Think Tank Disclosure Amendment | Transparify's Statement

In the hearing of the SubCommittee on Rules and Organization of the US House of Representatives, Representative Jackie Speier (Democrat, California), put forward an amendment that would require witnesses before the House to disclose payments they receive from foreign governments. For Speier's full statement, check the video clip here.

Eric Lipton at the New York Times has covered this proposed amendment, and a number of major reactions. Transparify is also quoted. The NYT piece is here.

Our full statement on the proposed amendment is the following:

"Transparify welcomes U.S. legislators' interest in verifying the funding sources of witnesses that testify before committees, including those working for think tanks. However, limiting such disclosure requirements to recipients of foreign government money alone is problematic. For example, the proposed rule does not cover payments by foreign companies, including state-owned enterprises or by foreign oligarchs. Transparify believes that the current debate on foreign funding for think tanks only touches the tip of the iceberg. This "foreign-government funding" debate ignores the far greater amounts of money that are poured into think tanks by domestic players, including corporations and trade unions, which should also be disclosed. This well-intentioned amendment is too narrow in scope and will not solve the problem of disclosing potential conflicts of interests from think tanks and other expert witnesses, including those not affiliated with think tanks. Instead, Congress should work with those think tanks that already voluntarily disclose who funds them and with watchdog organizations to develop rules and laws that will work effectively in practice."

For further information or comment please contact Hans Gutbrod at

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.

How a Fake ‘Think Tank’ Deceived 97% of Journalists

Guest blogger Brendan Fischer recounts how a US public relations firm set up a ‘think tank’ to promote clients’ points of view in the media. 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.

American low-wage employers like restaurant chains may not want their brands associated with unpopular positions like opposition to the minimum wage, but lucky for them, they’ve got the Employment Policies Institute on their side.

EPI, which describes itself as “a non-profit research organization dedicated to studying public policy issues surrounding employment growth” and is often cited as a “think tank” by the media, has been one of the most prominent voices opposing the minimum wage in recent months. It produces or commissions reports purporting to show that workers don’t need higher pay. Its staff are quoted in the press providing respectable-sounding quotes opposing living wage laws.

But the Employment Policies Institute operates from the same office suite as Berman and Co., a public relations firm owned by Richard Berman that counts the restaurant and retail industries among its clients.

Berman – who is EPI’s President and Executive Director – specializes in helping corporate interests launder their messages through phony front groups. His clients have included the tobacco and fast food industries, and he has formed fronts like the Center for Consumer Freedom to fight against indoor smoking bans and nutrition labeling requirements. After Berman received funding from the Corn Refiners Association, the Center for Consumer Freedom launched a TV, radio, and print campaign defending corn syrup and attacking critics. Berman has talked about being in a "long-term war" with unions, and his shop also runs the "Center for Union Facts," which spends tens of millions on anti-union ad campaigns. 

EPI passes itself off as a “think tank,” but it is really just another weapon in Berman’s arsenal of astroturf, offering low-wage employers like restaurant chains a modicum of distance and a veneer of respectability for messages that just-so-happen to benefit their corporate bottom line.

EPI has just a handful of employees, and the expertise of its staff is grounded in public relations rather than academic research. Journalists, in an effort to create a perception of “balance,” regularly tap EPI’s research director, Michael Saltsman – who doesn’t have an advanced degree in research or economics – when they need a pithy quote to counter positions by academics, policy experts, or politicians. 

Yet, a Center for Media and Democracy analysis showed that journalists rarely identify EPI’s public relations ties. In 97 percent of the stories quoting EPI or Saltsman over the past three years, reporters provided readers with no information about EPI’s relationship with Berman and Co. In most cases, journalists described EPI as a “Washington DC nonprofit.” Occasionally, EPI was called “conservative” or “pro-business.” Only about 3 percent of the time did journalists note EPI’s connections to Berman and Co.

Failing to note EPI’s role as an arm of a public relations shop deceives readers into thinking they are hearing an independent perspective, warping the discourse and keeping the public in the dark.

Brendan Fischer is the General Counsel of the Center for Media and Democracy, a group that investigates and reports on the influence of corporations on public policy.

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.

Who Is Who in Thinktankistan?

Who cares about think tanks? More people than we expected! So many, in fact, that we have drawn up a list of organizations involved in researching, investigating, strengthening, monitoring, representing, rating, blogging and commenting on think tanks.

At least six blogs/sites are exclusively devoted to think tanks:

In case that makes you think that there can be nothing new under the think tank sun, visit the Think Twice Think Tank Review Project, which strives to provide a kind of quality review process for think tank publications, or Muckety, which uses maps to locate selected think tanks within larger webs of political and economic influence.

Also of interest are the Philanthropy Roundtable and its ACR project, who both argue against greater transparency in think tank funding.

One thing that really struck us in compiling our little ‘Who is Who’ is the extent to which US organizations traditionally focusing on lobbying and campaign finance have now begun monitoring think tanks. It may come as a surprise to most think tank professionals how often their sector is discussed in the same breath as “deceptive PR”, “front groups”, and even “institutional corruption”.

Our recently published bibliography on think tank transparency illustrates some of the issues involved. Over the coming weeks this blog will explore the darker sides of hidden think tank funding, as well as illuminate some brighter aspects of transparency.

What do you think? What lines divide think tanks from lobbyists or partisan political campaigners? And how should regulators deal with think tanks that cross these lines? Contact us if you want to submit a guest blog, or post a comment below.

(Again, for your convenience, our Who is Who is here.)