Is too much transparency a bit of a problem?

24 September 2014
SERIES Think tanks and transparency

Time to play devil’s advocate. Till Bruckner has published an excellent article in the Huffington Post on the latest on the foreign influence scandal. Like Till and Hans Gutbrod at Transparify I believe in greater transparency. But reading Till’s article, and then glancing through the pages of a national newspaper in Peru as I was waiting to catch a plane I began to wonder if there was such a thing as too much transparency.

There are a number of arguments to keep things on the hush-hush side of things.

There is the security argument. In many countries, it may be dangerous for researchers to acknowledge that they have been funded by certain foreign governments or even domestic sources. I do not mean dangerous as in the NYT’s article where the researchers or think tanks may find themselves the subject of unwanted attention for a few days; I men dangerous as in that they may be physically at risk.

In some countries politics are quite ruthless and so anyone involved is likely to be affected. But surely we’d like to make sure that researchers do not shy away from the very important task of informing politics.

There is also a privacy argument. Think tanks are, often, private organisations and their funders have the right to support them privately. How different is a think tank from a regular charity that goes around providing health care or free education? We would not demand to know who funds a charity that gives way free contraception to vulnerable women but do seem to care about who funds the think tank that advocates in favour of policy for free contraception. Yes, the think tank is influencing policy in a more direct way and it is therefore getting involved in politics. But the charity is also affecting policy albeit indirectly (it is correcting, bypassing, policy) and could even have a more important and transformative effect than the think tank through its hands-on and piloting approach.

Then there is a more pragmatic survivalist argument: we need all (within certain limits) the help we can get. Across the developing world there are not enough domestic funds for think tanks. And where funds re available they are unlikely to play along with think tank needs. They will always be demands on the grantees (however free the grants appear to be).

So think tanks are, basically, doing whatever they can to do what they (and we) consider to be an important contribution to their societies. Instead of demanding greater transparency or that we give back any moneys that do not meet some great standard, think tanks argue, we should trust that they are able to build a wall between the interests of their funders and the interests of society (or their own interests, in any case).

And then, there is the argument I thought of when reading Till’s article and glancing through the pages of the Peruvian daily: Who is free from sinThere has been a recent case in Peru involving a highly respected academic and technocrat who has been found to have helped a lobbyist gain access to officials in the ministry he is heading. It is impossible to imagine that this is an isolated case.

Think tanks are political, they have to be close to politics. They employ former policymakers and politicians, they rely on funding from people and organisations that want to influence politics, they host events and meetings to bring multiple political stakeholders together, etc.  It would be impossible to think that any think tank, anywhere in the world, would be able to operate with staff with no links to any interest groups, current or former political operators among their staff or board members, or funds from interested parties (interested in more than one way).

Judging the think tank (or the researcher) by its connections (current or past) is a way like judging someone’s arguments by who they are. This is can argumentum ad hominem. In the case of think tanks we add, just for safe measure, a bit of extra guilt by association, too.

Of course, we (the readers of this post) are above all this: we can (I say sarcastically) hold back on what we think about politicians and experts (including our peers) and focus only on the arguments they are trying to make… well, we don’t. And neither does the general public.

So imagine what would happen if all think tanks’ cards were laid down on the table for all to see. Would there be any one left to trust? Would there be anyone capable of providing independent technical advice? Would would answers policymakers’ questions? Who would be there to explain co,pled policy issues to journalists? Who could we turn to when the government comes up with a bogus statistic?

The problem with politics in Peru (and I think, in many developing countries) is that we know so much dirt about our politicians and technocrats (this is all that the peruvian media reports on, unfortunately) that it is almost impossible to trust them. Or, at least, to appear to trust them.

However, maybe what would happen is that we’d get used to this nuance. We would learn to understand that ideas do not happen in a political/ideology/interest vacuum and appreciate that these connections, current and past, need to be qualified. For one, I think that many think tanks would actually save time and money if they give up trying to present the image of squeaky-clean bright minds and relaxed a bit, letting us see them for what they are: flawed but potentially brilliant.