The Importance of Transparency for Modern Think Tanks

Stimson Spotlight
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The Importance of Transparency for Modern Think Tanks

By Brian Finlay: 

Amidst the most contentious, high-stakes, and mean-spirited campaign for U.S. president in decades, it is difficult to overstate the level of political partisanship that has enveloped American policymaking. At once entertaining and exhausting, our contentious politics is having a remarkably corrosive impact on the state of good public policy. While this is intellectually lamentable, we should also recall that the inability of government to come together and solve big problems is having a real impact on our daily lives. From our inability to innovate solutions to the scourge of violence, or the rise of government debt, and growing tide of terrorism, good public policy has fallen victim to partisanship and power politics in a near perfect storm.

In the early 1900s when the modern think tank was conceived, the world faced a no less daunting array of threats to our common peace and prosperity. The onset of the First World War loomed. The global economy transitioned from one of seemingly unfettered growth to crushing recession. And here in the United States, government only began to seriously grapple with the nation’s deeply divided and shameful history on race relations. In this complex environment, think tanks were born to generate and share public policy solutions, to educate policymakers and the public, and to look beyond the short horizon of current policy to the long-term implications, threat and opportunities that may be looming. Think Tanks were more than just a business. They were born in an era of public service and were dedicated to the betterment of society as a whole.

Today, the think tank industry has grown significantly from those modest beginnings. With more than 6,800 think tanks located in virtually every country, think tanks have come to occupy a prominent place in the development of public policy. This prominence has also opened up a significant degree of rightful scrutiny into the impartiality of these organizations. With few exceptions, the think tank industry has performed admirably. That said, the only equity the modern think tank can claim is its integrity, and in an environment of hyper-partisanship and a more competitive and rapidly shrinking resource base, the industry must be constantly vigilant against the reality or — even the impression — of fee-for-service findings. Building transparency into our business models is therefore essential to long term success as an industry.

According to a new study, nearly half of all think tanks worldwide are now financially transparent. Transparify, a non-profit watchdog, rated 200 think tanks in 47 countries based on their levels of online disclosure. Out of 43 leading think tanks in the U.S., only one-third were judged to be ‘highly transparent.’  I am proud to say that the Stimson Center was one of those think tanks.

Founded in 1989, the Stimson Center is a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank devoted to addressing transnational challenges in order to enhance global peace and economic prosperity. The Stimson Center’s namesake Henry L. Stimson — served twice as Secretary of War under Taft and FDR, and also served as Secretary of State under Hoover. Known for his innovative ideas and pragmatic leadership, Stimson believed strongly in “pragmatic idealism,” the notion that progress toward peace is only possible through practical steps and strong U.S. engagement in the world. Today the Stimson Center carries on his legacy through our nonpartisan, innovative work addressing long-standing and emerging global challenges.

For nearly thirty years, Stimson has also built a remarkable record of success in innovating pragmatic steps to ideal objectives of peace, prosperity, and security. From helping marshal global opinion in support of global rules around the trade in conventional weapons and promoting effective practices into complex humanitarian operations, to building innovative technology solutions to the threat of wildlife trafficking, Stimson has emerged as a pre-eminent ‘impact tank’ that is making a meaningful difference — from the halls of U.S. Congress, to the United Nations, and beyond.

The movement toward transparency in the think tank space, indicated in Transparify’s latest report, represents an important trend and a recognition by think tanks of the critical public good they perform — including here at Stimson. Think tanks today act as trusted conveners of stakeholders in different sectors to solve complex challenges. They also fill a critical role to produce independent, scholarly analysis that provides a roadmap for policymakers and key stakeholders alike.

Addressing transnational 21st century challenges — from climate to conflict to cyber — requires stakeholders in all sectors to come together. Because the global challenges we face must be addressed by a concert of actors to ensure a durable solution, arguably there has never been a more important time for think tanks to add value in working to convene, inform, and elevate public discourse pursuant to a general good. Unless think tanks are seen as truly independent, non-partisan, and philanthropic actors, our impact will be vitiated — diminished by the hyper-partisan spirit that has made the services provided by think tanks so essential in the modern era.

As a think tank, it is clear that progress — measured by the impact of our ideas and actions— is only possible through trust. Transparency, particularly financial transparency, is vital to ensure public trust that institutions ‘practice what they preach,’ and live up to the highest standards of integrity and independence in their work. Think tanks must evolve and challenge ourselves to constantly meet the highest standards of integrity precisely because the modern think tank occupies a space of public trust in pursuit of a public good.

In the end, it is important to remember that think tanks are more than just another ‘industry.’ We are trustees of a historical commitment to good public policy. And the trust placed in us must be nurtured in part through a continued commitment to transparency.
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Brian Finlay is the President and CEO at the nonpartisan Stimson Center. This piece originally appeared in On Think Tanks