Think tank accountability: are they really just hired guns or is it slightly more complicated than that?

10 September 2014

I was recently interviewed about think tanks (undue) influence (e.g. when they are being used or behaving as lobbies). There was a story a few weeks ago about a think tank in the US being sued. In this case, climatologist and geophysicist Michael Mann sued the Competitive Enterprise Institute accusing it of libel.

Other think tanks have joined in urging the court to “stay out of the business of refereeing scientific debates.” Somehow, think tanks are becoming the target of a growing strand of criticism. Everything from claims that they are nothing more than glorified lobbies, proxy political parties, to much worse.

Hired guns

More recently, the New York Times has published an article on think tanks’ apparent lobbying on behalf of foreign agents. The article argues that think tanks in the US are receiving money from foreign powers in exchange for advocating their funders’ agendas in Washington. They have followed this article with a great visualisation of foreign governments’ contributions to nine think tanks.

Among those accused of this practice are the Center for Global Development (read the response from CGD), the Brookings Institution (read the response from Brookings), the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Atlantic Council.

This accusation is not new. In the UK think tanks have been accused of lobbing on behalf of their political and financial masters.

Now, what is the big deal with this? My first reaction was: “er… yes, what do they think that think tanks do?” Think tanks are all about influence. They are not, as much as they pretend to be, neutral ivory towers that undertake entirely value-free research and offer value-free advice.

The NYT’s article quotes:

Joseph Sandler, a lawyer and expert on the statute that governs Americans lobbying for foreign governments, said the arrangements between the countries and think tanks “opened a whole new window into an aspect of the influence-buying in Washington that has not previously been exposed.”

“It is particularly egregious because with a law firm or lobbying firm, you expect them to be an advocate,” Mr. Sandler added. “Think tanks have this patina of academic neutrality and objectivity, and that is being compromised.”

I think this is the key issue: “Think tanks have this patina of academic neutrality and objectivity, and that is being compromised.”They problem isn’t so much why they do but that they do it while pretending not to.

Think tanks position themselves within the political space appealing to their credibility and independence. They cannot claim to represent any particular group of citizens and therefore appeal to their technocratic credentials: “listen to us because we speak the truth”, they could be saying.

This is their golden ticket to the White House or to Houses of Parliament. They take advantage of it, too. They organise high level meeting that bring together political and corporate leaders who would have found it significantly harder to meet on their own. They sometimes offer access to entire political systems that are otherwise closed to outsiders, as in the case of Chinese think tanks and their relationship with Western think tanks.

For the most part, think tanks use the perception of credibility rather than real credibility. Few people can (certainly few policymakers could ever dream of it) check all the data sources that think tanks use, go over their theories and hypothesis, double-check the soundness of their analyses, and peer review their recommendations. Instead, they rely on observable proxys: anything from number of invitations to congressional hearings, number of publications, mentions in the media, rankings, awards, even Google rankings.

Think tanks help their case by presenting themselves as neutral academics. The choice of the names of their publications series (e.g. working papers, research reports, etc.) is not accidental. Neither is the choice of names for their researchers’ job posts (e.g. research fellows).

In a context in which all other participants of the political space (i.e. politicians, parties, the media, lobbies, corporations) are perceived as corrupt, opaque, untrustworthy, etc. people desperately want to believe that there is something, or someone, who can offer an honest opinion. Think tanks exploit this desire.

Some think tanks have been particularly good at matching perception to reality. According to Transparify, both Brookings (4 stars) and CGD (5 stars) stand out as two of the most transparent think tanks. But this may not be enough.

In a world in which trust of all political institutions is falling, think tanks cannot expect to be left out from scrutiny. If anything, they are expected to be white than white.

This is difficult to achieve in part because it is against think tank’s DNA to be neutral. From their foundation to their day to day dealings, think tanks have serve somebody -and somebody’s interests. This may be a funder or funders, it may be the interests of the community they belong to, it may be interests and objectives of their leaders or researchers.

And because they deal with politics (they are, after all, making recommendations about the allocation of resources and assumptions about the interpretation of justice) they are subject to the interests of others. And just like any other political player they are fair game: open to scrutiny and much less capable of defending themselves.

In Canada a new case has shed light onto an issue that could concern many think tanks is a lot less friendly contexts: should think tanks be allowed to advocate and pursue a particular point of view or policy objective?

According to Canada’s High Court, the answers is No!

[In 1999] The high court “ruled that so long as useful information or training was provided in a structured manner and for a genuine educational purpose – that is to advance the knowledge or abilities of the recipients – and not solely to promote a particular point of view or political orientation it might properly be regarded as for the advancement of education,” he said.

As a consequence, several charities (including think tanks) have been investigated for being ideologically biased or engaging in activities deemed as political (e.g. protesting against government policy).

They way I see it, if political parties or interest groups use think tanks to strengthen or add credibility to their arguments then it should be expected that their opponents will try to discredit these think tanks. Discredited, their arguments, however sound and robust, will soon follow the same fate.

In the United States, recent attention has turned to funding from foreign powers used to advocate for policy changes. David Roodman, former CGD researcher, has offered an excellent and candid response:

Every funder has motives. Every funder of a policy-influencing think tank can therefore be described as “buying influence.”

Domestic or foreign, nobody hands over money to think tanks without wanting anything in return. They may want to influence certain policy decisions or they may just want to see their name outside an office in the think tank’s new building. They all want something.

Not ‘who’, but ‘how’

What matters isn’t so much who funds but how they fund. The NYT’s article questions the foreign sources of the funding but focuses on their allegedly prescriptive nature.

Would they have been concerned if the Norwegian Government, in the first example, provided a no-strings-attached (“for whatever you want”) grant to CGD yet CGD used those funds to influence the US government’s aid policy?

They could if they thought that foreign funding of think tanks was unacceptable. But if they did then the real story is in USAID, who funds think tanks in developing countries on a regular basis and demands far greater conditions from them. This kind of relationship is common in the Aid Industry where governments routinely contract think tanks (and others) to influence developing country governments on a range of policy issues. And this concerns their political classes too: Indian’s intellectuals are not too keen on foreign funding of think tanks.

I think that the problem, what the NYT thought was worth reporting on, is that there are signs that the funder conditioned the funding in a way that seemed to suggest that public policy, if the think tanks were in fact influential, would have been dictated from abroad. It would be easy to pass a quick judgement. I’ve seen my fair share of contracts between funders and think tanks and I would be hard-pressed to find a few in which the think tank had explicit liberty to do what it pleased with the funds. Even institutional funding presupposes some commitments from the grantees.

What is necessary is a bit of history. We need to find out whether the think tank developed its own projects and then sought out the best funders for its objectives; or whether the funder developed its own projects and then south out the best think tanks for its objectives.

It can be quite hard to find out who came up with the idea. As I have reported before, funders do not tend to have think tank-specific contracts. Instead, they use the same contracts for consultancies, think tanks and NGOs.

In certain developing countries agendas are set abroad. Foreign funders’ budgets are far greater than the capacity of local think tanks. This kind of funding deal is also quite advantageous for think tanks. Since the ideas come from their funders they cannot be held fully responsible for unfortunate outcomes. And both, funder and think tank, can pretend that all is well by signing a new contract.

Pursuing one’s own ideas can be much riskier and few think tanks do this unless they have to. Invariably, researchers who tend to get involved in politics by pursuing their own agendas are never far from being accused of partisanship, vested interests, even incompetence, if their findings challenge the status quo or those in power.

case study from CIPPEC in Argentina on the think tank’s involvement in electoral reform provides an excellent illustration of the risk involved.

Looking back is not enough. What happens to the research produced by the think tank is equally important. Are funders the kind that let the think tanks do all the research and influence, or are they the kind that then use the findings to advance their own policies and interests. Many think tanks in developing countries are funded through consultancy contracts (often directly from donor governments, but increasingly from intermediaries in the private sector or large civil society organisations). These contracts allow the funders to use the research produced in any way they want. More than once I’ve had the chance to work in a study for DFID that was used to support a decision already made. This is common practice.

This is all more important than who funds think tanks. Did the Norwegians use the research produced by CGD in ways that CGD would not have approved of? The NYT’s article and visualisation has a list of countries that we would normally associate with somewhat questionable interests. Well, what was their intention in funding American think tanks? Was it to award credibility to their otherwise baseless arguments? To gain undue access? And, more importantly, did they?

Think tanks that do take control of their agendas tend to stand out. For once, they are far more transparent than their peers.  Transparency makes them less likely to become hired guns, engage in straight forward consultancy, and be concerned about disclosing their sources (and motives) of funding.

Transparify started something interesting this year.  It set a bar above which all think tanks should be able to operate. But we could go further. Rather than pretend that think tanks are somehow free from the shortcomings of other political agents, they should try to overcome them with greater devotion. They could start by disclosing more than the source of their money.

The media, too, should pay greater attention to the way they use think tanks. It is quite rich to use them as neutral sources of information and advice one day and then challenge them from pretending to be free from influence the next day.

We need to accept that think tanks want to influence and that they need money to do so. We need to accept, too, that funders are not selfless, they want something for their money.