Redefining transparency for Think Tanks

According to the Transparency & Accountability Initiative, the principle of transparency means that

“public officials, civil servants, managers and directors of companies and organisations and board trustees have a duty to act visibly, predictably and understandably to promote participation and accountability”.

Their definition rapidly jumps from people (within organizations) to information, which should be relevant, accessible, timely and accurate, creating specific information management processes and standards, and developing the abstract principle to a great level of detail. Note that the scope is not limited to governments and public institutions, but expands to the private and corporate world.

Transparency International uses a broader definition.

“Transparency is about shedding light on rules, plans, processes and actions. It is knowing why, how, what, and how much”.

As in the former, the agents of transparency include businessmen. Transparency encompasses the agenda for more open government and for more responsible business. But what is the place of Think Tanks in this picture? Should they watch the demand for more transparency unmoved just because they are nonprofit private institutions? Do the same standards that are being advocated for the disclosure of government activity apply to organizations that seek no profit and do not have direct public responsibilities? When I submitted my grant proposal for this project, one of the pivoting tasks was to work in a definition of transparency that could be considered connatural for Think Tanks. Let’s get started.

A useful way of looking at this is to watch transparency unfold in a bundle of disclosure regimes:

  1. Disclosure of data

Disclosure of data is what the open government movement is explicitly about (see data.gov). In spite of its powerful agenda, it is an effort not without opponents inside governments, political parties, privacy advocates and scholars like Evgeni Morozov, who argue open data might be a purely rhetorical move. Create a portal, populate it with data, make sure nothing else changes. An excellent discussion on the dangers of openwashing can be found here, and the conceptual key to the problem in this tweet:

Relevance for Think Tanks: high

Think Tanks do not hold large datasets that could be released to the public, but they could become a very important customer of open data: their expertise in evidence based policy research should put them in a great position to exploit the potential of open government data. Failure to do so would not support the idea that the liberation of data catalyzes change.

In a second sense, however, disclosure of data is vital for the credibility of Think Tanks. The scientific method requires that the experiments and their results be replicable. Since the lab of social science are statistics, coding, spreadsheets and disaggregated research data in the researchers’ computers, the transparency of Think Tank research output is only guaranteed if the publication of research includes these datasets, pieces of code and spreadsheets. Only when this happens can research be genuinely evaluated by peers and escape the suspect of fabrication.

In 2011 the Center of Global Development committed to a new policy that required to post the data and computer code used for quantitative research.

  1. Disclosure of process

This is the larger category and an heir of TI’s definition. In fact, the notion of process that I am using here includes rules, plans, processes and actions because all of these elements belong to the complete metabolism of an organization. Of course, it is naïve to believe that an organization can and should be completely transparent, but this is a matter for further discussion.

Very often, data published for the general scope of reutilization is less valuable than documents that give faith of the process of decision-making: meeting agendas, memoranda, internal reports and other working documents give insight to organizational activities and processes that would otherwise be opaque. An arguably more significant and deeper level of transparency can thus be obtained from a Right to Information perspective that shifts the focus from data to significant documents.

An important reference in this area is Helen Darbyshire’s paper for the World Bank Institute Proactive Transparency: The future of the right to information?

Relevance for Think Tanks: medium-high

Although not all the categories of documents that apply for the public sector are relevant for Think Tanks, the internal policies and strategies that help align the work of individual experts with the general mission of the institution are an important source of organizational communication, as Andrew Selee has persuasively argued in the first chapter of What should Think Tanks do?. They help steer the institution in a specific direction and create a more robust self-awareness of the organizational personality. They are vital for members to understand the what, why and how of the Think Tank on a daily basis.

Also, access to the content of contracts and agreements with donors and external partners (as opposed to the lamp sums of funding) can be vital to understand the nature of those relations that make up the how much of the organization. The best and most recent example can be seen in the documents disclosed on September 6, 2014 (last Saturday) by a team of NYT journalists led by Eric Lipton, that tied funding offered by the government of Norway to different DC based Think Tanks (mostly Brookings, CGD and the Atlantic Council) to the country’s interests in the oil industry.

  1. Disclosure of financial flows

Funding is perhaps the most important area of transparency for two simple reasons: it is quantitative in nature and it brings immediately to the money equals power equation. Think Tanks are nonprofits, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t have clients. When a donor expects a counterpart for his contribution from the Think Tank that receives the money, the latter might be engaging in advocacy or lobbying activities that exceed their statutory definition. In these cases the institution is clashing with their ethics. Very often there are also important legal issues related to the failure to register as lobbyists or representatives or foreign interests.

Relevance for Think Tanks: high

The basic way to find out if a Think Tank is an independent institution is to 1) retrieve the information about the sources of funding and 2) check that the results of research have not been predefined to meet the expectations of the donors. It sounds easy, but it is actually a gigantic task, the difficult and strenuous result of investigative journalism at its best.

The first step, though, is to advocate for the disclosure of donors in all Think Tanks so that 1) is possible. This alone does not solve the problem, but it alleviates suspicions and sets the ground for investigative work amongst transparency advocates, activists and investigative journalists.

An impressive, systematic and quite comprehensive effort along these lines has been undertaken by Transparify, a team of experts in Think Tanks and nonprofit accountability led by Hand Gutbrod. In their own statement:

“Transparify provides the first-ever global rating of the financial transparency of major think tanks. In early 2014, we visited the websites of over 150 think tanks in over 35 countries to find out whether they provide information on who funds them and how much they receive from each source.”

A highlight from Transparify’s first report, featuring CGD and WRI at the top of the ranking

Jaime Gonzalez-Capitel

One thought on “Redefining transparency for Think Tanks

  1. Molto interessante in particolare per me che ho fatto parte della direzione di una grande multinazionale come la 3M Minnesota che ha fatto della trasparency l’elemento fondamentale della sua policy di mercato e di comunicazione,Complimenti Jaime Francesco Tosi.

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