Heartland revisited: How to avoid accusations of influence

The Heartland controversy rolls on. If you’ve missed it, this is the leak of documents from the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based libertarian think tank. The documents, which include the names of previously anonymous donors and funders, were first published on the DeSmogBlog and ThinkProgress Green websites. Heartland says at least one of the documents is a forgery, but the story has reignited the debate over climate science and the funding of groups on either side of the ‘debate.’

The most recent twist in the story has been the revelation of how the documents were released. Environmental scientist Peter Gleick, president and co-founder of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security based in Oakland, California, used an assumed name to obtain the documents. He’s been criticised for a lack of scientific integrity and unethical conduct. Gleick’s defenders say that his actions were taken in the name of a greater good (exposing who funds activities they believe misrepresent climate science), and that scientists have a right (even a duty) to engage with political issues. They also say that Gleick was acting as any good journalist would (although perhaps that’s not the best line of defence, with the Leveson inquiry into journalistic ethics going on in the UK at the moment).

Gleick himself has said that he acknowledges “…a serious lapse of [his] own and professional judgment and ethics.” Meanwhile, the Heartland Institute is trying to get some heat under its ‘Fakegate‘ presentation of the affair, depicting it as a concerted attempt by its opponents to discredit alternative positions on climate change.

I’ve suggested here before that if think tanks want to be public institutions in the sense of influencing public debate as well as public policy (and if they want to retain their publicly funded tax breaks), then they should consider how they could operate much more transparently. However, the Heartland Institute has made some points that are worth considering further in relation to transparency (the text below is taken from a Q&A section of Heartland’s website):

“Q: Why doesn’t Heartland reveal the identities of its donors?

A: For many years, we provided a complete list of Heartland’s corporate and foundation donors on this Web site and challenged other think tanks and advocacy groups to do the same. To our knowledge, not a single group followed our lead.
After much deliberation and with some regret, we now keep confidential the identities of all our donors for the following reasons:
  • People who disagree with our views have taken to selectively disclosing names of donors who they think are unpopular in order to avoid addressing the merits of our positions. Listing our donors makes this unfair and misleading tactic possible. By not disclosing our donors, we keep the focus on the issue.
  • We have procedures in place that protect our writers and editors from undue influence by donors. This makes the identities of our donors irrelevant.
  • We frequently take positions at odds with those of the individuals and companies who fund us, so it is unfair to them as well as to us to mention their funding when expressing our point of view.
  • No corporate donor gives more than 5 percent of our budget, and most give far less than that. We have a diverse funding base that is too large to accurately summarize each time we issue a statement.

If you do not approve of this policy, your argument is not with us but with those who would abuse a sincere effort at transparency. We urge anyone who sees the need for objective research and commentary on public policy issues to join us as a Member or donor.”

Interesting points – but surely wrong. Not disclosing donors has obviously failed to keep the focus on the issue, far from it. The identity of donors is then not irrelevant; even if it is to staff at Heartland on a day-to-day level, it isn’t to those who read Heartland’s materials and need to trust their integrity without further research. Being open about donors would help to support its claims of integrity (for example, by allowing us to see where the Institute had taken positions at odds with funders’ views). And the final statement has an interesting implication: if you want the work of the Institute to be objective, then you’ll have to pay for it, otherwise shut up (of course, this is not what the Institute meant to suggest).

It’s true that most think tanks can be made to sound sinister. It’s easy for critics to list donors and insinuate about their influence, or even better, to speculate on ‘shadowy funders’ in the absence of public information. This is exacerbated by the fact that not many people really know what think tanks do anyway, despite their ambitions to inform public debate.

Even where funding information is available, it doesn’t necessarily mean that ‘policy wash‘ has been going on; particular funders will understandably want to support organisations that see the world in the same way they do. And no-one when they’re young dreams of wanting to grow up to be a shill.

But we wouldn’t be discussing this at all if think tanks were 100 per cent open, not just about who funds them but perhaps even more importantly how they go about their work. Both require much greater transparency. The way out of the dilemma posed by the Heartland Institute’s response is not to tweak donor policy or document security; it’s to rethink the think tank in its entirety – starting with who pays for them and who participates in them.

Competitive advantage

One of the questions we’ve been asked most often is why established ‘competitors’ couldn’t just appropriate our idea. The short answer is that they could – we haven’t invented any proprietary technology – but we don’t think they will, at least not quite yet.

This question is part of any Need-Approach-Benefits-Competition (NABC) analysis. Why hasn’t this idea hasn’t been done before? More importantly, why couldn’t the competition respond? And most pointedly, what is the one ‘killer advantage’ that no-one else will be able to compete with? Of course this assumes that this isn’t just a bad idea that no-one in their right mind would want to appropriate, but to be fair that’s not the reaction we’ve been getting so far, so let’s proceed on the basis that we’re onto something.

First though, a recap. We’re developing a new think tank where the research and policy analysis conducted by the people who use and provide public services in an online social network. This idea derives from three (related) thoughts:

  • Think tanks could be meaningful vehicles for public involvement in public policy – in an age of mass participation, the notion of closed, hierarchically organised expertise seems increasingly outdated;
  • Think tanks could be open and transparent – from how they are funded and who sets their agenda, to how they conduct research and how they derive their findings and recommendations, and this could improve their work and enhance their impact;
  • The internet and social networks in particular could help to achieve both of these things.

Disruptive innovations that prove successful often seem obvious in retrospect, so why hasn’t this been done before? In an age of social networks, we’d be the first to admit that it’s a pretty obvious idea. but the reasons that established businesses don’t develop or respond effectively to disruptive innovations often come down to money, skills or awareness, so let’s consider these in turn.

Disruptive innovation is obviously disruptive for established businesses. It costs money to shift from one way of doing things to another. Effectively we’d be asking traditional think tanks to make a fundamental shift from offline to online. Then again, social media and social networks are pretty cheap to experiment with, and this is a transition that a think tank could make over time – growing an online community while they gradually reduce their reliance on traditional (and expensive) offline ways of working, and introducing their existing customers slowly to the new approach as appropriate.

What about skills? There’s no doubt it would be a big shift in this respect as well, from ‘thought leadership’ and managing projects, to facilitating the thoughts of others and moderating communities. It’s not only a different skill set, it’s a different mindset – and probably therefore a different group of people. But again, the transition could happen over time. A think tank could establish a separate online operation, staffed with different people, and see how this develops (creating new ‘greenfield’ business units has often been critical to the success of disruptive innovations by established companies, because it gives the new venture the required autonomy to do things differently from the main business).

There could be a problem with branding here, but again establishing a separate greenfield operation could get round this. Some of the most well-known think tanks have quite strong brands (at least in the Westminster bubble), but this could also prove a barrier if they tried to set up a new, more open, more diverse online community. For example, the Institute of Economic Affairs has a strong brand but it’s for liberal economic thought, so it would most likely repel as many people as it would attract; equally IPPR or Demos might appeal to some audiences but not others. Less political (partisan) think tanks wouldn’t have this problem, but then again they don’t have very prominent brands to begin with, so this might not be an advantage overall. A small number of UK think tanks, such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies and The King’s Fund, have both strong brands and non-partisan credibility but they are also sector-specific, which obviously narrows the breadth of their appeal if they wanted to develop a ‘full-spectrum’ online think tank that encompassed many sectors and issues (which is what we’re trying to do here). Creating a new brand, but one which is related in some way to an existing brand, might be the way to go (the Center for American Progress has in effect done this with the ThinkProgress comment site, although this reinforces the impression of partisanship rather than reducing it).

So it seems that established think tanks could do what we’re attempting to do. Why then don’t we think they will, at least for a while? The reason is that most think tanks aren’t driven to want to serve the market better (which is what disruptive innovations are designed to do), rather they’re focused on finding better ways to promote their own viewpoints, which is not the same thing. An open, public, online community might not help them do that; because it couldn’t be directed easily it might even disrupt their mission. Our ‘killer advantage’ might turn out to be think tanks themselves.

Why think tanks aren’t popular

We’re beginning to think about what our website should look like. This development blog – nice and clean though it is (thanks WordPress) – isn’t our proper website of course, just our temporary home. But it’s got us thinking about think tank websites and what they say about think tanks themselves.

We’ve noted before that most think tanks’ websites aren’t that popular compared to other sites. Few of the most well-known think tanks make it into the top 50,000 sites in the UK (new economics foundation ranks 23,123rd, which is much better than most). It’s not that popularity is everything. If it was, we’d just stick a few pictures of cute kittens on the home page and watch the ad dollars roll in. But think tanks should be more popular than they are.

Think tanks engage with matters of public interest, from the distribution of wealth to welfare benefits, employment to the economy, conservation to climate change. This is the stuff of everyday news and talk radio phone-in shows. Since most think tanks aim to influence the ‘climate of ideas’, it might help if they were better known by the general public. So why aren’t think tanks more popular, specifically what can we learn about why from their websites?

Firstly, their websites are not especially welcoming or accessible to a broad audience in terms of their structure, presentation or language. Have a scan through the sites we’ve added to the links section on the bottom-right of this page. They’re broadsheet newspapers, which is fine if you’re a broadsheet newspaper reader, but not mass market. Further, they aren’t designed with a clear offer to audiences such as policymakers, decision-makers, professionals and practitioners, or just interested members of the public. They don’t appear to recognise and aren’t designed around their needs. They aren’t especially helpful.

Secondly, related to this, these sites are all about what they (the think tanks) think, not your views or experiences. Look at how they are organised and laid out. There are sometimes blogs prominently displayed (not always though), but they typically receive very few comments. These are not places of public debate – they’re editorials, not exchanges. The Centre for Policy Studies has a new ‘debate‘ series, but it’s set-up between two members of the great and the good (it’s also buried away in a menu). The Social Market Foundation has branded its blog ‘Market Square‘ – a “social hub” and “ideas exchange” – but there seems to be little dialogue going on there. Similarly, the Fabian Society established its blog as a separate site – Next Left – but there doesn’t appear to be much debate happening on it, especially when you compare it to something like Conservative Home or the comment/blog site established by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, ThinkProgress (103,000 Twitter followers – but we’ll consider think tanks’ use of social media in another post).

Instead, whether because of a fundamental policy elitism or not, think tanks seem to be much more interested in receiving your support and donations than they do in inviting your views. Given this, it’s not really that surprising that the public largely stays away.

Does this matter? It does if you believe that think tanks could play a more public role in improving public policy. Consider this point, worth quoting in full from a recent article by Felix Oldenburg from Ashoka on the Guardian Professional Network, and how it might apply to the future (or not) of think tanks:

“Consequently, much like organisations need a business model to attract investors, they increasingly need a “social model”, a reason why people should want to engage with them. Any executive without a plan to empower his staff, turn stakeholders into co-creators, and create hybrid value chains with social innovators opening up new markets may find himself a freelancer soon.”

Try something new

We’ve been thinking about value a lot recently, as we begin to test out the business model and pricing for our new think tank. We fully expect it to be tough job to convince potential customers and partners to work with us initially – ours is a very different approach after all, and it’s understandable, however much they might like the idea in principle, if many of these potential customers want to see how it works in practice first and in particular see some successful case studies.

But there’s another way of looking at this, which is the steadily eroding value proposition of traditional think tanks. As we’ve suggested before, think tanks have an important role to play in policy, but they will have to change in order to continue to do this. Here’s the dramatic way of putting it: if we don’t re-invent the think tank, will it still exist in ten years’ time?

It’s no secret that most think tanks live a hand-to-mouth existence. Look through their published accounts and you’ll see that some think tanks aren’t regarded by their auditors as ‘going concerns’. And this is where recent accounts are available; quite a few high-profile think tanks don’t appear to have filed accounts with the Charity Commission for some time, which is hardly reassuring. And now no-one (i.e. the organisations that typically commission them) has any money. Do the math.

Think tanks won’t survive through better management or cost-cutting though. Rather the problem is that the traditional think tank value proposition is beginning to crumble to dust. Consider what think tanks do and the way they traditionally do it, and whether it’s more likely or not that someone else will develop a way to do it better/faster/cheaper over the next few years (you can guess what we think). Let’s consider research, analysis and access in turn.

With regards research, my own experience of commissioning think tanks suggests that you can struggle to get much value between let’s say £20-35k. This is because it doesn’t pay for much time from the better/more senior think tank staff, the work is basically done by someone just out of university, and by the time the project gets going they’re already beginning to chase the next commission. Much lower than this and think tanks get less interested (though they may still bid for the work) – the commissioner of the project will understandably still want a good solid piece of work, but because of think tanks’ high overheads it will be a struggle to devote that much serious resource to it and the project margin just isn’t there. Consultants could be better value at the lower price point, but of course you won’t get the ‘brand advantage’ from working with them compared to some think tanks.

Then there’s the more fundamental point about what kind of research you want done and to what quality. Anything below this kind of price point (that is up to £35k) and you’re basically looking at largely desk research, with perhaps some interviews for case studies (any more field research than this and the economics wouldn’t make sense for the think tank). So here comes the point about the eroding value: surely this kind of activity can be carried out better/faster/cheaper through a crowdsourcing approach, if it’s ‘just’ about gathering and collating what we already know? (Again, you can anticipate our answer).

If you have deeper pockets and a more complicated research question/project, then you’ll also want to consider academic researchers since they are typically more likely to have the specialist research skills that such projects might require (and on some bids, think tanks will partner with a university for this reason, which can work out well but also poses a risk whether the collaboration will work in practice). But again, we’ve suggested that even multi-faceted research projects could be conducted largely online in collaboration with a large community of practitioners and service users.

As for analysis, well we’ve considered this in a previous post, but the headline is that most think tanks don’t really do serious policy analysis. What actually often happens is that charities and other commissioners pay a think tank to write a report that kinda looks like ‘research’ but for which certain findings are ‘anticipated’ (it’s basically research that isn’t, aimed at audiences who can’t tell the difference). Here we call it ‘policy wash.’ Now, as the commissioner, if you know what you want to say, why not just write it yourself and pay a think tank to slap their logo on the front of it? (In some cases we’ve been told about this is basically what’s happened).

And with regards ‘access’, it’s unclear what exactly you’re buying when you commission a think tank. If they promise access then they’re getting into dangerous territory (see last post), but if they don’t again you’re probably better spending your time and money working with your peer organisations on a public campaign – something that the internet can now help you with via web-based collaboration tools, social media campaigns etc.

So yes, we need to ensure we develop the right value proposition for our customers, but existing think tanks also need to consider the value they currently offer to customers – otherwise it’s our bet that those customers will go elsewhere.

Access all areas

The world is run by the people who show up, so the (variously attributed) saying goes. It helps if you’ve received an invite though. Which organisations were and were not invited to attend today’s ‘summit meeting’ on the NHS reforms is indicative of how most governments try to use their power to grant access in the service of their political goals. It was a PR own goal of course. It’s also bad news for better policymaking.

Health minister Simon Burns insisted that the selective guest list was not “odd at all”, and that the summit was (only) for organisations who are “constructively engaged in implementing the [NHS] modernisation.” Leaving aside the obvious joke that if this was the criteria then they could have held the meeting in a phone box, the less amusing implication is probably entirely deliberate: get in line or get lost.

In my experience, many organisations – from public sector organisations to charities – are keenly aware of this dilemma, especially in relation to incoming or popular administrations. You could feel the power draining away from the previous Government in the way that organisations began to turn their attention to David Cameron’s Conservative Party. Everyone suddenly developed a strategy to engage the Tories. Pretty much everything that could be badged as a contribution to the ‘Big Society’ had the label slapped on it, in contrast to public and media scepticism.

This dilemma – whether to emphasise your ‘resonance’ to the government’s agenda or risk being left out – also applies to think tanks, even those with longstanding and consistent ideological positions. The greatest fear in thinktankland is not so much being wrong as much as appearing irrelevant. Even some of those think tanks that claim to ‘think the unthinkable’ can appear to trade on a notion of ‘access’, that they can ‘help get you in’ – whether to the minister’s office or the newspapers.

Do think tanks have the access they suggest? Examining which think tanks are lobbying which ministers makes interesting reading. In the majority of cases think tanks are just participants in roundtable meetings at which ministers are present; worthwhile perhaps but not quite the ‘having a private word with the minister over a sherry’ image that some of them seem to suggest when fundraising (or come to that, when hosting intimate ‘Dinner Discussions’).

On the flip side, if think tanks really do have privileged access, then how democratic is this? The danger is of course that facilitating introductions could cross the line into ‘cash for access’, and thanks to the invention of hidden cameras we all know what that looks like (warning: it’s not pretty).

Our new think tank project is based on the simple proposition that excluding your opponents, or those who haven’t paid you money, is not a formula for better policy. We’re investigating a membership offer for organisations as part of our business model, but it’s for help with engaging the providers and users of public services to develop better social policy, not as a way of (supposedly) getting access to those in power. If you want that, hire a lobbying firm.

A more confident response by the Government to criticisms of its health reforms would have been to invite its most vociferous opponents to the summit meeting and genuinely listen to what they have to say. A more confident offer from thinktankland would be to make research and policy work much more public, more accessible and more open, as a way to improve its credibility and impact with those in power.

So yes, it’s true that the world is run by the people who show up, but we need more places where more people can show up to, places where we’re welcomed whatever our views and where our views can matter.

It’s 100 days tomorrow until we launch our new think tank. And unlike the health summit, everyone’s invited.

Paying for policy

The controversy of the week (in thinktankland at least) has been the leak of documents from the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based libertarian outfit, or as they style themselves, a “national nonprofit research organization dedicated to finding and promoting ideas that empower people.” The documents, which include the names of previously-anonymous donors and funders, were first published on the DeSmogBlog and ThinkProgress Green websites. Heartland says at least one of the documents is a forgery, but the story has reignited the debate over climate science (did it ever die down?) and the funding of groups on either side of the ‘debate.’ It also raises broader questions about the legitimacy of think tanks.

We wouldn’t be developing our own think tank if we didn’t think they had a useful and legitimate role to play in political and social debate. Think tanks originally developed as ‘separate but connected’ institutions to improve policy analysis in government, especially in strategic and military matters. As they proliferated, they’ve become more independent and public institutions that address a wide range of areas of public and social policy, including environmental issues. This greatly increased diversity of organisations and issues is healthy, but it brings with it increased questions of legitimacy. In short, if think tanks want a more public role, shouldn’t they also accept the demand for greater transparency and accountability that comes with this?

The Heartland Institute has apologised to those donors whose identities were revealed by the leak, because they were apparently promised anonymity. But why was it ever legitimate that these donors were private, when they were funding work on matters of public interest? If think tanks want to influence political and public debate and decision-making, we should know who’s funding their efforts. Think tanks in the UK also vary in transparency; this threatens to undermine the public legitimacy of think tanks generally, since it reinforces the impression that they are secretive, insiderish organisations that exert considerable influence behind closed doors – an impression that many think tanks might like to play along with but which is rarely accurate.

Of course, funding does not necessarily mean influence. It’s easy but crass to dismiss an argument simply because of who might have produced it or funded its production. But just as science is less susceptible to being ‘informed’ by funders if it’s conducted fairly and transparently, the same goes for policy work. If there’s nothing to hide, then why hide anything? The more open, the better, including the methods used to reach a particular conclusion (something we’ve discussed in a previous post). Otherwise, you’re open to being accused of ‘policywash’ – producing ‘research’ reports that just happen to say exactly what might benefit the funder’s interests (I think I’ve just invented this word; it’s like greenwash, in that it represents the same relationship to genuine policy work as greenwash does to genuine environmentalism). Furthermore, good scientists are open-minded when it comes to new information. Good policy wonks should be as well, including a willingness to cite ‘evidence against interests’ (as the late Christopher Hitchens used to say). This makes it all the more problematic that the outputs from many of the most ‘vocal’ policy think tanks are so predictable. Look at this, the Institute of Economic Affairs has published new research in favour of tax cuts! Well, whatever next?

Most think tanks also cost the public money, since they have charitable status. In the Heartland case, as the New York Times has suggested (but the Institute itself has denied), the leaked documents raise questions about whether the organisation has undertaken partisan political activities (including the improbably-named ‘Operation Angry Badger’), which would be a potential violation of federal tax law governing nonprofit groups. In the UK, there have been broadly equivalent questions around think tanks, notably the case of the Smith Institute, which was found by the Charity Commission to be insufficiently balanced and neutral as charity law requires (the Institute is no longer a charity).

If think tanks want to be public institutions in the sense of influencing public debate as well as public policy (and if they want to retain their publicly funded tax breaks), then they should consider how they could operate much more transparently, which is something we’ll be trying to do with our new think tank. A good place to start would be allowing the public to understand how you work, who sets your agenda – and who pays your bills. That’s one way to ’empower people’, after all. (Full disclosure: right now I’m paying all the bills).

Making policy public

Our aim with the new think tank project is to inform better social policy. In what ways do we think policy might be better through our approach, and what is it that makes for ‘better’ policy anyway?

‘Better policy’ as defined in Whitehall (and thinktankland) might be different from the definition put forward by those at the frontline and by the public. For most of us, good policy is whatever improves people’s lives and/or saves money. Obvious enough – but not necessarily a view shared in policymaking circles.

The Institute for Government published a report last month on policy success. As voted by the Political Studies Association, the biggest successes of the past 30 years include privatisation, the introduction of the national minimum wage, Scottish devolution, the ban on smoking in public places, pension reform and the Climate Change Act. The IfG’s definition of ‘success’ here is “policies… which achieve or exceed their initial goals in such a way that they become embedded; able to survive a change of government; represent a starting point for subsequent policy development or remove the issue from the immediate policy agenda.”

That’s a definition of policies that endure (and there’s a lot to be said for greater continuity in policy, particularly from a practitioner perspective). But it’s not necessarily a definition of policies that are effective. Are we excluding privatised energy utilities and railways, and mounting public anger at their seemingly ever-increasing prices? That just under a quarter of UK adults still smoke, given that smoking is responsible for 80,000 premature deaths every year? That nearly 40 per cent of adults don’t have any pension provision? Rising carbon emissions? The desire for Scottish independence, which devolution (for some of its proponents at least) was meant to finish off?

It would have been interesting to know what the public considers the best policies in recent history. This might also have brought with it a different understanding of ‘success’ – less perhaps about policies that stick, more about policies that benefit society. Just as an experiment, we’ve started our own survey for the best policies of the past 30 years. Let us know your views.

The former perspective on ‘policy success’ – something of an echo of the Yes Minister ‘it was a bad idea but terribly well-executed’ school of thought – might reflect the difficulty policymakers have inducing lasting social change, in turn because this requires a much more open, learning-based and systemic approach than government is typically able to embrace. (See one of the best papers published by any think tank in the past 20 years, Jake Chapman’s System Failure, which despite being widely acclaimed for its plea to recognise and embrace complexity, has seemingly been forgotten if we look today at how Whitehall and, ironically, think tanks continue to develop policy in largely mechanistic and reductionist ‘command and control’ terms).

Lasting change in this sense is often likely to require the development of broader and more sustained coalitions. The IfG report notes the importance of ‘building a wider constituency of support’, but seems to limit this to cross-party alliances and working with campaigning civil society organisations (such as Friends of the Earth) – which is not the same as working with wider society.

To return our new think tank then, we want research and policy work to be led by practitioners and the public not just because this could help inform ‘better policy’ in the sense of more likely to achieve government-defined objectives, but also because it could help us to (re-) define what ‘success’ is, which is to say what we care about changing or improving. In other words, it’s about democratic deliberation, not just ‘driving delivery’. So don’t forget to vote.