Roundup of Reactions to Transparify’s 2015 Report

Two weeks ago, we released our 2015 REPORT documenting significant progress towards greater think tank transparency worldwide. Especially the U.S. results were encouraging – over half of think tanks there are now transparent. In contrast, results for the UK were disappointing.

The Financial Times led off its coverage with the observation that “British think-tanks are less transparent about their sources of funding than their European counterparts.” It noted that “only one of 11 British think-tanks assessed, the Institute for Public Policy Research, was rated as transparent,” while three prominent institutions including the International Institute for Strategic Studies were rated as highly opaque.

The Brussels-based EU Observer titled its article “UK and Hungarian think tanks least transparent in EU”. It noted that think tanks based in Brussels itself performed well: “Three of the thinktanks evaluated are based in Brussels: Bruegel (5 stars), International Crisis Group (4 stars), Centre for European Policy Studies (3 stars).”

One World led with the sentence that “Only three think tanks got ‘significantly more opaque’ during 2014, and one of them is Britain’s Overseas Development Institute.” The author suggested that our survey “addresses an important issue because secrecy about funding sources undermines the credibility” of many think tanks.

Broadcaster KBC in Kenya noted the 5-star performance of two Kenyan think tanks, adding that “donor funding has been a contentious issue in the not-for-profit sector with government proposing stringent laws to cap funding to ensure accountability and openness of funding sources”. The issue is also controversial in Hungary, where the government has recently been accused of orchestrating a crackdown on independent NGOs, including think tanks. Transparify’s report sparked a lively debate in Hungary that is still ongoing; we will provide a separate summary at a later point. Several media outlets in Georgia and Montenegro have also covered the story.

On Think Tanks produced a great map of the global results.

Numerous think tanks released statements explaining their commitment to transparency.

“AERC endeavors to observe best global practices in everything it does, and it is encouraging that our outstanding efforts are receiving global acknowledgment,” said Prof. Lemma Senbet, the Executive Director of the African Economic Research Consortium, a think tank based in Kenya with strong global name recognition among international development experts.

Also in Kenya, Kwame Owino, the Executive Director of its Institute of Economic Affairs, tweeted that “If we fail to aim for high transparency, we reduce our ability to demand budget transparency in #Kenya".

In Sweden, Johan Kuylenstierna from the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) commented that “we believe transparency is essential for building trust and credibility. We provide full disclosure of our funding and invite our partners and stakeholders to assess our objectivity and hold us accountable to our mission… Transparency is a keystone in bridging science and policy.”

Why does transparency matter to think tanks? A list of statements by think tanks on their 2015 transparency ratings, including links to the full text of each, is below.


Check also the contributions by several think tanks on our own blog, by scrolling down.  Transparify will begin re-rating think tanks in November 2016. We look forward to being able to report even more transparent institutions in our next report!

Transparify to Launch 2015 Report on 17 February – Embargoed Copies Available

Transparify will release its 2015 report on the financial transparency of think tanks on Tuesday, 17 February 2015.

Transparify’s 2015 report will cover 169 think tanks across dozens of countries worldwide, and will for the first time display full rating results for every single think tank. We expect strong coverage by various U.S. media outlets, and additional coverage by British, Spanish, and Brussels-based media.

The report will be released at 02:01 EST (08:01 Berlin time) via the Transparify website.

To receive the report straight into your inbox when we release it sign up here. Alternatively, you can follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

To request an embargoed copy of the report in advance, or to schedule a phone interview, please contact our advocacy manager. Our D.C. representative will be available for radio and TV interviews.

A Debate Worth Having: Anonymity & Remaining Opacity

As think tanks, especially in the United States, have been putting more information online, their disclosure has invited scrutiny and public debate. In the last days there were several items, see Greg Sargent for the Washington Post and Dan Berman in the National Journal

We welcome the debate and attention to think tank funding. Greg Sargent quotes our statement on this debate in detail, and we are reposting it here once more: 

Transparify strongly welcomes the Center for American Progress' recent shift towards greater transparency. While we have not formally assessed and rated CAP's new disclosure level yet, it is clear that it represents a substantial improvement over CAP's previous level of disclosure. CAP's move reflects a broad and significant shift by the American think tank community as a whole towards greater transparency over the past year. 

Some commentators have highlighted the fact that CAP, like some other think tanks, has not disclosed the names of some of its donors. Transparify obviously encourages full disclosure, but at the same time realizes that large institutions in particular may need to take one step towards transparency at a time. CAP is definitely moving into the right direction. 

Should there be anonymous donors at all? As Transparify has documented, there are various sides to the debate. Some donors do not want to be named. While we prefer as much transparency as possible, our ratings at this point make allowance for up to 15% of donations being anonymous. The rationale is that sensible organizations typically will not risk their reputations for a small portion of their funding. This rule-of-thumb is not meant to settle the discussion on anonymous funding. It is intended to make it possible to have a constructive debate on such funding, in the first place.

Meanwhile, a small (and rapidly shrinking) minority of American think tanks continue to dig their heels in and refuse to open their books. It's understandable and legitimate that the public is focusing on the funding makeup of institutions who are opening their books.  However, in terms of research integrity, what is far more worrying is what is completely unknown -- the funding makeup of opaque think tanks. 

It's important to ask who is funding 3% of a more transparent think tank's operations. But it's even more important to ask opaque think tanks who do not disclose who their main donors are why they continue to keep their books closed while their peers are progressively disclosing more data.

[one typo amended from original statement]

We will soon be releasing our transparency rating of 150+ think tanks from around the world. To be notified, follow us on Facebook, sign up to our mailing list or follow us on Twitter

How to Report - And Not Report - On Think Tanks

On October 30th, the Washington Post published an article titled At fast-growing Brookings, donors may have an impact on research agenda”. This latest piece about a prominent American think tank comes in the wake of heightened U.S. media interest in the issue, first sparked by an article on foreign funding for think tanks that ran in the New York Times in early September. (Note that Transparify was not involved in researching or writing any of these articles.)

Below, Transparify outlines its views on the recent media coverage, with particular reference to the the recent Washington Post article.

Attention to nuance

The headline of the recent Washington Post piece, “…may have an impact on research agenda”, sets the tone for what follows. Indeed, the issue discussed in the article is donors’ possible power to shape agendas, not the cash purchase of ready-made opinions or hiring of lobbying proxies.

At Transparify, we appreciate the measured tone adopted in the article, and the way the authors clearly go to great lengths to present multiple perspectives. For example:

“Lobbyists say they warn clients not to expect that they can dictate research results from an elite think tank such as Brookings‘You can buy attention, but not a point of view or an outcome.’”

The journalists are keen to avoid sensationalizing the issue. Lobbyists are reported as confirming that quality think tanks in the U.S. are not compromising their integrity for cash. Who said that good news was no news?

Check on think tanks’ internal safeguards

The WaPo piece also sets strong standards in terms of letting Brookings explain at length how it shields its research processes and findings from potential donor pressure.

“Brookings officials said they have created a strong internal system to maintain independence. And outside analysts credit Brookings’s conflict-of-interest and disclosure standards, which they say exceed those of other think tanks… Guidelines require most paid employees to annually list conflicts of interest on forms that are reviewed internally. In addition, Brookings officials said, no single donor provides more than 2.5 percent of the overall budget, limiting the influence that any one funder can have on the institution.”

Such balanced reporting, with attention to internal safeguards, is especially refreshing when compared to some of the less considered media coverage Transparify has reviewed in recent months.

Report whether a think tank discloses its funders

The WaPo piece quotes think tank expert James McGann as saying that “Brookings provides an unusual level of disclosure regarding its funding”. Indeed, Brookings was rated by Transparify as “broadly transparent” in early 2014, placing it in the top third of major U.S. think tanks in terms of its financial transparency, demonstrating that it feels it has nothing to hide.

(Contrast the performance of Brookings with that of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, which at this point discloses no information whatsoever on who funds it, the Center for American Progress, where the sources of over 94% of funds remain in the shadows, or any of the other 23 prominent U.S. think tanks that were less transparent than Brookings when Transparify last rated them.)

At the same time, Brookings conceded to the WaPo that the funding data presented in its annual reports could be somewhat misleading – which is why Transparify continues to encourage Brookings, along with all other think tanks, to embrace five-star transparency and list all donors with precise funding amounts and funding purposes.

Ask questions, listen carefully, report fairly

Would we be living in a better, more democratic world if all think tanks disappeared tomorrow? We don’t think so. On the whole, think tanks are making a positive contribution to society, in the U.S. and beyond.

At the same time, every think tank needs money to operate, and every donor who donates to a think tank has some kind of interests.  As Strobe Talbott, the president of Brookings, has publicly noted, there are two imperatives that virtually every think tank must reconcile: protecting its independence while raising the funds to stay in business.”

Hence, to paraphrase the Federalist Papers: even if all donors were angels, disclosure would still be sensible. For think tanks to maintain their intellectual integrity, it is essential that the media and other watchdogs engage in a constructive dialogue with institutions and ask them to publicly explain just how they defend their intellectual independence in the context of the ever-changing funding environment, if only to provoke critical reflection within think tanks. And in order for that dialogue to be based on objective facts, journalists need to be able to see who funds whom, and how funding trends are evolving over time.

In this context, Transparify would like to congratulate both Brookings and the Washington Post. We congratulate Brookings on choosing to voluntarily disclose funding data that it is not legally obliged to disclose, and for taking a lot of time to explain its inner workings to the media. And we congratulate the Washington Post for asking important questions, listening carefully to the answers, and reporting its findings in a fair and balanced way. It’s good to see democracy at work, and it will work even better with more transparency.


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Media Needs Higher Standards, Too

The recent discussion on foreign governments gaining influence through US think tanks seems to be going into another round. Attention now is shifting onto the role of the media.

Recent cases have shown that major media outlets have run op-eds by contributors who did not disclose important potential conflicts of interest. These contributors identify themselves as retired public servants or researchers and neglect to mention other relevant affiliations. The most recent case is that of a university professor who apparently failed to disclose her relationship with a state-owned oil company in the Caspian region. (Please follow us on Twitter for updates on this breaking story.)

Transparify is advocating for more integrity in policy discussions, so this is an issue of of concern.

This issue may be partially fixable

  • by demanding routine funding disclosure and highlighting to readers when such disclosure is not offered.
  • by asking individual contributors to explicitly state that they do not have conflicts of interest. This would turn misrepresentation into an act of commission, rather than neglect. Explicit declarations by now are standard practice in medical journals, and we believe they are a good idea for policy-related outlets, too.

These are realistic proposals that can be implemented. Of course, even more could be done, such as posting, with a link, the disclosure forms and maybe even resumes of individual contributors. This may be a measure for media outlets that are particularly keen to advance disclosure practices. The key is to shift the default towards transparency.

Taking such steps could contribute to more integrity in debate. Without such measures, we are likely to remain in a never-ending cycle of mini-scandals. These will increase cynicism about the contribution of policy experts to public debate, and needlessly damage the many good think tanks who are committed to transparency.

Policy research has much to offer to public debate. Last week, the media reminded think tanks that they should hold themselves to high standards. Yet the media needs to hold itself to higher standards, too. We believe that our suggested two steps are great steps in that direction.

Disclosing Funding Data to the Media: Why Shoot Yourself in the Foot?

Guest blogger Robert Bourgoing argues that think tank managers should welcome greater scrutiny of their funding data by the media. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone, and may not reflect the views of Transparify.

Recently, the Sunlight Foundation had a great 7-part blog series listing ‘50+ reasons not to release open data’: apathy, confusion, it’s hard, cost, staffing concerns, legality, accuracy.

One important reason which I believe was missing from the list is the concern that it could unleash unwanted scrutiny, especially from journalists. After all, good news generally doesn’t make the news.What guarantees that disclosing funding data will not backfire at some point, especially when you’re a large organization dealing with multiple partners?

It is naturally tempting to not fully walk the transparency talk. This was made clear in a conversation I once had with a senior manager of an organization widely regarded as highly transparent:

“We are presenting information and data in a way that is positive to [us]. We show the main performance indicators, the success stories, the positive changes brought by [us]. But we’re not necessarily going to focus on a country which is not working because of all kinds of other contextual information that we don’t necessarily want to talk about or go in much detail. It makes sense: we’re not going to shoot ourselves in the foot”.

Does it really make sense? I was confronted by this question when I tried to initiate a training program for media representatives to make use of a former employer’s funding data. “Why invite the press to dig up stories that could potentially be embarrassing,or create more communication crises than we could deal with?” I was asked. Here is what I think:

  • Being open about what goes wrong (and what you do about it) is good for your reputation. It shows courage, a sense of responsibilities and seriousness regarding transparency. Transparency is not meant to paint a rosy picture of reality but to highlight things as they are: successes AND challenges AND failures. Failure is okay as long as it allows you to learn and to act on what needs improvement. Running a negative story yourself – taking the time to prepare, put things into context, show what is being done to address the problem – will always be better than fighting allegations of a cover-up.
  • Bad news may be good news when it is factual, fair and balanced.It can help to flag problems while there is still time to do something about them. Large think tanks, global organizations and multi-stakeholder partnerships cannot watch over everything everywhere. Providing journalists with easy access to the whole story about their funding data may serve as an early warning system, to flag issues before it is too late, to limit the damage done by mismanagement, misuse of funds or corruption.

Embracing transparency half-heartedly maybe a more risky option than not being transparent at all, a missed opportunity to work alongside the media for positive outcomes.

Robert Bourgoing is an independent consultant and aid transparency expert. He maintains a blog and a LinkedIn discussion group on the demand side of aid transparency in developing countries.