Transparency should replace (strive to) impartiality in policy research

22 August 2011
SERIES Think tanks and transparency

We have all heard so many times that policy research is not value free. Some critics go one step further by claiming that impartial analysis is rather a far-fetched ideal than an attainable goal in the everyday work of a researcher.  In the other camp, more ‘scientific’ oriented researchers claim that it is only about the scrutiny and the quality of the process. Once complied with certain standards, the research would certainly result into an objective account of the problem and the alternative solutions. Given that think tanks (and NGOs) have taken on roles that historically have been part of the state, it will be necessary for a code of conduct to be aligned to the one we expect from the state. The more the think tankers boost of their own impact, the need for their accountability is greater.

The accountability of policy research is thus an aspect that has raised many debates hitherto. Not surprisingly, many of these debates have focused on the way that the research has been carried out. The aspect of who has been carried out the research (who – not only with regard to competencies, but also in terms of values and personal / organizational history) has not been neglected, but somehow treated artificially (including one of my texts cited below).

In the spring 2009 I published an article in the International Journal of Not-For-profit Law in which I advocated for think tanks in Central and Eastern Europe to devise and adopt codes of conduct:

Think tanks do not act alone in the policy environment. Neither are they obliged to be neutral or free of ideology. Many in the region are staunch advocates of certain doctrines and concepts about the development of their own societies. The only position a think tank should avoid is becoming the advocate of a certain client, because that loss of independence undermines the impact of a think tank’s research. It is essential for think tanks to be explicit and transparent about the ethical values underlying their research work and advocacy. At present, think tanks enjoy a reputation as neutral transmitters of scientific ideas and policy analysis. This independence is their key feature well positioning think tanks to promote good communication between state and society. Likewise, the media is also keen on using think tank experts who they expect are serving the public interest.

The lack of a “framework of values” and rules for conduct for think tanks—among the most resolute proponents of government transparency and accountability in CEE—could soon have negative consequences. In spheres of policy where governments are hostile to such organizations, think tanks have to guard against attacks on independent policy research. Defining a proper code of ethics and code of conduct is a way to do that. Think tanks in CEE can only benefit from proposals in this article by being resolute in formulating these essential and overdue codes.

In that text, my framework of analysis included three different pillars: the ethics of policy analysts, the codes of ethics for public service in the transitional democracies of CEE, and the NGO codes of ethics in CEE. If one looks at the full text, it is clear that I have covered more the objectivity (impartiality) of policy research complemented by some organizational safeguards. No surprise then that the text is ridden with values that we should all strive for and calls for more to developed within the think tanks.

This time around, while I stand behind my writing and still would argue for introducing such codes as part of the institutional framework of each and every think tank, I would like to call into attention the second aspect – transparency (which could, but not necessarily needs to, deal with values. The Economist’s Special Report on the News published on July 7th, although focusing on media and not on think tanks, helped me consolidate my thoughts on this issue. In this report, Nick Newman, former future media controller for journalism at the BBC, claims that transparency is the new objectivity in journalism. This catchy line resonated directly with my recent reflections inspired by three real-life situations that involved think tanks (in CEE, but also globally).

Story 1: Over a period of time, a think tank shifts its ideological stance from a proponent of liberal (social and economic) ideas to a zealot for patriot-cum-constructive nationalist agenda.

How transparency kicks in here: I see a need for the think tank in question to put a timeline of its products and a short history/story of its development online. It should mark the change, even if it does not offer a full-fledged rationale behind it. Since analysis is not free from ideology, it is best to let the readers utilize the analysis and recommendations and decide for themselves if the think tank’s ideological change matters to them at all.

Story 2: Few years ago, a gifted and up-and-coming scholar received a slew of scholarships to attain a number of educational degrees from a donor. In the meantime that person became a director of a prominent think tank. Both the individual and partially the think tank in question are harsh critics of the donor – former patron in its current political commentaries.

How this relates to transparency: Not everyone knows that the director has received scholarships in the past. Without entering into any need for justification, the think tank director should simply put his/her CV online and make this transparent. Such move may even result in a higher sence of value for the criticism (since the person does not shy away to criticize the former patron). More importantly, it would allow the stakeholders of the think tank and the public to have a broader picture of the history and context. Nobody needs to make value judgments, only be transparent. (I treat this as if this was a case of conflict of interests.)

Story 3. Many think tanks in Central and Eastern Europe are operating through two parallel legal entities: a not-for-profit organization and for-profit consultancy. I see nothing wrong in this arrangement, especially in the light of complicated and divergent donor practices that includes one of the other legal forms.[Note]Often the crucial difference is that the consulting arm will work for a particular client producing (at least to some extent) private analytical products (not available to the public, or only available through the client which uses them for its own advocacy, lobbying or other purposes)[/note]

The public (not-for-profit) think tank produces analysis that is publicly available (public good) usually paid for by a donor or from membership fees and other sources of income.

Why transparency is crucial in this case:  There is a web of intertwined aspects here. First, the public has to be aware of the duality of the brand; and who the clients and donors that are funding the organization are. Second, the donors need to know that there is no double dipping (often the two entities are staffed by the same people sharing the overall work and costs). Third, the clients have the right ensure that what they pay for on their ‘private good’ has not been turned out ‘public’ on the other end of the organization. Finally, if the think tank engages into political consulting, there should be clear bottom-line about who could appear as a client and who could not (simply jeopardizing the entire concept of analysis for public good). In my understanding, this bottom-line is context dependent and changes from one place to the other depending on different factors (level of political culture, the maturity of the consulting market and other…)

In conclusion, think tanks should do their best in insuring that the data and facts they use are from trusted sources and their analysis is as objective as possible. However, they should not forget to be transparent about who they are and where do they come. Even if at a first look, this information might seem ‘damaging’ it is always better for think tanks (as probably for everyone else in the policy/political arena). After all, it is better for think tanks to put out public the facts about themselves instead of someone else, usually with ill intentions, spreading rumor and gossiping about the same matter.