The road to transparency is not entirely straightforward

By Keith Burnet

Director of Communications & Publishing, Chatham House

Think tanks can have an important role to play in providing objective analysis in the current political climate of change general instability, the rise of populist movements and a backlash against mainstream politics.

At the same time, they have rightfully been subject to increasing public scrutiny. Indeed, it would be disingenuous and wrong of think tanks to promote their ideas without being open about the sources of the funding that supported their development and dissemination in the first place.  

Transparify’s aim of encouraging greater financial transparency in the think tank sector is helping think tanks to put this goal into practice proactively.

In Chatham House’s case, the foundations for greater transparency were already in existence. We adhere to a set of principles for ensuring the continued independence of our research. The institute is required by its 1926 Royal Charter to maintain rigorous impartiality and objectivity across all activities and outputs.

Ensuring the institute adheres to this requirement is a principal responsibility of our Council, made up of individuals drawn from, and elected by, Chatham House members. Since the founding of the institute we have recognised the importance of avoiding any financial obligation that would undermine our independence and which, of course, would instantly damage our credibility. We also consider  the diversity and breadth of our funding base an essential element for protecting Chatham House’s independence.

The process of becoming more transparent has not been particularly easy. The publication of our all of our financial income details was not straightforward and raised new questions for us to grapple with: how best to account for a £150k grant given for a three year project? Do you report the entire sum up front in year one or as £50k each year for three years? What if the project runs over time? What if the grant is extended?

Multiply those questions by the 156 projects Chatham House is currently running in the context of nearly £17m income from over 500 individual sources. What is more, we must compile this information from the fundraising activities of eleven different research teams, our Leadership Academy and income from membership subscriptions, conference and event sponsorship, discretionary donations and publications.

In the end, our method includes an overarching rule that recognises funding as it is spent and accounted for rather than as it is received. The only exception to this is endowment gifts, where it is more transparent to recognise the full value of the gift as one sum at the time it is given.

Following a substantial institutional effort, Chatham House has made several key changes to the way it publishes sources of income:

  • an ‘our funding’ section on our website with a clear income breakdown
  • a full list of our donors based on recognised income to reflect how much of a specific donation was spent in a given financial year
  • a funding webpage for each research department (see, for example our Africa Programme updated on a regular basis to reflect current core and project donors

We recognise that a positive and constructive response to Transparify’s efforts can help think tanks improve public understanding of their otherwise relatively opaque working processes. This is why I am keen that Chatham House shares its processes and methodologies with other institutions. We will continue to improve these methods, as well as think about and be open to new ways to be as transparent as possible.

New Transparify report shows which think tanks are transparent – and which are not

Which think tanks reveal who funds them? And which keep their donors secret?

On Wednesday 29 June 2016, Transparify will launch a report on the financial transparency of 200 think tanks worldwide. We rated each institution on a scale from 0 to 5 stars based on how much information it reveals about where it gets its money from.

Transparify’s special focus this year is on think tanks in the UK. We have convinced some of the largest and best-known policy shops in Britain to disclose details of their funding, and look forward to honouring their commitment to transparency. Our UK ratings this year include 28 institutions, providing wide coverage of the entire UK think tank sector.

The report will give citizens, journalists and policy makers the ability to identify think tanks that are committed to transparency and integrity in policy research and advocacy. At the same time, it will shine a spotlight on those organizations that accept money from hidden hands behind closed doors.

Beyond the UK, Transparify has re-rated all think tanks covered in our previous reports. In total, we rated 200 think tanks from 47 countries in Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania, providing a unique overview of national and regional policy research landscapes and global trends in think tank transparency.

The results of previous Transparify studies have been covered by the New York Times, Washington Post, Financial Times, and over 20 other media outlets worldwide. Our initiative has been welcomed by major think tanks and transparency advocacy organizations.

Embargoed advance copies of Transparify’s 2016 report are now available. Interested editors and journalists are invited to contact us via Twitter, or by emailing our team members Dustin Gilbreath (global media enquiries) and Till Bruckner (UK media enquiries only). Members of the media can find more background on think tank transparency and why it matters here and here.

Transparify to Re-Assess All Think Tanks in November

Transparify will begin re-rating think tanks worldwide on November 02, 2015. The assessment will cover all 169 think tanks that we have already rated twice for our previous flagship reports, in order to document their progress. Transparify assesses to what degree think tanks disclose who funds their research and advocacy, using a 5-star rating scale.

Transparify will this year for the first time additionally rate dozens of major think tanks in Britain and Australia. In Britain, we expect to be able to document huge progress from a low baseline. In Australia, the baseline was even lower when we last looked, but the trend there is also positive, with several think tanks reporting that they plan to disclose additional information shortly.

Our ratings process follows a strict protocol designed to ensure data reliability. To date, Transparify has released over 300 data points for think tanks and advocacy groups around the world, and has been widely endorsed. The method is replicable, and has been used by a number of external efforts inspired by Transparify's method. 

The full rating results listing all think tanks will be published in our annual flagship report in February 2016. In past years, our rating results have attracted wide media coverage, ranging from a front page story in the New York Times to the main evening television news programme in Namibia.

Over the past years, the field as a whole has taken huge strides towards greater funding transparency. We look forward to welcoming even more think tanks into the ranks of the transparent this time around!

The Transparify Team


Corporate Interests and Think Tanks – An Overview of Current Debates

How and why do corporations fund think tanks? How do think tanks manage potential conflicts of interest? How transparent and traceable is corporate funding to think tanks?

In order to answer these questions, Transparify has located, compiled and reviewed dozens of media stories and research papers. Today, we release the results of our work, an annotated bibliography on “Corporate Interests and Think Tanks”. This is the fourth and last in our series of think tank bibliographies.

Most authors suggest that many corporations fund think tanks out of strategic self-interest. For example,financial industry players in both the US and the UK are thought to systematically support think tanks that produce work that furthers their sponsors’ agendas within a context characterized by intensive lobbying efforts across multiple fronts.

Corporations’ possible influence on energy policy and climate change debates via their funding of think tanks has drawn particular attention. For example, one author claims that “climate change denial” by think tanks has been funded via trusts that enabled their donors to remain anonymous and untraceable despite over one hundred million dollars allegedly passing through such channels. Another retorts that the renewable energy industry too has vested interests, and that it sometimes promotes and defends these interests by… you guessed it… funding policy wonks. A third observer alleges that calls for financial disclosure by think tanks engaged in climate change debates have often been one-eyed as well as one-sided. (Here at Transparify, we simply believe that all think tanks should fully disclose who funds them, regardless of the policy stances that they take.)

Possible conflicts of interest also lurk when think tanks weigh in on questions of war and peace. In a recent guest blog on our website, Gin Armstrong explored such possible conflicts of interest that may have been at play when think tank experts with defence industry ties took to the airwaves in 2013 to discuss US military strikes against Syria. In recent days, she has voiced similar concerns with regard to policy advice being proffered on the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Mind you, in an industry dependent on public sector contracts that is notorious for its revolving doors, even public funding for think tanks has not been immune against suspicions of self-interested dealings.

Does the tobacco industry really employ think tanks as mercenaries to fight on its behalf? Do car manufacturers really pay think tanks to talk governments into bailing them out with public funds? Indeed, can any think tank still accept funding from any source without immediately coming under suspicion of having been “bought” by some public or private vested interest?

We at Transparify don’t have the answers. For us, this little media review yields one conclusion: the think tank community may soon face a comprehensive crisis of credibility. If current trends continue, even the most sophisticated and methodologically scrupulous policy research outfits will find it hard to get their findings, ideas and policy recommendations taken at face value.

In an environment increasingly characterized by finger pointing, suspicion and paranoia, think tanks committed to intellectual independence and excellence in research need a way to actively signal to policy makers and the media that they deserve their trust and respect.

Transparify’s aim is to provide think tanks with a tool for signalling their credibility: a policy research institution publicly recognized for its exemplary financial transparency can hardly be accused of harbouring “hidden” agendas.

(For your reference, the bibliography discussed above is accessible here.)

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?

Think Tanks and Media Manipulation

Guest blogger Nicholas Jones, a former BBC journalist, describes how think tanks’ efforts to shape news coverage and the political agenda in Britain have evolved over time. 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.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, during the rise of a modernising faction within Britain’s Labour party, reports from sympathetic think tanks helped to drive the reform of the party’s policies while it was in opposition. The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) in particular helped to drive the rethink from which the revamped ‘New Labour’ party emerged. Reporting the IPPR’s work for the BBC – which is a public broadcaster – could be rather tricky. I always insisted on including a clear health warning indicating that these were policy proposals being made by a “left of centre” or “Labour-leaning” think tank.

On reflection, I could have been even more explicit when commenting on the agenda for change being proposed by an array of think tanks sympathetic to ‘New Labour’. I probably did not explain that their work had probably been financed by Labour party donors and therefore could hardly be described as “independent research”.

When Labour won national elections under Tony Blair’s leadership and the Conservative party went into opposition, think tanks on the right stepped up their efforts to promote a Euro-sceptic agenda in parallel with a push by the right wing of the Conservative party to limit the power of the European Union and curb immigration.

These Euro-sceptic think tanks developed new ploys to manipulate the news agenda.  In an attempt to influence the BBC’s reporting they often commissioned surveys of broadcast output that backed their view that the BBC’s coverage was biased. They published interviewee counts per programme which purportedly showed that pro-European speakers far outweighed those arguing from a Euro-sceptic perspective. Such surveys were then seized on by right-wing newspapers to attack the BBC.

Today, the commissioning of public opinion polls is perhaps the most effective think tank routine for influencing the news agenda in Britain. Releasing the findings of such surveys can often generate considerable publicity, especially over holiday periods.  If the timing is right, the party donors who paid for the surveys will have given their favoured politicians a ready-made platform. Publication of a topical study or report on a controversial issue can also present a timely opportunity to influence the news agenda. Political parties get the chance to join in the debate, float policy ideas and test out public opinion.

The pressure on journalists to deliver exclusive stories has now become so strong that frequently there is a degree of collusion that readers, viewers and listeners are not aware of.  In return for being first with a headline-grabbing story line, news outlets will often fail to show due diligence and do not give an adequate health warning about the covert links between a think tank and the politicians involved; nor do they dig deep when it comes to explaining why the research was commissioned and precisely who paid for it.

Nicholas Jones worked as a BBC political and industrial correspondent for thirty years. His books include Soundbites and Spin Doctors (1995), Sultans of Spin (1999) and Trading Information: Leaks, Lies and Tip-offs (2006).  His commentaries can be accessed as his news archive.