Thinks Tanks Begin Planning for the 2016 Presidential Transition

Guest blogger Heath Brown discusses the role of think tanks in the US presidential transition, and calls for more transparency in the process. Transparify does not edit the content of guest blogs; the views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone, and may not reflect the views of Transparify.

It may seem shockingly early to start talking about the 2016 campaign, but with a near permanent campaign infrastructure in place, the major candidates are getting ready. Funding plans, social media strategies, and celebrity endorsements are discretely in the works for Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, and Rand Paul.

Less attention has been drawn to the equally important planning for the 2016 presidential transition – the 11 week period between the election and the inauguration. While media consultants are busy cutting the first campaign advertisements, wonks are figuring out the mechanics of a transition between presidents to insure a safe, efficient, and orderly process occurs. Most of these wonks and policy experts now work for the research think tanks that dot Washington and other major US cities.

Starting this early is not a new thing. In 1960, the most famous think tank, the Brookings Institution, practically invented the concept of a carefully planned presidential transition when it briefed representatives of candidates John Kennedy and Richard Nixon during the later stages of the campaign. Brookings feared Cold War threats might be exacerbated if partisan wrangling interrupted the work of the foreign policy establishment prior to the January inauguration.

Twenty years later, and prior to when President Reagan was elected in 1980, scholars at the Heritage Foundation – the conservative think tank founded in the early 1970s by Paul Weyrich, Edwin Feulner, and Joseph Coors – had already mapped an initial policy agenda and identified specific individuals to be appointed to the new Reagan administration.

And in 1999, long before the controversial recount, George W. Bush had tasked one of his closest advisers, Clay Johnson, with developing a personnel plan for his White House. The American Enterprise Institute and other conservative think tanks eventually advised on elements of the Bush transition, including the controversial Energy Task Force chaired by Dick Cheney (see:http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/documents/cheney_energy_task_force.html).

In 2008, the Center for American Progress (CAP) had been aggressively planning for the transition, and the president-elect chose that think tank’s leader, John Podesta, to co-chair his transition team (see: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/11/24/AR2008112403005.html). Ultimately many of CAPs key staffers were appointed to the Obama White House and other important federal positions.

So, it is not too early to expect the planning to begin, but where can we expect presidential planning in 2015? Since we do not even know who is officially running, we can just speculate at this point.

If Hillary Clinton decides to run, it is reasonable to expect that the Center for American Progress will again be actively planning, since John Podesta is already talked about as a member of the inner circle of her campaign team. But it is also reasonable to expect that the dozens of experts at the Clinton Foundation are developing some of the foreign policy and international affairs ideas that could later make up a Clinton policy agenda.

If Jeb Bush decides to run, many of the same think tanks that supported his brother in 2000 – including the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute – will again be active. But organizations tied to Jeb Bush’s favored policy issues, especially school reform, should also be central. Bush founded the Foundation for Excellence in Education and continues to serve as the Chair of its Board (see: http://excelined.org/team/governor-jeb-bush/). His foundation will likely be identifying ways to reorganize the US Department of Education and which education policymakers might be nominated to crucial positions.

If Rand Paul decides to run we cannot rely on precedent as we can for Clinton and Bush. Instead, Paul’s libertarian leanings might invite the Cato Institute into the process, and a new array of policy experts with a very different perspective would take part in the process.

Unfortunately, the moment word gets out that a candidate is even tacitly coordinating transition planning they will be accused of “measuring the White House drapes” or “counting chickens before they hatch.” The tendency of the media to frame pre-election transition planning as presumptuous prevents candidates and think tanks from the type of transparency that would advance rather than hinder democracy.  Think tanks should be involved in planning, but transition planning should be made as public as Federal Election Commission regulations require major aspects of the campaign. Greater transparency would reduce concerns that voters and other large segments of the country are shut out of a critical aspect of federal policymaking. Think tanks can be leaders in this move toward openness if they openly report the transition planning that will likely dominate their work in the new year.

-----

Heath Brown is assistant professor of public policy at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York. He is the author of Lobbying the New Presidents: Interests in Transition that has just been released in paper-back (see: http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9781138848993/).

Think Tanks Are A Billion Dollar Business

A new data set compiled by Transparify shows that a group of 21 top U.S. think tanks broke the billion-dollar expenditure barrier in 2013, showing just how huge the sector has become.

The 21 think tanks in the sample collectively spent over one billion dollars in 2013, probably for the first time in history, and employed a total of 7,333 people, including part-time employees. Their total net assets grew 8% to USD 2.65 billion.

Many individual think tanks in the U.S. are larger than the entire sector in most other countries of the world. The median think tank in our sample had a revenue of USD 39m, expenditures of USD 32m, held assets worth USD 87m, and had 211 employees.

“America’s think tank sector is far bigger, and far more influential, than most people realize,” said Hans Gutbrod, Executive Director of Transparify. “This underlines the importance for think tanks to be transparent about who funds them, and for what purposes.”

Transparify put together the data to provide fellow researchers, funders and think tanks themselves with a comprehensive snapshot of one aspect of the sector. We would like to emphasize that the most important thing about a think tank is the integrity and quality of its research, not the size of its budget or staff. Therefore, the figures presented permit no conclusions about which think tank is “better” or “worse” than its peers – only which is bigger or smaller in size.

The narrative report and a separate data set in Excel format can be accessed from our publications page.

Please follow the On Think Tanks blog for more detailed analyses of the data presented here and to join in discussions of the findings. Also, follow us on Twitter or connect on Facebook to get notified of reactions by journalists, bloggers and assorted wonks.

In a separate endeavor, Transparify is currently rating the transparency of a larger sample of think tanks worldwide. “While the numbers are not all in yet, we are seeing a clear trend towards greater transparency, which is excellent”, Dr Gutbrod added. “The sector as a whole is beginning to live up to its responsibility as a major democratic player.” Transparify will publish the results of its transparency ratings in January 2015.

To ensure that you do not miss our headline transparency report and other publications, sign up for email updates now.

Five Stars for our Fellow Transparency Advocates

How transparent are transparency advocates about their own funding? Are pro-accountability advocacy groups setting a good example for governments, businesses and others to follow?

In order to answer this question, Transparify recently looked at the websites of 15 NGOs focused on transparency and accountability issues, applying the same rating methodology that we apply to think tanks. We then contacted each organization with its score and invited it to comment and, if applicable, put more data online.

We are happy to report that some transparency groups were already 5-star transparent when we visited their websites. Many others welcomed our initiative and said that they plan to update their websites soon.

Among the most enthusiastic organization of those we contacted was Global Integrity, which champions transparent and accountable government around the world by producing innovative research and technologies that inform, connect, and empower civic, private, and public reformers seeking more open societies.

Global Integrity immediately went to work on their website and produced a concise yet crystal clear funding page. Global Integrity now lists every donor together with the exact sum given by that donor, and the purpose of the donation, plus the time frame of related activities. In other words, Global Integrity is clearly 5-star transparent.

Corruption Watch, one of the leading anti-corruption watchdogs in sub-Saharan Africa, has also updated their website to reach 5-star transparency, by giving detailed information on its donors and projects.

Now that Global Integrity and Corruption Watch have shown how easy becoming 5-star transparent can be, we trust that many others will be keen to follow in their footsteps, and to be publicly recognized for doing so.

Transparify will publish more on transparency in the transparency sector, early next year. Right now, we are busy rating nearly 200 think tanks worldwide, and preparing to publish the results of this second round of think tank ratings in early 2015.

To keep up to date about our work with think tanks and NGOs, and to receive our next report straight into your inbox, sign up for email updates here.  

Transparify Will Begin Re-Rating All Think Tanks In December

Transparify will begin re-rating all 169 think tanks covered in our previous survey of think tank transparency in December 2014. (We may also rate some additional institutions – so if you were not rated last time, this message may still apply to you.)

We will use the same methodology and rating criteria as last time to award 0-5 stars. Think tanks receiving four stars are broadly transparent, while those with the maximum of five stars are highly transparent. (Click here to see how you can get five stars.)

There will be only one major change during this rating round. Last time, we published full and detailed rating results only for think tanks in the United States. This time, our report will list every think tank worldwide by name and the number of stars received.

---TRANSPARIFY ADVISES ALL THINK TANKS TO COMPLETE ANY PLANNED CHANGES IN THE FINANCIAL INFORMATION THEY PROVIDE ON THEIR WEBSITES BY SUNDAY, 30 NOVEMBER 2014---

Our raters may miss information uploaded onto websites after this date, and we cannot revisit websites we have already rated due to logistical constraints.

While Transparify obviously encourages all think tanks to make the changes required to achieve a minimum of four stars, this is especially true for those institutions that in early 2014 told us that they would place more information online soon. They were highlighted in our 2014 report and data set as “updating” and listed on a special page on our website.

 In the United States, six think tanks said they would update their disclosure:

  • Atlantic Council
  • Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
  • Foreign Policy Research Institute
  • German Marshall Fund of the US
  • Pew Research Center 
  • Stimson Center

Beyond the United States, the following think tanks said they would soon begin to walk the transparency talk:

  • Analitika - Center for Social Research (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
  • Basel Institute on Governance (Switzerland)
  • Budapest Institute for Policy Analysis (Hungary)
  • Centre for Liberal Strategies (Bulgaria)
  • Chatham House (United Kingdom)
  • CSTEP - Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (India)
  • Demos (United Kingdom)
  • Economic and Social Research Foundation (Tanzania)
  • EMinS - European Movement in Serbia (Serbia)
  • IEA Ghana
  • IEA Kenya
  • IMANI Center for Policy and Education (Ghana)
  • Institut für Weltwirtschaft IFW (Germany)
  • ISSER - Institute of Statistical, Social and Economic Research (Ghana)
  • ISET Policy Institute (Georgia)
  • Lowy Institute (Australia)
  • Norwegian Institute for International Affairs
  • Observer Research Foundation (India)
  • Political Capital Kft. (Hungary)
  • South African Institute of International Affairs (South Africa)
  • Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (Germany)

If your think tank has any questions about the ratings process, or needs help in becoming more transparent, please look at our website’s Frequently Asked Questions and subscribe to our email updates. You can also follow us on Twitter and connect on Facebook. For any further questions, please contact our advocacy manager, who will be happy to assist you. 

One year ago, Transparify was able to celebrate a 40% increase in the number of transparent think tanks around the world. We look forward to welcoming many more institutions into the family of transparent think tanks during our second rating round!

------

For your convenience, here is how to achieve 5-star transparency.

How to Report - And Not Report - On Think Tanks

On October 30th, the Washington Post published an article titled At fast-growing Brookings, donors may have an impact on research agenda”. This latest piece about a prominent American think tank comes in the wake of heightened U.S. media interest in the issue, first sparked by an article on foreign funding for think tanks that ran in the New York Times in early September. (Note that Transparify was not involved in researching or writing any of these articles.)

Below, Transparify outlines its views on the recent media coverage, with particular reference to the the recent Washington Post article.

Attention to nuance

The headline of the recent Washington Post piece, “…may have an impact on research agenda”, sets the tone for what follows. Indeed, the issue discussed in the article is donors’ possible power to shape agendas, not the cash purchase of ready-made opinions or hiring of lobbying proxies.

At Transparify, we appreciate the measured tone adopted in the article, and the way the authors clearly go to great lengths to present multiple perspectives. For example:

“Lobbyists say they warn clients not to expect that they can dictate research results from an elite think tank such as Brookings‘You can buy attention, but not a point of view or an outcome.’”

The journalists are keen to avoid sensationalizing the issue. Lobbyists are reported as confirming that quality think tanks in the U.S. are not compromising their integrity for cash. Who said that good news was no news?

Check on think tanks’ internal safeguards

The WaPo piece also sets strong standards in terms of letting Brookings explain at length how it shields its research processes and findings from potential donor pressure.

“Brookings officials said they have created a strong internal system to maintain independence. And outside analysts credit Brookings’s conflict-of-interest and disclosure standards, which they say exceed those of other think tanks… Guidelines require most paid employees to annually list conflicts of interest on forms that are reviewed internally. In addition, Brookings officials said, no single donor provides more than 2.5 percent of the overall budget, limiting the influence that any one funder can have on the institution.”

Such balanced reporting, with attention to internal safeguards, is especially refreshing when compared to some of the less considered media coverage Transparify has reviewed in recent months.

Report whether a think tank discloses its funders

The WaPo piece quotes think tank expert James McGann as saying that “Brookings provides an unusual level of disclosure regarding its funding”. Indeed, Brookings was rated by Transparify as “broadly transparent” in early 2014, placing it in the top third of major U.S. think tanks in terms of its financial transparency, demonstrating that it feels it has nothing to hide.

(Contrast the performance of Brookings with that of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, which at this point discloses no information whatsoever on who funds it, the Center for American Progress, where the sources of over 94% of funds remain in the shadows, or any of the other 23 prominent U.S. think tanks that were less transparent than Brookings when Transparify last rated them.)

At the same time, Brookings conceded to the WaPo that the funding data presented in its annual reports could be somewhat misleading – which is why Transparify continues to encourage Brookings, along with all other think tanks, to embrace five-star transparency and list all donors with precise funding amounts and funding purposes.

Ask questions, listen carefully, report fairly

Would we be living in a better, more democratic world if all think tanks disappeared tomorrow? We don’t think so. On the whole, think tanks are making a positive contribution to society, in the U.S. and beyond.

At the same time, every think tank needs money to operate, and every donor who donates to a think tank has some kind of interests.  As Strobe Talbott, the president of Brookings, has publicly noted, there are two imperatives that virtually every think tank must reconcile: protecting its independence while raising the funds to stay in business.”

Hence, to paraphrase the Federalist Papers: even if all donors were angels, disclosure would still be sensible. For think tanks to maintain their intellectual integrity, it is essential that the media and other watchdogs engage in a constructive dialogue with institutions and ask them to publicly explain just how they defend their intellectual independence in the context of the ever-changing funding environment, if only to provoke critical reflection within think tanks. And in order for that dialogue to be based on objective facts, journalists need to be able to see who funds whom, and how funding trends are evolving over time.

In this context, Transparify would like to congratulate both Brookings and the Washington Post. We congratulate Brookings on choosing to voluntarily disclose funding data that it is not legally obliged to disclose, and for taking a lot of time to explain its inner workings to the media. And we congratulate the Washington Post for asking important questions, listening carefully to the answers, and reporting its findings in a fair and balanced way. It’s good to see democracy at work, and it will work even better with more transparency.

 

To stay in the loop and participate in the debate, follow us on Twitter, connect on Facebook, or subscribe to our email updates.

Transparify on the Integrity of Think Tanks

Over the past weeks, the American media and legislators have devoted considerable attention to think tanks and their role in the policy making process. In this blog, Transparify will try to clarify its position on some of the questions raised and arguments made, with the hope of encouraging a balanced and mature discussion of the important issues at stake.

1. Accepting donor money does not equate to selling out

Transparify does not believe that when a think tank accepts funding, it is inevitably compromising itself and its staff members, and committing to produce policy advice favorable to that donor’s interest. Every think tank needs money to operate, and every donor who donates to a think tank has some kind of interests.  

Most leading think tanks have nothing to hide regarding their relationships with funders. We expect that over half of major U.S. think tanks will have become “broadly transparent” or “highly transparent” by the time we re-assess their disclosure levels in December 2014, up from less than 30% one year ago.

This sector-wide shift towards voluntary disclosure and greater transparency should be recognized and applauded even as we keep encouraging those that still lag behind.

2. Financial transparency versus guaranteed integrity

A think tank that is financially transparent is not afraid of disclosing who funds it because it is confident in the quality of its research, its intellectual independence and integrity. Financial transparency opens the door to accountability claims and is thus a powerful signalling device.

At the same time, financial transparency alone does not make a think tank immune to conflicts of interest on the institutional or personal level. Think tanks are aware of this and most have put a variety of safeguards and firewalls in place to insulate their experts from external pressures. (Note that Transparify currently does NOT assess such mechanisms in its ratings.)

Transparify strongly encourages journalists and other commentators to engage in a two-way exchange with individual think tanks regarding their safeguards and firewalls before publicly accusing them of funding-induced bias.

We also invite think tanks to share their best practices in this regard, and will highlight promising approaches in future blog posts.

3. Foreign funding versus domestic funding

The issue of foreign funding for U.S. think tanks has recently received great attention. However, limiting the discussion to foreign funding obscures the fact that the bulk of money flowing into U.S. policy research institutions is American money. These domestic funders – be they foundations, corporations, trade unions, or public bodies – usually have interests too.

Transparify has not seen any evidence that foreign funding poses greater dangers to research integrity or sound policy-making than domestic funding does. The debate should be about money and integrity, not about foreign currency and integrity.

4. Rapid regulation versus effective regulation

There have recently been moves to broaden the scope of disclosure requirements for Congressional testimony, and at least one call to review the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Transparify welcomes this interest in curbing abuses of the ‘scholar’ label. At the same time, we strongly encourage legislators to consult with transparent think tanks and other stakeholders to ensure that any new measures do not have unintended negative consequences, can be applied equally to all players, and will actually work in practice.

5. Policy analysis versus free advertising

The Public Editor of the New York Times recently reviewed her newspaper’s policies regarding contributions made by think tanks and individual experts, and concluded that “[f]or its readers to evaluate ideas, they need to know where they’re coming from — and who might be paying for them”. Transparify applauds the NYT’s commitment to paying greater attention to op-ed contributors’ backgrounds in future.

Over the coming weeks, we will follow up with other major publications and encourage them to similarly review their own policies in this regard. With over half of U.S. think tanks across the political spectrum expected to be financially transparent by the end of this year, there is no need for editors to continue providing a free platform to experts affiliated with opaque institutions.

The debate continues. To sum up:

  • think tanks can take money without compromising their integrity
  • financial transparency, safeguards and firewalls are all important
  • domestic funding surpasses foreign funding, and when hidden, can be equally problematic
  • attempts at regulation should be preceded by consultation
  • there is no need for editors to give free space to opaque think tanks

Transparify looks forward to a lively and constructive debate about how we can improve think tanks’ contribution to policy formulation and democratic decision-making.

To stay in the loop and participate in the debate, follow us on Twitter, connect on Facebook, or subscribe to our email updates.

Media Needs Higher Standards, Too

The recent discussion on foreign governments gaining influence through US think tanks seems to be going into another round. Attention now is shifting onto the role of the media.

Recent cases have shown that major media outlets have run op-eds by contributors who did not disclose important potential conflicts of interest. These contributors identify themselves as retired public servants or researchers and neglect to mention other relevant affiliations. The most recent case is that of a university professor who apparently failed to disclose her relationship with a state-owned oil company in the Caspian region. (Please follow us on Twitter for updates on this breaking story.)

Transparify is advocating for more integrity in policy discussions, so this is an issue of of concern.

This issue may be partially fixable

  • by demanding routine funding disclosure and highlighting to readers when such disclosure is not offered.
  • by asking individual contributors to explicitly state that they do not have conflicts of interest. This would turn misrepresentation into an act of commission, rather than neglect. Explicit declarations by now are standard practice in medical journals, and we believe they are a good idea for policy-related outlets, too.

These are realistic proposals that can be implemented. Of course, even more could be done, such as posting, with a link, the disclosure forms and maybe even resumes of individual contributors. This may be a measure for media outlets that are particularly keen to advance disclosure practices. The key is to shift the default towards transparency.

Taking such steps could contribute to more integrity in debate. Without such measures, we are likely to remain in a never-ending cycle of mini-scandals. These will increase cynicism about the contribution of policy experts to public debate, and needlessly damage the many good think tanks who are committed to transparency.

Policy research has much to offer to public debate. Last week, the media reminded think tanks that they should hold themselves to high standards. Yet the media needs to hold itself to higher standards, too. We believe that our suggested two steps are great steps in that direction.

Think Tank Disclosure Amendment | Transparify's Statement

In the hearing of the SubCommittee on Rules and Organization of the US House of Representatives, Representative Jackie Speier (Democrat, California), put forward an amendment that would require witnesses before the House to disclose payments they receive from foreign governments. For Speier's full statement, check the video clip here.

Eric Lipton at the New York Times has covered this proposed amendment, and a number of major reactions. Transparify is also quoted. The NYT piece is here.

Our full statement on the proposed amendment is the following:

"Transparify welcomes U.S. legislators' interest in verifying the funding sources of witnesses that testify before committees, including those working for think tanks. However, limiting such disclosure requirements to recipients of foreign government money alone is problematic. For example, the proposed rule does not cover payments by foreign companies, including state-owned enterprises or by foreign oligarchs. Transparify believes that the current debate on foreign funding for think tanks only touches the tip of the iceberg. This "foreign-government funding" debate ignores the far greater amounts of money that are poured into think tanks by domestic players, including corporations and trade unions, which should also be disclosed. This well-intentioned amendment is too narrow in scope and will not solve the problem of disclosing potential conflicts of interests from think tanks and other expert witnesses, including those not affiliated with think tanks. Instead, Congress should work with those think tanks that already voluntarily disclose who funds them and with watchdog organizations to develop rules and laws that will work effectively in practice."

For further information or comment please contact Hans Gutbrod at hans@transparify.org.

Fund a Think Tank, Buy a Lobbyist?

As mentioned in our last post, there recently has been an intriguing debate on the role of think tanks, following a newspaper piece in the New York Times. In case you had not seen it, the definite roster on this debate is kept by Think Tank Watch, and worth checking out

Now Till Bruckner, who does communications for Transparify, also contributed a piece to the Huffington Post.

Till concludes the article by saying: "The key words here are debate and dialogue. Before we all begin casting stones, let's remember that most self-respecting think tanks, most of the time, have absolutely nothing to hide, and that they too realize that their impact on policy hinges on their credibility as independent sources of research and policy advice."

Comments welcome, and for the full piece, go here.

New Discussion on Think Tank Funding in the US

Earlier this week, the New York Times published a piece on foreign funding of US think tanks. The article by now will be familiar to most people interested in think tanks in the US, but not to all of our readers in other places. (To be clear, we were not involved with it.) We thus wanted to highlight key pieces on this debate. The ongoing discussion complements earlier debates, which we have summarized in four documents.

In a first post, we will highlight key contributions. Subsequently, we will also publish a more detailed comment.

The item by the New York Times is here.

There are two more detailed responses, that we recommend to any reader. David Roodman describes his take, as a former think tank researcher. Enrique Mendizabal provides a detailed discussion, putting the discussion in broader context. (Routine disclosure: Transparify is part of the OnThinkTanks Labs, a group of policy research ventures.)

Think Tank Watch keeps a roster of responses, that are updated regularly, here.

Among think tank responses, the ones we have seen at this point include

  1. response by Strobe Talbott, the President of the Brookings Institution.
  2. official statement by the Brookings Institution.
  3. statement by the Center for Global Development.

We welcome the debate. In the discussion, people have disagreed what to make of the article. Where we see agreement, hopefully, is that we need more transparency. In the past this has often been seen as a side issue. The debate illustrates that transparency demonstrates confidence in the integrity of one's research. It is central to the credibility of think tanks.

More to follow.

Think Tanks by the Numbers

Guest blogger Donald Abelson discusses the impact of think tanks, and how impact can be quantified. Transparify does not edit the content of guest blogs; the views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone, and may not reflect the views of Transparify.

When it comes to assessing the impact or influence of their organizations, directors of think tanks generally have two prepared responses.  The first, which is directed to scholars and to investigative journalists familiar with the complex world of think tanks, tends to be more circumspect. As the head of a Canadian think tank said to me in a recent interview , “measuring our impact on public policy is virtually impossible.”  But what directors of think tanks are willing to concede behind closed doors is a far cry from the message they convey in public. Indeed, the narrative that is carefully crafted for stakeholders prepared to support and endorse the work of think tanks is very different.  When potential funding dollars are on the line, think tanks can ill afford to be modest. “We have enormous influence when it comes to shaping public opinion and public policy,” directors of several US-based think tanks often claim. “Just look at the numbers.”

What kind of numbers are directors of think tanks referring to, and do they help us to better understand how much or little impact think tanks wield?  Recognizing the importance of convincing donors that public visibility or exposure should be equated with policy influence, think tanks go to great lengths, and often to great expense (by hiring media consulting firms) to monitor how often they are cited in newspapers, on television, and on the internet.  Many organizations also keep a close watch on how many publications are downloaded from their website, as well as the frequency with which their experts are called upon to testify before legislative committees.

While these and other indicators of public exposure might be useful in highlighting how active certain think tanks are in attempting to shape the parameters around important policy debates, they tell us little about the actual impact of think tanks in influencing policy decisions.  After all, policy outputs (such as publications and testimony) are very different from policy outcomes (the decisions made by policy makers). Yet, rather than asking directors of think tanks to explain, in concrete terms, how and to what extent their organizations  contributed to particular policy outcomes, those of us who monitor the activities of think tanks have in some ways helped them to foster the illusion of policy influence. This needs to change.

Several scholars and journalists familiar with the complex world of think tanks participate in the annual Global Go To Think Tank s Index Report, an initiative of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania. Released since 2006, the report both tracks the number of think tanks worldwide, and ranks the top think tanks (in various categories) according to over a dozen criteria.  Although an ambitious undertaking, the reports’ rankings are widely seen as arbitrary and impressionistic. Not only are the numbers of think tanks reported worldwide inflated (indeed many of the organizations included in the study are not think tanks), but the manner in which the rankings are conducted needs to be far more transparent.  Although scholars can debate the strengths and limitations of the survey, what is more important is the fact that the top-ranked think tanks (usually those that are the largest and best funded) use the rankings to mobilize more support for their work. If think tanks do indeed matter, than the issue of how numbers are used to validate their activities needs to be explored further. 

Donald E. Abelson teaches at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. His work focuses primarily on the role of think tanks and their efforts to influence public opinion and public policy.

2014 Report: How transparent are think tanks? The answer is…

…that it depends first and foremost on each individual think tank itself. Transparify today releases its report on 169 think tanks across 47 countries worldwide, and the results show that think tanks with an excellent level of disclosure can be found in all continents. The 21 “highly transparent” think tanks we identified are distributed across 16 different countries. Surprisingly, we found more highly transparent think tanks in Montenegro than in the entire United States.

Transparify also found that there is great momentum towards transparency in the think tank community as a whole, especially in the United States. We expect the number of transparent and highly transparent think tanks to grow steeply by the time we conduct our next rating at the end of the year.

This momentum towards transparency is a broader trend that our initiative at best served to catalyse and accelerate. When Transparify contacted think tanks and encouraged them to increase their level of disclosure, we often received an enthusiastic response. Our impression is that many think tanks used the occasion of our rating to implement changes that had been internally discussed for a long time beforehand.

Finally, think tank transparency is a global issue. The role of policy research institutions is growing worldwide, notably in developing countries. As Publish What You Fund have pointed out, the arguments for aid transparency that international donors subscribe to equally apply to donor support for think tanks. In this context, we strongly encourage our readers to have a look at our detailed data set, which covers all think tanks across 47 countries.

We hope that our report and data will serve as a starting point for a lively discussion within the think tank community on how we can promote excellence in research, inform democratic debates, and improve decision-making on global, national and local issues that affect us all.

Click here to access our documents:

Full-On Transparency in Georgia

Guest blogger Eka Gigauri from Transparency International Georgia explains how her organization uses financial transparency to boost its credibility. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone, and may not reflect the views of Transparify.

Transparency International (TI) Georgia is the Georgian chapter of the global anti-corruption movement Transparency International. In all of its operations, TI Georgia is and acts as an independent local nongovernmental organization which has been using in-depth analysis and targeted advocacy to promote accountability and transparency in Georgia over the last 14 years.

Much of our research is related to revealing the power relationships in areas where important decisions are made that affect the lives of citizens. We have been a pioneer think tank in Georgia that identifies and brings to public attention the corruption risks in a number of areas, including government-business relations, public procurement, media, and political party financing. Moreover, based on the findings of our studies, we have been able to advance a great deal of progressive reforms in various areas of public policy and have successfully advocated for changes in legislation and practice. One of our current advocacy campaigns, conducted with a number of partner organizations, aims to change the secret surveillance status quo in Georgia.

In Georgia, probably as in many places nowadays, there is a growing distrust towards influential think-tanks as some parts of the society believe that these organizations receive money from ‘suspicious’ sources and are therefore working for the benefit of anonymous donors rather than for the good of society. We understand that, in order to maintain the high credibility that we currently enjoy, we must keep our profile transparent and available for public scrutiny. After all, in an empowered society, which we are trying to build, public scrutiny is an important tool for achieving accountability.

At TI Georgia, we believe that we need to contribute to establishing and reinforcing the culture of accountability. This is part of our organization’s culture and representing the global Transparency International movement in Georgia involves the responsibility to be transparent. Through internal regulations, such as the procurement policy and annual independent financial audits, we ensure that integrity is at the heart of all financial decisions.

We therefore disclose all the information about our financing through the ‘Our Funding’ section of our website which provides the full list of our donors and the exact amounts that we have received from them, as well as all private donations above EUR 1,000.

We have recently started accepting donations online. We have made it our policy not to accept donations above EUR 50 if they come from an anonymous source (it is impossible for us to control where the micro-donations come from). Even if this implies losing some potential donors, we would rather face that loss than risk our reputation.

Politicians and public officials in Georgia often respond to critical statements of civil society organizations by questioning the integrity of those organizations and saying that they would be interested to know the sources of their funding. We are proud to be able to reply to every statement of this sort by directing them to our website where all the relevant information is available for public scrutiny.

Eka Gigauri is the Executive Director of TI Georgia, which forms part of the Transparency International network. Full disclosure: A member of Transparify’s team was a TI Georgia employee during 2008-2009. TI Georgia was included in our data set based on a list provided by Transparify’s donor, the Think Tank Fund, rather than on our own initiative. The former TI Georgia employee had no role in selecting TI Georgia for inclusion in Transparify’s global ratings, and had no role in rating its website.