More 5-Star Institutions - Momentum Towards Transparency Continues

Next to the 150+ institutions that Transparify rates every year, we have heard from additional policy research and advocacy organizations that are committed to transparency. These organizations either already were fully transparent about their funding, or engaged with us to update their disclosure.

We are glad to highlight the 5-star transparency of these five organizations. They set a great example for other institutions:

Please join us in congratulating these organizations on their 5-star transparency. We are glad to see that the momentum towards more transparency continues. The spread of countries – Bosnia, Canada, Georgia, United States – shows that this move towards more transparency has a global dimension.

If current trends continue, transparency will indeed soon be the norm for all quality think tanks and policy advocacy organizations. This is why it is so valuable that more organizations commit to 5-star transparency. Why is this transparency important? See what institutions themselves have to say on this issue.

Do you want to find out how to get 5-star transparency? Check here how to become fully transparent

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.

Think Tanks and the Right to Information

Guest blogger Michael Karanicolas explores the applicability of the right to information to think tanks. 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.

The right to information is internationally recognised as a human right which lies at the core of democratic accountability. Since State institutions are funded by public money, it is only natural to expect that the people have a right to know how their resources are being spent. In a democratic society, access to information held by the government is vital to ensuring that the electorate is fully and accurately informed, and can properly engage in the decision-making process. The right to information also fosters trust in government, and promotes efficiency through robust public oversight.

The right to information is not limited to State institutions. International standards hold that the right to information should apply to any private organisations that receive State funding or perform a public function to the extent of that funding or function. It is clear that, where an NGO – a category that includes most think tanks – is substantially funded from a State budget, a duty of transparency should apply.

However, many think tanks and other NGOs are not supported by State funds, and here the question becomes more difficult. Most right to information laws do not apply to NGOs, but there are exceptions. Indonesia’s Public Information Disclosure Act applies to NGOs which receive funding from public donations or from foreign sources, as well as any that receive money from the State budget. South Africa’s Promotion of Access to Information Act, 2000 allows for requests to any private organisation, including NGOs, if the information is required for the exercise or protection of any right. Sierra Leone’s Right to Access Information Act, which was passed in late 2013, includes a similar provision.

Several countries also impose additional transparency requirements on organisations which claim charitable status. This makes sense as charitable status is, in essence, a tax subsidy provided by the State.

Transparency is generally a good thing. However, there are legitimate reasons why NGOs may be wary of these requirements. For one thing, many smaller or developing world organisations lack the resources to respond efficiently to access to information requests, particularly if their records are not digitised. Another issue is that NGOs will sometimes require a certain amount of space to operate. Advocacy strategies, for example, will often need to be kept under wraps in order to ensure their efficacy. Although it is conceptually dangerous to start expanding the legitimate limits of exceptions to the right to information, these ideas require development to be properly applied to the NGO sector. 

But beyond the legal requirements of what NGOs must publish, there are legitimate operational reasons to want to push more information into the public domain. If an NGO seeks to pressure governments or corporations into being more transparent, while simultaneously guarding the secrecy of its own documentation, it runs the risk of being labelled a hypocrite.

Good advocacy means practicing what you preach, even if this may lead to some operational difficulties. Strictly speaking, the right to know does not generally extend to information that is held by NGOs. But if an NGO seeks to be an effective voice for transparency, it may need to lead by example.

Michael Karanicolas is the Legal Officer of the Centre for Law and Democracy, in Halifax, Canada.