For think tank researchers, governmental transparency is like oxygen. You can operate with little, but it’s hard to get things done. To provide informed analysis, we need data, financial information and other governmental records. For this reason, too, many policy researchers have favored the worldwide movement towards more open government. More openness means faster progress for research and better evidence for assessments.
If you accept some form of this argument, it follows (for most people) that think tanks themselves should be transparent. By being transparent, a think tank is a credible advocate for government to be more open. Moreover, the research itself is more credible if it is transparent about the financial, academic and data resources it draws on. Citizens (and decisionmakers) want to be able to trust an analysis. There are a number of ways of earning such trust, and being open is perhaps the most attractive long-term strategy.
The case in favor of transparency is, of course, well-established. Yet a closer look at the think tank websites, in the UK and internationally, shows that not all think tanks exhibit such transparency in practice. One UK initiative, Who Funds You, showed that only some UK think tanks are highly transparent about their donors. Our own initiative, Transparify, found that less than a quarter of 169 think tanks worldwide are fully transparent about who funds them. In other words, the majority of think tanks consume transparency but do not produce it.
In our view, this is where communications teams should come in to ensure that think tanks are more transparent. At their best, communications teams can connect institutions to the outside world, and bring new ideas in, in addition to pushing ideas out. Moreover, building trust is a critical long-term task for communications teams at think tanks. Getting noticed is only the first step towards having impact. Trust is needed to convert attention into action.
In think tanks, communications teams are best placed to generate this trust. They have time to concentrate on long-term transparency. Think tank managers, by contrast, face divergent tasks, with a strong priority on fundraising. Communications teams can be more aware of the programmatic need to build public trust than researchers, who may be focused on research results and the ongoing discussions among colleagues in their field. Although financial departments are often enthusiastic about being transparent (see the post of World Resources Institute’s CFO, Steve Barker), they are not always aware that they, too, can contribute content to a think tank website. A few development officers may need convincing that donors are not a hoardable treasure. They can worry that donor lists will be raided. It’s an understandable concern, but not one that is overwhelmingly plausible. Most people with minimal charitable instincts receive multiple solicitations a week. Being a highly trusted think tank is one of the best arguments one can make to donors for deserving support.
Bringing these different parts of a think tank together – management, researchers, finances, development – the communications team can play the lead role in ensuring a think tank becomes more transparent. Though other departments are involved, the Head of Communications is the most likely Chief Trust Officer of a think tank, in establishing a connection between the institution and the wider public.
Financial transparency is not the only type of transparency that matters, but it is a great entry point for the move towards more accountability. This, too, may be a reason why many think tanks have embraced transparency in recent years (here, for example, CGD’s post on transparency).
How to go about this practically? Becoming transparent does not need to take much time. Transparify has a list of think tanks that demonstrate exemplary transparency, we are willing to help, and have put together a quick guide on how to become a five-star institution, here.
We will undertake another rating of think tanks at the end of 2014 (current UK results here), and hope to have many of the think tanks that contribute to WonkComms among the leaders in the field. It would be great for the think tanks themselves, and for building the public trust in policy research that we all need to succeed.
Hans Gutbrod runs Transparify, an initiative aimed at increasing think tank transparency. Transparify is funded by the Think Tank Fund of the Open Society Foundations. Hans has worked in different think tank contexts, is a regular contributor to On Think Tanks, and also set up Find Policy, a site that delivers faster and more focused search of think tank research. Hans is on Twitter.