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.

A Culture of Transparency at the World Resources Institute

Guest blogger Steve Barker from the World Resources Institute explains how transparency about funding can complement overall efforts to maintain intellectual independence. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone, and may not reflect the views of Transparify.

There’s an old saying that knowledge is power. That’s why transparency—or open access to information—is a key tenet that guides the work of the World Resources Institute.

Take one of our key projects, The Access Initiative. TAI is the world’s largest network dedicated to ensuring that citizens have the right and ability to influence decisions about the natural resources that sustain their communities. Working with more than 250 civil society groups in more than 50 countries, TAI helps citizens secure access to environmental information, access to public participation, and access to justice. By securing these rights, citizens are aware of the environmental decisions that directly impact their lives and livelihoods—and they’re empowered to hold governments accountable, organize social and political change, and demand improvements. 

Transparency is important not just for how citizens interact with powerful government and business interests, but also for organizations like ours that accept funding from a variety of donors. As Upton Sinclair once said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Understanding how an organization is funded helps observers to judge that organization’s independence.

Without proper protections and transparency, donations could have undue influence on think tank research and policy recommendations.

How World Resources Institute Practices Transparency

That’s why World Resources Institute (WRI) made the decision to be completely transparent about where its funding comes from, and how donations support the valuable work that we do.

For example:

  • Information about WRI’s funders is available on our website, www.wri.org. With just two clicks from our homepage, any visitor can view a spreadsheet with a specific breakdown of donations ranked by size, covering 85 percent of our fiscal year 2013 funding. The remaining 15 percent comes from many small donors. The spreadsheet includes the name of the donor, the amount donated, and the program goal supported. In a separate document, we list all of our funders, including individuals who donated to WRI.
  • Many organizations place donations from corporate foundations in a “foundations” category. WRI categorizes these donations as “corporate” funding, an extra step towards transparency.
  • WRI also observes transparency in our internal communications. Transparency guides interactions between accounting and our program staff. For example, we share our financial results and indirect costs freely throughout our organization. And our leadership displays appropriate transparency in communications to staff and the public around major institutional decisions—including financial decisions.

Transparency Matters for WRI’s Reputation for Independence

Transparency supports one of WRI’s core values: independence. At WRI, we believe that our ability to achieve our mission depends on research and program work that rises above partisan politics, institutional or personal allegiances, or sources of financial support. When accepting donations, we convey to our partners and funders our strict commitment to unbiased judgment in our research findings.

WRI works closely with corporate partners and takes corporate donations in part because the private sector moves faster and can be quite influential with the public sector. But WRI makes clear to funders that our work product cannot be changed or require sign off from a donor—the integrity of our research and our on-the-ground projects always comes first.

WRI prides itself on rigorous, independent analysis. Financial transparency helps reinforce our reputation. This candor ensures our credibility, and helps build trust for WRI as an independent organization that works to “turn big ideas into action.”

Steve Barker is the Chief Financial and Administrative Officer of the World Resources Institute, a global research organization based in the US that works closely with leaders to sustain a healthy environment.

CGD’s Decision to Walk the Transparency Walk

Guest bloggers Katie Douglas Martel and Todd Moss from the Center for Global Development explain why they decided to publish how their think tank is funded. The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors alone, and may not reflect the views of Transparify.

We at the Center for Global Development (CGD) believe strongly that transparency and accountability can foster better development outcomes. That’s why our policy research and ideas include open government contracting, biometric identification systems, extractive revenue management, illicit financial flows, as well as more general work on the benefits of openness.

Our transparency work led to a logical question: If it’s is good for development, what about development think tanks? What’s more, we were receiving a lot of very good questions from our supporters and networks about where our money comes from and where we apply it. So, spurred in part by our friends at Transparify and frank discussions about think tank strategy by Enrique Mendizabal’s On Think Tanks blog and Andrew Selee’s book What Should Think Tanks Do?, we decided it was time to up our game on our own financial transparency.

Thus, we launched CGD’s How We’re Funded in March 2014. This web page, currently in a Beta version (improvements coming!), lists all grants and donations we received in 2013 and so far in 2014 above $100,000 or roughly anything more than 1% of our annual budget. We will also continue our practice of disclosing the membership of the Center’s Partners Council (corporate and individual contributors who give $2,500 and above) and CGD Society ($150-$2,500). Donations received from these groups are also aggregated in the Funding table.

How We’re Funded goes beyond what’s traditionally disclosed in US tax forms and annual reports. A benefit of our approach is that we are able to show how multi-year grants are allocated over time, as opposed to simply showing the year in which a grant was awarded and providing a potentially misleading view of our revenue streams. (The tax data can inadvertently and falsely suggest volatility.)

We also have another agenda here:we hope that our move towards transparency and posting How We’re Funded will encourage other nonprofits to do the same. By aiming to raise the standards for the whole field, we hope to bolster the credibility of think tanks as independent voices.

CGD conducts research with the aim of shaping rich countries’ and development actors’ policies that affect poor people in the developing world. Katie Douglas Martel is Deputy Director of Institutional Advancement, and Todd Moss is Chief Operating Officer and a Senior Fellow.

Secret Think Tank Funding and Reputational Risk

Important note: Below, we present two 2013 case studies to illustrate a general argument about transparency and the media. The use of these case studies should not be taken to imply that Transparify regards either of the think tanks involved as particularly transparent or opaque.

Transparency can be a tough sell. Some think tanks worry that disclosing who funds them may provide ammunition to their critics. But do they ever worry about the potential reputational risks of non-disclosure?

Let’s briefly review two cases from the past year in which think tank funding data was cited critically by the US media.

Think Tank A and Kazakhstan. In 2013, a prominent research institution somewhat reluctantly released a list of foreign donors in response to a demand by 25 Republican senators. The list showed that the think tank had received funding from 15 foreign governments, including that of Kazakhstan; these did not fully match the names in a different list already on the institution’s website. Journalists claimed that a conference on Kazakhstan organized by the think tank and paid for by a company that had vast oil interests in the country was essentially a “love poem” to Kazakh president-for-life Nazarbayev.

Think Tank B and Taiwan. After the think tank’s staff had over several years published opinion pieces arguing that the US should sell sophisticated weapons systems to Taiwan, journalist Eli Clifton through a filing error acquired tax documents that showed that the institution had received a 550,000 dollar contribution from Taiwanese public funds in 2009, a financial relationship that the think tank had not previously publicly disclosed (and was not legally obliged to disclose). The article noted that if the institution “took direction” from the government of Taiwan or “honored requests” after receiving the funds, it would have broken the Foreign Agent Registration Act, which requires the agents representing the interests of a foreign country in the US to periodically disclose their relationship.

What can we learn from these episodes?

First, in both cases the availability of financial data enabled journalists to ask questions that were legitimate, important and should be publicly discussed in a democracy. Should respectable American institutions accept money from authoritarian governments? Is the need to solicit funding undermining the intellectual independence of policy wonks? Are foreign governments wielding hidden influence, maybe in breach of US law? Transparency is important because it enables all sides in public discussions to be informed by a common pool of data.

Second, the most damaging narratives revolve not around donor money as such but around integrity and intellectual independence. What think tanks do after they take the money is what generates most reputational risk. While the media could not present solid evidence of the two institutions compromising their independence or integrity after taking the money (how could they?), the think tanks were equally unable to present evidence that could conclusively refute such suspicions (how could they?).

Without hard evidence on either side, appearances become very important. And in terms of appearances, taking money behind closed doors is one of the worst things a think tank can do, as every subsequent step the institution takes can easily come to be seen and interpreted in the worst possible light.

To conclude, keeping donors secret is a bad reputational risk management strategy for think tanks. It may initially prevent tricky questions from being raised by critics, but when the donor relationship eventually does become public knowledge – as it very often does – initial secrecy substantially increases the potential for severe reputational damage.

Taking donors’ money behind closed doors may seem the easy option today, but in the long term, transparency pays greater dividends.

 

Transparency from a Southern Think Tank’s Point of View

Guest blogger Natalia Aquilino of the Argentinian think tank CIPPEC discusses transparency from a Latin American perspective. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone, and may not reflect the views of Transparify.

A discussion on think tanks’ transparency and accountability, as well as one about the evaluation function, is still pending within Latin American.

From CIPPEC’s point of view as a southern think tank, we believe it is very relevant to strengthen the debate on think tank legitimacy not only in the northern part of the world, but also in Latin America.

However, both the context and the reasons why it matters are different over here.

First, it’s a matter of values: transparency builds credibility. We believe the current lack of transparency undermines think tanks’ reputation and weakens our position as an independent, nonpartisan organization. In our case, letting everyone knows where the money comes from allows us to enhance the “research to policy” link.

Second, in our political context, where increasing polarization has been a key feature over the last 10 years, it definitely matters who finances you. This shapes the research agenda, but also conditions the fundraising strategy. For instance, it is getting harder to work with some donors that have different interpretations on how democracy should work in our countries from the interpretations of our governments. The risk here is not only not to get funded but also to become irrelevant to the local context.

Third, technology and digital resources facilitate the accountability function in our institutions. Given appropriate software for think tank management, information systematization and publicity becomes easy and smooth. Customization can also be provided via web sites as you may find in the section on donors on our website.

Last but not least, accountability and transparency needs to be a part of the think tank impact equation. Being accountable as an organization is a smart way of complementing the so-called "think tanks impact assessment" which most of the time just concentrates on resources management, reputation, media coverage, output quality or research uptake (as for instance in the Go To Think Tanks Index). 

Transparency completes the ‘policy impact’and ‘research to policy’ concepts by bringing in the issue of who supports your work. And of course, it can help to present a good accountability report in an innovative format. But we’ll discuss the usefulness of being transparent for think tank management in another post!

Natalia Aquilino is Director of the Influence, Monitoring and Evaluation Programme at the Centro de Implementación de Políticas Públicas para la Equidad y el Crecimiento (CIPPEC), a leading Argentinian think tank. 

The Marketplace of Ideas Under Threat

Guest blogger Richard Epstein of the New York University School of Law argues that the principle of free speech is in danger of being forgotten. 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.

Ninety five years ago, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes uttered in Abrams v. United States the one sentence that encapsulates best the ideals of the First Amendment protection of freedom of speech:

“when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas -- that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.” 

In that case, Holmes protested the conviction under the Espionage Act of socialists  who protested the United States’ involvement in the war against Germany.  The dissent that became law took the view that there was no direct incitement to the use of force or fraud, so that the speech was protected no matter how much discomfort it gave to those who disagreed with it.

That principle, which gained much support in the aftermath of the First World War, is now in danger of being forgotten.  I am struck today by how many people are so sure that they know the right answer that they think that their solemn duty is to expose the bad motive and corrupt arguments of their contemptible opponents.

One instance is of course the opposition to global warming, which has if anything gained some momentum because the original gloomy predictions on the subject have not been supported by the most recent evidence which shows little or no global warming over the last fifteen years even though there have been substantial increases in the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. 

No one should say that this single data point necessarily means that the debate is over. But it should caution us to be aware of the apocalyptic visions of doom that lead to the denunciation of any individual or organization that takes the contrary position.

I read with dismay the guest blog recently offered by Robert Brulle on Transparify’s website that denounces those nameless conservative foundations for their hidden support of think tanks that speak the forbidden language.  But what is striking about his and similar arguments is that they take it for granted that his opponents “deny scientific findings about global warming and raise public doubts about the roots and remedies of this massive global threat.” 

Yet at no point is there the most meager effort to look at the evidence on both sides of the issue so that readers can make up their minds.  Instead we are told that it is now imperative to engage in “rating think tanks on their transparency.”  But it is never explained who is entitled to the high ground on this issue, or how the rating process will be viewpoint neutral if the raters themselves have strong substantive views, as Professor Brulle surely does. 

The only cure, I think, is competition in the rating market. Holmes would have approved.

Richard Epstein is a professor of law at the New York University School of Law. He is also a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the James Parker Hall Distinguished Service Professor of Law Emeritus and a policy advisor for the Heartland Institute. He is a prolific blogger and the author of several  books.

Disclosing Funding Data to the Media: Why Shoot Yourself in the Foot?

Guest blogger Robert Bourgoing argues that think tank managers should welcome greater scrutiny of their funding data by the media. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone, and may not reflect the views of Transparify.

Recently, the Sunlight Foundation had a great 7-part blog series listing ‘50+ reasons not to release open data’: apathy, confusion, it’s hard, cost, staffing concerns, legality, accuracy.

One important reason which I believe was missing from the list is the concern that it could unleash unwanted scrutiny, especially from journalists. After all, good news generally doesn’t make the news.What guarantees that disclosing funding data will not backfire at some point, especially when you’re a large organization dealing with multiple partners?

It is naturally tempting to not fully walk the transparency talk. This was made clear in a conversation I once had with a senior manager of an organization widely regarded as highly transparent:

“We are presenting information and data in a way that is positive to [us]. We show the main performance indicators, the success stories, the positive changes brought by [us]. But we’re not necessarily going to focus on a country which is not working because of all kinds of other contextual information that we don’t necessarily want to talk about or go in much detail. It makes sense: we’re not going to shoot ourselves in the foot”.

Does it really make sense? I was confronted by this question when I tried to initiate a training program for media representatives to make use of a former employer’s funding data. “Why invite the press to dig up stories that could potentially be embarrassing,or create more communication crises than we could deal with?” I was asked. Here is what I think:

  • Being open about what goes wrong (and what you do about it) is good for your reputation. It shows courage, a sense of responsibilities and seriousness regarding transparency. Transparency is not meant to paint a rosy picture of reality but to highlight things as they are: successes AND challenges AND failures. Failure is okay as long as it allows you to learn and to act on what needs improvement. Running a negative story yourself – taking the time to prepare, put things into context, show what is being done to address the problem – will always be better than fighting allegations of a cover-up.
  • Bad news may be good news when it is factual, fair and balanced.It can help to flag problems while there is still time to do something about them. Large think tanks, global organizations and multi-stakeholder partnerships cannot watch over everything everywhere. Providing journalists with easy access to the whole story about their funding data may serve as an early warning system, to flag issues before it is too late, to limit the damage done by mismanagement, misuse of funds or corruption.

Embracing transparency half-heartedly maybe a more risky option than not being transparent at all, a missed opportunity to work alongside the media for positive outcomes.

Robert Bourgoing is an independent consultant and aid transparency expert. He maintains a blog and a LinkedIn discussion group on the demand side of aid transparency in developing countries.