingly, even institutions working in difficult contexts like Pakistan, Nigeria, and Ethiopia have disclosed. They argue that transparency is not a liability, but a protective asset for them.
Whatever else think tanks also wish to disclose is up to them. This is a rapidly evolving field and we’re happy to let think tanks themselves take the lead while we watch and learn. For example, Bruegel asks its staff to disclose potential conflicts of interest, and some think tanks in Britain also have impressive transparency policies and integrity safeguards in place.
MGT: The last rating conducted by the Spanish Observatorio de Think Tanks in 2015 revealed that political think tanks in Spain do not disclose their funding sources. Is this a general trend?
TB: No. On average, think tanks Spain are far less transparent than those in other European countries. Some Spanish political party think tanks still seem to think that it is acceptable to take money from hidden hands behind closed doors. In a democracy, that is simply not acceptable.
MGT: What would you say is to be expected in the future of think tank transparency?
TB: After multiple years of engagement in a country, what we typically see is that a majority of large think tanks disclose their funding in detail, while a small minority dig in their heels and do not even disclose the names of their donors. I hope and believe that five years from now, these opaque think tanks will either also disclose, or else nobody will take them seriously any more. This is a one way road.