- What is think tank transparency?
- Why does it matter?
- What is your agenda?
- Why do you only assess financial transparency?
- What about donors who wish to remain anonymous?
- Do you assess whether think tanks accept money from opaque donors?
- What about think tanks based in non-democratic or semi-democratic countries?
- What exactly do you measure?
- How do you measure it?
- What if you got your results wrong?
- How transparent are think tanks in general?
- Are liberal or conservative think tanks more transparent?
- Which think tanks are the best?
- Which think tanks do you rate?
- Will my own think tank be rated?
- My think tank was rated. Who can I contact?
- How can my think tank improve its rating?
- Can you please rate my think tank too?
- Can I use your rating tool?
- Hey! What about your own transparency?
- What are your future plans?
Why does it matter?
Think tanks are playing an increasingly important role in public debates and the formulation of public policy worldwide. Think tanks can play a positive role by generating new ideas and producing independent research to inform politicians, media and the public as they wrestle with complex issues and try to decide on how to tackle them. However, there are concerns that some policy advice provided by some think tanks may be driven more by the vested interests of their funders than by truly independent research and analysis.
Today, some think tanks still fail to disclose who funds them. This can create the appearance or actuality of hidden agendas, and undermines the credibility of the think tank community as a whole. Please see our annotated bibliographies for an overview of current debates around think tank transparency.
What is your agenda?
Every think tank needs money to operate, and there is nothing wrong with accepting funding from a variety of public and private sources. The problem is hidden funding – no matter from which source, no matter for which think tank. We do not look into, or comment on, the sources of funding or think tanks’ research output. We apply exactly the same rating methodology to all think tanks.
Why do you only assess financial transparency?
We are aware that financial transparency is only one aspect of overall transparency. At the same time, we think that assessing whether the public can “follow the money” provides the best entry point for gradually improving the wider accountability of the sector. If you want to share your thoughts on possible alternative approaches, please contact us and contribute a guest blog for our blog.
What about donors who wish to remain anonymous?
Think tanks have become key players in democratic politics. As such, they have a responsibility to be transparent about their operations. We encourage all think tanks to publicly declare that they will not accept major funding from donors that remain anonymous to the public.
Equally, we strongly urge all donors to encourage the think tanks they support to be fully transparent about their finances, and to eventually make financial transparency a precondition for providing future funding.
In our current rating methodology, we make some allowance for anonymous donors, as there often have been existing privacy commitments. We may revise our criteria, as think tanks everywhere are becoming more transparent. Sign up for regular updates via Email, Facebook or Twitter to receive updates on our future ratings.
Do you assess whether think tanks accept money from opaque donors?
We are aware that some funding organizations are themselves not transparent. Examining the transparency of think tank donors is beyond the scope of our current work. We do not look into, or comment on, think tanks’ sources of funding. However, we would certainly welcome a public debate around this issue. Please post a comment on our blog to share your thoughts.
What about think tanks based in non-democratic or semi-democratic countries?
Our preliminary data indicates that many think tanks based in established democracies currently fail to disclose even the most basic financial information. Hypothesizing about potential barriers to financial openness elsewhere in the world should not be used as a foil by these think tanks to distract from their own failure to become transparent.
However, having ourselves conducted policy research in challenging political environments in the past, we are aware that there may be some exceptional circumstances in which achieving complete financial transparency may be problematic for think tanks. Should different standards apply? We are keeping an open mind on this question. We included ratings of different freedom in our data, to make it easier to examine this question. Please post a comment with your thoughts on our blog. We look forward to a lively debate!
What exactly do you measure?
We rate the degree to which a think tank publicly discloses its funding via its own website. These are the criteria raters see, when rating:
- 5 Star: all donors listed and clearly identifying funding amount for, and source of, particular projects
- 4 Star: all donors above $5000 listed in 4+ precise funding brackets, anonymous donors no more than 15% (if membership base: precise number of members)
- 3 Star: all or most donors listed in 2 or 3 broad contribution brackets (i.e. "5.000 to 15.000 USD, the following donors")
- 2 Star: all or many donors listed, but no or little financial information,
- 1 Star: some donors listed, but not exhaustive or systematic
- 0 Stars, no relevant information
- Other: detailed financial information available but no donor list
More info on our methodology is here.
How do you measure it?
We have hired and trained a small group of raters who visit think tank websites and search for financial data following a standard protocol. Two raters assess each institution independently from each other, awarding between zero (worst) and five (best) stars according to the type and extent of financial information available. The criteria for the number of stars to award are clearly defined. In case the two raters return different results, an experienced adjudicator revisits the website and determines the final score.
The final score for each think tank is emailed to the executive director of each think tank prior to publication of the results in order to give each think tank a chance to double-check our findings and demand adjustments if appropriate.
What if you got your results wrong?
We have great confidence in our rating results due to the use of two independent raters, the third party adjudicator, and the pre-publication communication of results to think tanks themselves. Where think tanks highlighted information they had made available before our cut-off date, we also updated our results.
How transparent are think tanks in general?
They are becoming more and more transparent! See our publications page -- and help by asking policy researchers that you talk to about their transparency. You can sign up for regular updates via Email, Facebook or Twitter.
Please also see our annotated bibliographies for an overview of current debates around think tank transparency.
Are liberal or conservative think tanks more transparent?
We do not know. We have not subdivided our think tanks into different groups according to political orientation, size, funding sources, or similar criteria. The only thing we rate is whether the public can see from where a think tank gets its money. We apply exactly the same rating methodology to all think tanks.
Other researchers are welcome to use our data set to independently explore correlations between think tank transparency and other factors if they wish to do so.
Which think tanks do you rate?
We rated many of the world's most prominent think tanks, as they are identified by a number of rankings. We do not necessarily endorse these rankings themselves but found them a useful tool for selecting prominent institutions from across the world. As we are particularly familiar with policy research in Eastern and Central Europe, we put a special focus on this area, using contact lists provided by our donor, the Think Tank Fund. We focused on the United Kingdom in 2016, and plan more special ratings in the near future. In selection, we will typically rely on external lists.
Will my own think tank be rated?
If your own think tank has been rated, we have contacted your executive director through the general contact email address provided on your website to verify the results. We conducted two rounds of ratings for the same think tanks, and may expand our sample in the future.
My think tank was rated. Who can I contact?
We welcome all enquiries by think tanks, and look forward to engaging in a constructive dialogue on financial transparency. You are free to post a comment on our blog, or contact Hans Gutbrod with your questions, comments and suggestions. We will take your feedback seriously and get back to you.
How can my think tank improve its rating?
We have released a brief how-to-guide for think tanks on how to improve their financial transparency that you may find useful. The process typically only takes a few hours.
Can you please rate my think tank too?
Yes, if you are a well-established think tank determined to achieve five-star transparency! Here is how.
Can I use your rating tool?
Other researchers are welcome to use our rating tool to rate the transparency of additional think tanks, NGOs, or other organizations. Several others have already successfully used Transparify's tool, to rate a total of nearly 200 institutions. Check our 2015 report for more detail. We encourage fellow researchers to conduct ratings of an expanded number of think tanks within their own countries and independently publish the results. Please contact us if you want to use our tool.
In order to maintain consistency and safeguard quality, we will not include rating results by external researchers in our own data sets.
Hey! What about your own transparency?
Our first phase was funded by the Think Tank Fund. Please see our project proposal for the detailed project budget and an in-depth description of that phase. The project was managed by CRRC, a think tank based in Georgia. Currently, we receive no additional funding. One advantage of our approach is that it is lightweight, and thus can be continued without itself being dependent on donor funding (though of course we can do more with more resources, and remain in conversation with several potential contributors). Look us up on our LinkedIn profiles or on Google to see what other activities in policy research and advocacy we are up to.
What are your future plans?
We very much welcome any suggestions on how we can improve or further develop our initiative in the future. Please post a comment on our blogposts to share your ideas. Thank you!