Towards a global agenda on think tank transparency

11 March 2015
SERIES Think tanks and transparency

[Editor’s note: This post has been written by Orazio Bellettini, Executive Director of Grupo FARO, Ecuador. It reflects the discussion of a panel at the Think Tank Initiative’s Global Exchange 2015 held in Istanbul. The panel included: Richard Darlington (IPPR, UK), Kwame Owino (IEA Kenya), Carmen Ortíz (ASIES, Guatemala), Andrej Nosko (Think Tank Fund), Sonja Stojanovic (BCSP, Serbia), Goran Buldioski (Think Tank Fund), Chukwuka Onyekwena (CSEA, Nigeria), Shannon Sutton (Think Tank Initiative) and Enrique Mendizabal (On Think Tanks). If you would like to support this effort please sign up at the bottom of the page.]

There is a growing consensus on the importance of think tanks in the quality of public policies and democratic institutions. In some contexts with dictatorships or precarious democratic systems think tanks have played a fundamental role in promoting values ​​of pluralism and generating spaces for the exchanges of ideas, foster collaboration between political tendencies and, in many cases, open the path to more democratic societies. In contexts of consolidated democracies, think tanks have played an important role in feeding public debates with ideas, forming cadres for the civil service, and promoting better policies and more vibrant, pluralistic, and dynamic public deliberation.

Given their level of influence on the manner in which ideas that transform societies are generated and implemented, it is legitimate to expect them to make public their principles and values, research agendas, and funding. However, and although this is still a relatively understudied area, ground breaking initiatives such Transparify reveal that transparency in think tanks still faces significant challenges which may be affecting their capacity to fulfil their roles.

Therefore, in the meeting convened by the Think Tank Initiative in Istanbul last February that brought together more than 50 think tanks in Africa, Asia and Latin America as well as think tanks and donors from Europe and the US, a group of organizations got together in a working group in order to propose a global agenda on think tank transparency.

The Istanbul Principles on Think Tank Transparency

This group generated what we called the Istanbul Principles on Think Tank Transparency outlined below:

  1. Ongoing.- One of the challenges that transparency processes implemented by think tanks face is that they are focused to certain moments in the organisational year. Think tanks usually publish their financial reports annually, once they have been sent to their national tax authorities. Others also publish an annual report summarising the research activities, events and trainings undertaken during the same period.

In societies with citizens who are increasingly demanding permanent access to information, think tanks are being challenged to constantly communicate the resources they manage, the organisational processes they follow, and the results achieved as a consequence of their research and communications work.

There are, for example, organisations that have the policy of publishing the agendas of their Executive Board meetings as a way of publicising the agenda of the highest authority of the institution and thus reducing the potential conflict of interest that may arise from an opaque interaction with certain individuals or organisations.

  1. Holistic.- Despite the importance of the financial dimension, transparency cannot just be about making public the source of funding of think tanks. It is necessary to make other dimensions of a think tank transparent, too. This includes the quality control protocols of the research conducted, the values ​​and principles of the organisation, and the governance arrangements and policies by which they make strategic decisions. Some think tanks, for example, publish on their web page their research agenda whereas others publish their strategic and annual planning.

Additionally, transparency cannot be just an outward looking process. It is crucial that organisations are transparent to their own members in order to achieve a more coordinated, effective and efficient management, and to develop a stronger organisational identity.

  1. Creative communication.- Think tanks have developed competencies and skills to effectively communicate the results of their research. In recent years think tanks have seen a more comprehensive use of digital tools and many forms of data visualisation to help communicate complex information and analyses in simple and accessible ways.

However, when it comes to making the results of their efforts transparent, think tanks usually do it in 2D, with messages burdened by opaque technical terms that are only understood by a small proportion of their audiences.

Global Call to Action

Since transparency seems to be an issue that is here to stay, the group gathered at the Exchange organised by the Think Tank Initiative would like to invite the community of think tanks to establish a global initiative that promotes, among others, the following objectives:

  1. Collect and disseminate existing good practices on transparency among think tanks around the world;
  2. Support the development of skills for those think tanks who are interested in increasing their levels of transparency; and
  3. Develop a voluntary global standard for think tank transparency that provides the basic principles of transparency for policy-applied research centres worldwide.

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.

Additionally, a global standard that has been developed by think tanks themselves would respond to the specific needs of the community and help improve coordination between our organisations thus facilitating joint research and advocacy on this issue.

Finally, a global standard for transparency developed with the participation of think tanks from different regions of the world would increase the legitimacy and credibility of the transparency efforts undertaken by the think tank community. This would also reduce attacks by governments that distrust the independence and credibility of their research.

While it is important to recognise that there are contexts where for safety reasons it is not possible to make all information transparent, a global standard would help to effectively communicate think tanks commitment to transparency. After all, transparency has technical benefits, such as coordination and efficiency, but it also has a political impact, because it helps to increase trust and credibility for the work carried out by think tanks.

Therefore, we would like to invite think tanks in Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania to join a working group that will seek to develop capacities to increase think tanks levels of transparency and to promote a global agenda on think tanks transparency with the certainty that these efforts will help think tanks enjoy greater trust, credibility and impact in our societies. To express interest in participating please get in touch with us below.