Why should we care about who funds think tanks?

By Steve Goodrich

Transparency International UK

A lot has been said in recent years about the corruption risks in lobbying and political party funding in the UK – from the revolving door to the appointment of Lords – however, there has been little work on the more subtle influencers in our political system: think tanks. For those who haven’t come across them before, the term ‘think tank’ describes a wide range of groups and organisations that examine some of the most pressing issues of our time, from climate change to national security and the economy. They inform national policy debates by researching topics and disseminating their findings through reports, events and online material.

Even if this is the first time you’ve seen the term used, you’ve probably heard of a number of think tanks before. For example, the Institute for Fiscal Studies regularly comments on announcements by the Treasury and their analysis of public spending decisions receives widespread media coverage. The International Institute for Strategic Studies is often involved in public debates about defence and security issues, such as nuclear proliferation and terrorism. And the Overseas Development Institute provides expertise on international development and humanitarian interventions.

In short, think tanks are everywhere and provide an essential independent voice on some of the most pressing topics of our time.

With this important role, however, there also comes the risk they can be used to exert undue influence over the terms of a debate. Their impartiality and expertise gives them an authority – entrusted soft power, if you will – that can be abused to favour private interests. Therefore, as with all parts of our democracy from government to business, think tanks need to be open and transparent about whose interests they are representing. This is why we at Transparency International UK welcome the Transparify initiative, which evaluates and promotes financial openness amongst think tanks from all across the political spectrum.

By assessing organisations against a simple and standard set of criteria, it provides an easily-accessible and comparable guide to who’s open about their financial backers and who’s not. This year’s results make for some promising reading, with over half of those evaluated receiving four stars or above and over 30 per cent receiving the maximum five stars for transparency. Despite this, there are still some who provide little or no meaningful information at all about where they get their money from. In a time when the public have little trust in their political parties and politicians, we all need to do everything we can to help provide confidence in the democratic process. Even if there is nothing untoward about the funding of these organisations and what they do, the status quo across all of our political system is towards greater openness, from corporates to candidates and from parties to politicians. It’s time we all embraced this instead of hiding away in the shadows.