Think tanks and transparency: the new expectation

27 April 2016
SERIES Think tanks and transparency

Although there is sympathy for think tanks’ concerns and implications on revealing their funding sources (and how the funds are being allocated), the overall feeling is that transparency is an important principle to uphold. People want to know how funds are being spent and where they are coming from. Is this just general nosiness and lack of trust on the objectivity of think tanks’ research activities? There is some of that, but mostly, transparency is just good practice. Transparency allows the public, donors, fellow think tanks and critics to see for themselves that funding is legitimate, comes from sources that are not trying to push their own agenda, and that a research organisation objectively stands by their principles, regardless of any foundation ties. This might raise new doubt, but in the long term an organisation will benefit from this honesty, and the public will have a better grasp on what value to attribute certain research.

It is difficult to find yourself (and your hard work) at the mercy of others’ judgements, but with the work of initiatives like Transparify, not being transparent about funds is already casting a conflicting light on the work of many think tanks. If you are doing everything the right way, then why not be open about it? Is it because there is not a strict code of ethics when it comes to transparency in the think tank community?

There are understandable reasons to be less-than-transparent about funding- security for one. However, a threat to security by fund disclosure applies to some countries in the world only. When countries like Spain, France, the U.K. and the ever-so-friendly Australia are opaque about their finances, the security argument loses some of its ground. Donors’ privacy? Sure, this is valid. But if all your funding comes from donors that want to stay out of the light, then you might want to think about diversifying. In the very very far-fetched scenario where this is true, you can try to compensate by being transparent in other ways- you can be very open about your research methodologies or your team’s qualifications for instance. Honestly though, as much as this will give an indication of your willingness to be scrutinized in all areas except finances, people will still want to know something about who is financing your work. As Orazio Bellettini argues:

Why do we need a global standard for think tank transparency? Firstly, because it provides a global framework, against which think tanks that intend to improve the transparency of different aspects of the organisation, can assess themselves: their own codes, practices, and progress.

According to Transparify, five key elements make up the importance of transparency for non-profit organisations:

  • Non-profits are key actors in democratic societies
  • Non-profits enjoy tax-free status -which is a kind of public subsidy
  • Transparency builds credibility with donors, clients, policy-makers and other stakeholders
  • The sector as a whole is huge, e.g. in the United States it accounts for over 8% of GDP
  • Voluntary transparency is the best way to dissuade burdensome external regulation

Transparency encompasses more than financial clarity. There is a call for transparency in a range of topics, including: research, people, ideology, practices and policies and internal vs. external. Although the main focus seems to be funding, it is important to keep an eye on the other concepts think tanks should embrace. All in all, as you will find through the articles, opinion pieces, resources and interviews from collaborators in this series, having as much information as possible about what stands behind your work builds your legitimacy and improves your image towards your stakeholders.

Transparency is a two-way street, and as much as we want clarity from each think tank on their funding, donors should also make efforts to disclose what they are funding and through whom.

The series starts off with Till Bruckner’s post: Transparify: Donors Need to Reveal their Funding to Think Tanks Abroad. He writes:

Donors wishing to improve the quality and integrity of policy-making inside developing countries should do two things. First, donors themselves should disclose which think tanks they fund, with how much, and for what work. Second, they should require think tanks to be fully transparent about all the funding they receive before even considering their applications for grants. Financial transparency is not a panacea, but it is an important step on the road to making policies work better for the poor.

The emergence of think tanks funded by Western donors in the development world creates an urgency to push for transparency as part of think tanks’ agendas. There is growing concern that unquestioned funding for think tanks in emerging democracies and/or developing countries, does not allow for unbiased research and policy activities, undermining socio-economic development and  democratic processes. In essence- funding to foreign think tanks is seen as pushing their own [western] agendas, rather that giving emerging economies the opportunity to enjoy an active and pluralistic think tank environment.

Till’s post on think tanks in Georgia lobbying for foreign powers, mostly because of funders’ control, is a great example of why transparency is important. If we know who is funding what, disclosed by both organizations and by donors, then we can easily identify if there are hidden agendas. Unfortunately, such seems to be the case for think tanks in Georgia, where their donors’ policy agendas prevail, hence becoming more lobbyists for American interests than independent thinkers offering ideas for both sides of the debate.

On the negative side, I have witnessed how, over time, think tanks in Georgia have narrowed the field for democratic debate. There’s something impoverished about a political landscape in which every single think tank paper seems to be pro-Western, pro-NATO, pro-E.U., pro-market, and even pro-gay rights (…)

Tomás Garzón De La Roza and Vanesa Wyrauch’s post, “What Does a Successful Funding Model Look Like?”, is very relevant to this series because it helps us see where transparency fits in within an effective funding model. According to them, financial success for think tanks has five main components: reliability, diversification, acceptable conditions, independence and transparency.

On the same vein is Leandro Echt’s post on business models among Indonesian think tanks. His post focuses mostly on funding models, gathering perceptions from think tanks in several countries, and the trials and tribulations they undergo to secure funding. These reflect shared experiences from think tanks across the world. He includes comments from conversations with think tanks that speak about the hesitations to being transparent or disclosing a “key recipe” in a highly competitive field, as well as rules and parameters for funding put in place by some organisations to maintain their independence and objectivity.

Think tanks everywhere struggle with being transparent, and there are some that have raised special concern. In his post “European Political Party Think Tanks: Dark Money Alert from Spain”, Till Bruckner picks up on the results from a study conducted by El Observatorio de Think Tanks in Spain, which reveals that thinks tanks tied to political parties in Spain lack financial transparency.

The research group, warns that the combination between opaque financial management and weak regulatory oversight creates a situation in which parties’ nonprofit research arms could be used to clandestinely fund political parties through the back door.

Spain is not the only country where think tanks generally suffer the “not-transparent-at-all” label. In an earlier post from October 2015, Australian Think Tanks had been identified as the least transparent in the world, according to Transparify’s rating. And a few months earlier, Till posted a reflection on a compilation of publications on think tank funding and transparency that suggested French think tanks are less transparent than their peers in the European Union. In late 2014, UK think tanks were rated as highly opaque in terms of funding transparency. However, in October 2015, a group of think tanks stated their intention to add information on their foundation sources.

At least nine major British think tanks will disclose who funds their research and advocacy over the coming month, marking a systemic shift towards greater financial transparency across the entire UK policy research scene that mirrors a similar, ongoing seismic shift in the United States and beyond.

If ratings are your thing, then you must check out Transparify’s reports. It’s great to see that the list of most transparent think tanks includes organizations from all over the world.

There are many references to Transparify in this series, so you probably want to explore their site. Transparify provides the first-ever global rating of the financial transparency of major think tanks. See how think tanks fair across the world, and learn more on the importance of transparency on think tanks. Enrique Mendizabal uses their indicators to rate 5 different groups on their transparency efforts. Read about his experience with the ratings, along with thoughts on the initiative and reactions from other think tanks.

Like Transparify incentivizes research organizations to publish their data to get better transparency scores,  the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), provides an open, electronic format in which data can be used, re-purposed or combined with other datasets to meet many different individual needs. Guest blogger Andrea Davis writes about the benefits of publishing data to IATI standard and the current trend from development organizations (and donors) to embrace transparency as part of their operational systems. Donors’ commitments to publicizing what development projects they are funding and through whom those funds are being channelled will most likely influcence the disclosure of think tank financing as well.

Hans Gutbrod gathers a compilation of perspectives from think tanks themselves on the importance of transparency.  

One common theme across many of these contributions is that transparency is part of research excellence – it communicates confidence in the integrity of one’s findings. In that way, transparency contributes to an open and constructive debate.

It is increasingly agreed that think tanks have an impact on public policies and democratic institutions. Orazio Bellettini, in his post Towards a Global Agenda on Think Tanks Transparency, argues that the challenges faced in think tanks with regards to transparency limits their capacity to fulfill their roles. In the Think Tank Initiative Exchange in Istanbul in February 2015, which gathered over 50 think tanks and  donors, a working group generated the “Istanbul Principles on Think Tanks Transparency”. This post highlights challenges think tanks face in pursuing ongoing transparency, as well as plausible solutions to overcome these. One of the most interesting points he makes is that transparency is not just about the finances of an institution, but should be applied to “the quality control protocols of the research conducted, the values and principles of the organization, and the governance arrangements and policies by which they make strategic decisions.”

Enrique Mendizabal also writes about his experience in the Think Tank Initiative Exchange in 2015 and the discussion on transparency. He summarizes the views of participants on why think tanks might not be able to be too transparent: freedom, security, capacity and credibility. He also explains the reasons for transparency into three broad categories: transparency as an ends in itself, transparency as a private means and transparency as a public means. Building on Bellettini’s thoughts on transparency referring to more than finances, Enrique provides descriptions for the different scopes of transparency: research, people, ideology, practices and policies and internal vs. external.

For an alternative view on transparency Enrique Mendizabal plays devil’s advocate in his article Is Too Much Transparency a bit of Problem? He addresses the (very valid) reasons why think tanks around the world might be hesitant to be 100% transparent- security, privacy, etc. When it comes to transparency and think tanks, even if it is generally agreed that it is just good research practice, there are some grey and fuzzy areas, and we can be sympathetic to the argument that the demand for think tanks to be transparent might actually be counterproductive, especially in environments where security and personal safety are at stake.

Think tanks are influential institutions. Several of the most prestigious think tanks base their credibility on the rigurosity of their research and their independence from interest groups. Orazio Bellettini raises the question- transparency for think tanks: the latest fashion or an urgent reform? His article reacts to the debate around the New York Times’ 2014 article questioning the independence of the research conducted at U.S. think tanks financed by foreign funds.

Many of the contributors to think tanks have, as is reasonable to expect, certain value-based preferences, political views and interests. And think tanks, by not making their funding sources public, provide arguments for those who distrust of the independence and credibility of their research.

Goran Buldioski, like most of the authors in this series, advocates for transparency in policy research. In his article Transparency Should Strive to Impartiality in Policy Research, he illustrates possible scenarios where think tanks would benefit from being transparent about their intentions, backgrounds, and funding partners, and in the long-term avoid ill-intended rumors. Goran makes another great point: if think tanks have expectations for a transparent code of conduct from the state, then they must be willing to abide by the same expectations as well.

There are many ways to show the scopes of transparency, including funding. Check out this post for easy and accessible tools to help you embrace transparency.

On his reflections from the Think Tank Initiative Exchange, Enrique Mendizabal writes:

For some, transparency is a principle. A think tank must be transparent  because it is a good thing, not because it serves other purposes -even if it does. And it should be transparent even if it may backfire. The point made here is that if think tanks, who are political actors, are supposed to be trying to improve policy (including the way policy is done) then they should lead by example.

And this is exactly it- much of the policies think tanks advocate for imply increased transparency. Embracing the concept they advocate for would give think tanks more weight to their arguments; you know, “monkey see, monkey do.” If you need inspiration, look at Grupo FARO’s efforts at being more transparent, along with CDG’s transparency policy. There are arguments for keeping some information from the public eye, and while we agree with some of these, transparency is still the preferred road. There is a conscientious effort by think tanks around the world to become more transparent, but there is still work to be done. The work of initiatives like Transparify are a step in the right direction- by applying pressure to organisations, they are getting reactions. Ahead is still a long and rocky path, especially with the boom of think tanks in developing countries, which are mostly funded by foreign donors. This is why transparency efforts should be a synergy from both think tanks and donors. After all, if there is nothing to hide, why not let us see your books? As Neeta Krishna said:

Institutions that are transparent hold their activities and methods open to scrutiny and questioning, and thereby provide a more inclusive basis for change and improvement.