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).

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