Think Tanks transparency: a new opportunity thanks to Transparify

12 May 2014
SERIES Think tanks and transparency

Transparify published its first report in 2014. It is a great first effort to rate the transparency of think tanks around the world. I am sure that it will improve as the years go by and will become an invaluable resource for think tanks, funders, supporters, and their users.

There are great examples of transparency policies among the think tanks reviewed so I recommend that you check it out.

So far I have rated:

CGD is a good example of this: CGD’s Decision to Walk the Transparency Walk and a good argument for transparency:

Of course, the argument should not be hard to make. Orazio Belettinni, Director of Grupo FARO in Ecuador (and another of the top rated think tanks in the Transparify study) argues that transparency is important because:

  • In certain political contexts, transpency it protects think tanks from being accused of having hidden agendas -they may be accused by the government, opposition, other think tanks, etc.; and
  • It makes it possible to assess the origin of funds (domestic or foreign) y help build a case for more domestic fusing for public policy research.

Inevitably for a first attempt, the current list of think tanks isn’t just quite ‘representative’ of any particular group -with the exception, maybe, of the Top US and UK think tanks. (This is the problem with using the UPENN ranking -well, one of the problems.) It is not yet possible to talk about how transparent Latin American think tanks are compared to African ones, for instance. Neither should a Latin American or African think tank in the current list claim to be ‘the most transparent’ in their region. They are just the most transparent of those that were assessed. They may be others and Transparify is doing a great job at encouraging them to make themselves noticed.

So what about think tanks that we could group together and that could find this type of comparison relevant and useful? One option is to look at a representative pool for think tanks from a region. This would necessarily demand a much larger number of think tanks per country. But even then, think tanks are inherently political and domestic. They take their ‘transparency culture’ from their own societies. So is it really fair to compare Peru with Malawi or Indonesia or the US -like for like? They all face different polities.

National ratings may be better but in some countries there aren’t that many or it may not be possible find them all. Still, this is something that can be done.

A good (and easier) option to try to compare think tanks (in the absence of a regional representative group) is to look at think tanks funded by a single funder. E.g. the Think Tank Initiative, the Think Tanks Fund, the Knowledge Sector Initiative, various DFID initiatives, etc. The argument goes: if one of the grantees is highly transparent why aren’t the others? There may be perfectly logical explanation for the differences but at least, by asking this question, we will be able to find out.

It is also important, of course, that a funder (particularly public ones) are likely to demand transiency from their grantees already. So this is a good way of verifying if this is the case.

I decided to start with the Think Tank Initiative and undertake a “Transparify-style” review. The TTI has an easy to find list of think tanks. It also provides cases from 3 different regions (4 if you divide Africa in Anglo and Francophone countries) and constitutes a ‘distinct’ group of think tanks that could very well compare themselves after 4 years in the same programme -by region and globally.

Transparify offers a pretty straight forward method to rate their transparency. It is a common sense approach. As a reminder, Transparify rates think tanks’ transparency using the following system:

What does the 5 star rating system tell us about a think tank? Transparify visits think tanks’ websites and awards up to 5 stars. Think tanks that score 5 stars are highly transparent about their funding. Think tanks that score 0 stars provide no up-to-date information on where they get their money from.

5-star: highly transparent — Think tanks that score the maximum possible 5 stars enable fellow researchers, journalists, policy makers and citizens to see clearly and in detail who funds them, how much each donor contributed, and what projects or activities (if any) that money went towards. Only a minority of think tanks we have surveyed so far reach this high standard.

4-star: largely transparent — Think tanks that score 4 stars are largely transparent, but the information they provide is less detailed or comprehensible. Outside stakeholders can infer who their main donors are.

1, 2 and 3-star: incomplete funding data — 1-3 stars mean that a think tank only provides some data. For example, a 3-star think tank may list some donors and disclose the approximate scale of their contributions, but keep contribution levels of other donors obscure.

0-star: no funding information — 0-star think tanks do not provide any up-to-date information on where they get their money from.

Because I do not have the man-power or time that the Transparify team has I have ‘reworked’ this scale in the following, slightly more straight forward and idiot-proof, way:

  • 5-star*: the most transparent: 2 clicks or less from the front page to find who funds the think tank, how much, and for what. Also, the think tank discloses information about the nature of the funding their receive -that is: is it a project-based contract? a grant? And, it provides information about their most senior staff salaries.
  • 5-star: highly transparent: 2 clicks or less from the front page to find who funds the think tank, how much, and for what. Some information about the nature of funding is offered, too.
  • 4-star: average transparent: the information is there but harder to find -.i.e. more that two clicks away or it has to be ‘put together’. As if the think tank was not too keen on it being found  or that there is an intention to do better but don’t make it just yet.
  • 1, 2, and 3-star: incomplete funding information: this includes not providing detail about who funds them, or not putting it into a single table or easy to read page.
  • 0-star: no (zero, nada) funding information: this is not good.

I should also stress that I have assumed that it is not hard to share funding information. So that if the information is not readily available this must be because the think tank either does not want to share it or it does not think it is important to do so. I have also allowed some personal bias to creep in: if a think tanks focused on transparency (e.g. of government budgets) or actively asks for funding on its website, I would expect it to be extra transparent.

I have also allowed for some mistakes in my judgement and I am happy to be corrected. Therefore I have presented a ‘range’ in some cases. Also, aware of this possible negative bias, I have judged that some think tanks are trying to share more information but are hampered by technical skills (or the absence of them, rather). This isn’t an exact science.

Finally, I have offered an explanation for each rating and in some cases some advice on how to improve it.

I expect that in the future Transparify will set the standards on transparency. From its global vantage point it will be able to global minimum standards, always raising the bar as new innovations come to the fore and verifying the transparency claims of individual or groups of think tanks.

The On Think Tank ratings

So far I have rated:

Remember, for a systematic approach to transparency and the global report please visit Transparify.