Why Transparency Matters: the Think Tanks’ Perspective

[a previous version of this post appeared On Think Tanks]

Transparency sometimes can appear like a hard thing to do. Making information available can be an extra effort. Transparency may also invite additional scrutiny. It’s thus not obvious that institutions always welcome disclosure.

Yet Transparify’s experience over the past two years suggests otherwise. Many think tanks welcomed our work. They were enthusiastic about becoming more transparent. Several dozen think tanks engaged, increasing their disclosure, as our 2015 report highlights.

Why? Ask the think tankers themselves – they make a very powerful case in favor of transparency. Here is an overview of their contributions to our blog. 

One common theme across many of these contributions is that transparency is part of research excellence – it communicates confidence in the integrity of one’s findings. In that way, transparency contributes to an open and constructive debate.

This, too, is a reason why we think that transparency should be the default for policy research and advocacy. We hope that more think tanks will join to help set the standard. We believe journalists should routinely ask think tanks and policy experts how they are funded, and highlight when funding sources remain opaque. Also, we think that donors should nudge their grantees to become more transparent. Funding transparency by itself is not a guarantee of integrity, but it is one of the best starting points for a broader debate.

If you want to share your perspective on the importance of transparency, we would very much welcome your contribution to our blog or, as an additional step, you could connect to this theme through On Think Tanks itself.  

Interested in how to increase your transparency? Go here to find out how to get 5-star transparency

Transparency as a Public Good: Why SPDC Publishes Who Funds Us

Guest blogger Muhammad AsifIqbal from the Social Policy and Development Centre, a leading think tank in Pakistan that is highly transparent, explains why his organization posts detailed donor information online.

Being a civil society organization, the Social Policy and Development Centre (SPDC) considers its own financial transparency an obligation towards society as a whole and towards its stakeholders in particular.  SPDC is non-profit research think tank established in 1995 with the mission to contribute to national economic and social development policies and programmes in Pakistan to make them more accountable, pro-poor, engendered and equitable.

Under Pakistani law, financial statements must be provided to the corporate regulating authority, the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan.Although any citizen can request this body to provide audit reports of public and non-profit companies, public awareness in this regard is generally lacking.

Almost four years ago, SPDC’s management committee (which comprises the managing director and senior research staff) decided that in order to manifest our commitment toward transparency, we should make our financial information public and place it on the website. The debate in the management committee revolved around the issues of public good and organizational integrity.

Since civil society organizations are meant to work for public good, citizens have the right to know about their work and financial sources. Unfortunately, development NGOs in Pakistan have a very limited (or almost non-existent) constituency of local donors such as indigenous philanthropy or government support; they have to rely on the international donor community. The attitude of government and media (and sometimes of the general public) towards these organizations is not always positive. Their integrity is frequently questioned on the grounds of transparency.

We at SPDC felt a need to improve the communication between civil society organisations and their stakeholders in order to deal effectively with the prevailing misconceptions. Making financial information easily accessible to the public is very important in this regard. Therefore, SPDC decided to upload its audited accounts on the website.

Later, after communicating with Transparify, we felt that the information provided on our website could be made more ‘reader friendly’ since the financial statements are in a format that can be difficult for some people to understand. Consequently, we also shared our annual reports (detailing activities) and a summary of donors’ grants on SPDC’s website. We are committed to maintaining and further improving the communication with our stakeholders and citizens.

Muhammad AsifIqbal is SPDC’s Principal Economist. The think tank’s funding page can be found here.