Think Tank Transparency in the UK

Guest blogger Paul Evans describes his experiences with encouraging UK think tanks to become more transparent about their finances. 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.

At their best, think tanks and public policy campaigns make a valuable contribution to political life, generating new ideas and producing important research. At their worst, they can provide a neutral front while actually working on behalf of vested interests. As organisations that exert influence on public life, it is right that we call think tanks to account and ask for a basic level of transparency. 

We established Who Funds You? in 2012 to encourage think tanks in the UK to become more transparent about who funds them.  We wrote to 20 leading British think tanks and political campaigns with a strong public policy or research focus and asked them to disclose their major funders. Several think tanks responded positively and agreed to improvements to their disclosures about funding in order to improve their rating on our website.

Who Funds You? then rated and ranked 20 organisations in total. Six were rated as highly transparent, and two (the Adam Smith Institute and the Tax Payers’ Alliance) disclosed no financial information whatsoever; the remaining twelve lay somewhere in between. Since then, we have issued an open invitation to policy institutions to voluntarily participate in our ratings. Eight organisations have already taken up this invitation and have been added to the list of winners of our transparency award, which recognises organisations that voluntarily declare all funders who gave £5,000 or more (and the amounts given) during the last reported year.

Some think tanks told us that they had given historical assurances about privacy to their funders. We have urged these organisations to encourage their funders to be more open and we are hoping to see future improvements in our rankings as a result. We recognise that some funders are themselves organisations that are opaque, though some of the criticism of this (particularly from think tanks that offered no disclosure of any kind) had an element of misdirection about it.

Think tanks matter. They have grown in influence over the past four decades, and they often provide a valuable asset to Britain’s lobbying industry. In addition to this, journalists are increasingly reliant upon external research, as their own research budgets have collapsed. It is important that journalists can understand the provenance of the findings that they report.

Where think tanks conduct research is, in itself, a matter of public interest. It shows the public the priorities of the funders. It has been argued that a think tank with a known ideological bent is hardly going to change its politics to chase funding. However, it is important to know which material interests are prepared to fund ideological ones – and why.

Paul Evans is a member of the steering group of Who Funds You?