If you think you will find the answer to this simple question in the blog below, you will be disappointed. All I’m trying to do is to get you to appreciate the depth of the puzzle, and share your own thoughts on the issue.
First, some unpalatable facts and figures. According to data compiled by Transparify, the initiative I work with, UK think tanks are extreme outliers in terms of their financial opacity. Last time we canvassed the websites of leading think tanks worldwide, we rated over half of major policy shops in the United States as transparent. These think tanks disclose on their websites who funds them and how much each major donor gives, either by grouping givers into broad contribution brackets or – the true gold standard – by listing exactly how much each donor gave, and for what specific purpose.
In sharp contrast, in the UK, only one wonkmill we looked at, the Institute for Public Policy Research, cleared the transparency bar. Even worse, we had to rate three household names (International Institute for Strategic Studies, Institute of Economic Affairs, and LSE IDEAS) as “highly opaque” because they provided virtually or literally no information on who was funding their research and advocacy. Overall, the results indicated that Britain was not only trailing the U.S. by a huge margin, but had one of the most opaque policy research landscapes in Europe and, indeed, worldwide.
In response, we decided to focus our efforts on the UK wonk scene this year. In November, we’ll be rating 27 British think tanks, compared to just 11 last time around, and we’ll be extending our media outreach work to all major broadsheets in the country. So far, so bad: we’ve just completed a preliminary assessment of the think tanks we’ll be adding to the study population, and they are even worse than our old cohort. To the best of our knowledge, as of today, out of 27 leading UK thinks tanks, only one (IPPR) is transparent. On the far end of the spectrum, thirteen policy shops are highly opaque, while the remaining thirteen disappoint in a less dramatic fashion.
PRELIMINARY UK RATING RESULTS
|STARS||NUMBER OF THINK TANKS|
Source: Results from last Transparify report (old cohort) plus preliminary rating of Aug 2015 (new additions)
True, some British institutions we rated last year have since told us that they are planning to put more funding information online this year, so Britain is gradually embracing the global trend towards greater think tank transparency. But the central puzzle remains: Why the low baseline? Britain is not a country where transparency or accountability are novel concepts, or where policy analysts live in fear of persecution by an authoritarian government. Think tanks have a long history on the islands, and are well-known and well-understood players in the polity. And the national media over the years have fielded plenty of acrimonious public debates about think tank funding, including accusations of stealth lobbying, highlighting the value of up-front transparency. Indeed, the very concept of think tank transparency ratings was first pioneered in the UK.
As I’m the advocacy manager for Transparify, I’m sorely tempted at this juncture to squeeze in my elevator speech about why financial transparency in policy research and advocacy is really, really important, but for once I’ll resist the temptation. If you still need convincing on this question, just check out the strong arguments in favour of transparency put forward by your peers from other countries.
Instead, I’d just like to throw the question out there for an honest wonk-to-wonk debate: Why are British think tanks so much less transparent than those in the U.S., Germany, Kenya or Georgia? Why don’t British think tanks just go ahead and disclose who funds them, with how much, and for what purposes?
Please share your thoughts in the comments thread below. Thank you!