How We Rate Think Tanks’ Financial Transparency

Transparify rates the extent to which think tanks disclose who funds them, with how much, to do what work. While looking into think tank finances is not a new idea – a variety of other players have done so in the past and some continue to do so today – our initiative differs in two regards.

First, we exclusively look at what information think tanks disclose publicly through their websites. We do not contact institutions asking them to provide us with lists of their funders or similar funding data because we believe that transparency involves being transparent towards all interested stakeholders by default, rather than constituting a favour that an institution may choose to bestow upon request. In our view, if information is not accessible, it is not public. For example, a journalist may not have time to wait for think tank’s clarification of who funded its research on a given issue before her deadline expires and her piece goes to press.

Second, our scope is global. We rate think tanks across dozens of countries, applying the same rating criteria to all. A policy research institution based in a small and poor nation may not enjoy a high profile on the international stage, but within its home country, its findings and recommendations are more likely to remain unchallenged by other researchers and thus may have significant impact on policy formulation. Plus, our findings to date indicate that many well-funded think tanks in rich countries can learn a lot about transparency from some of their smaller peers in Africa, Asia and Latin America. We want to recognize excellence wherever it occurs.

So how does it work? Each think tank is assessed by two or more raters following a standard protocol. Working independently from each other, they award between zero and five stars according to the type and extent of financial information available on the think tank’s website.

Think tanks that score the maximum possible five stars enable stakeholders to see clearly and in detail who funds them, how much each donor contributed, and what projects or activities that money went towards (some great examples are listed here). Think tanks that do not provide any up-to-date information on where they get their money from receive zero stars. Most institutions we have looked at so far fall in between these two extremes.

We pre-tested this methodology in late 2013 and found that the results returned by different raters tend to be highly consistent. In the few cases in which raters do assign different scores, an experienced external adjudicator reviews their findings, revisits the institution’s website, and determines the final score.

Best of all, anyone can visit the website of any think tank we rate and compare the information provided there using our rating tool and criteria – so our findings will be easy to check up on.

By the way, in case you were wondering – we plan to release our final rating results before the end of this month.

Are Think Tanks Turning into Lobbyists?

Transparify today releases an annotated bibliography on how think tanks influence policy makers containing dozens of media stories and academic articles on the nexus between policy wonks and policy makers.

Think tanks influence policy in multiple ways. Their staff pen op-eds, appear on television, testify in hearings, cultivate close relationships with politicians, build coalitions on policy issues, and shape public debates. In the US, government representatives by now are reportedly utilizing think tanks’ research outputs more often than they use the Congressional Research Service, but this does not necessarily reflect a global trend. For example, think tanks in India are thought to lack access to government officials, while in China, the degree of access seems to depend on where an institution is located. In Brussels, their lack of influence on debates is reportedly limited by… their boringness

Where think tanking ends and lobbying begins is often unclear. Many think tanks would argue that educating politicians is distinct from lobbying them, and do not want to be associated with lobbying. However, think tanks have often been criticized for overstepping the line, with many senior staff in the US reportedly moonlighting as lobbyists even as they work for supposedly independent research institutions. On the far end of the spectrum, there are rumours of some public relations firms setting up fake ‘think tanks’ in order to lend their propaganda a veneer of impartial scholarship. The distinction is not only ethical, but also carries legal implications, as a lobbying outfits most certainly are not charitable organizations and therefore do not qualify for tax free status. In at least one case in the UK, the country’s Charity Commission concluded that a registered think tank was in fact a lobbying front and shut it down

Where should the line be drawn? What the legal and regulatory issues are at stake? Is freedom of speech in peril once regulators start stepping in? If you want to share your views, post a comment below or contact us to submit a guest blog on the subject.

For your reference, our latest bibliography is 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?