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Think Tanks influence public policy, but who influences them?

Intercambio Climatico

In the debate over whether the US should raise the minimum wage, the Employment Policies Institute has emerged as think tank cited in opposition to the increase.

The name ‘think tank’ gives the institute some level of respect as an independent research body and has been cited by news reports and opponents to the policy change.

Despite calling itself a think tank, the Employment Policies Institute is not one at all. Rather, it is a front group supported by the public relations firm, Berman and Co.

The connection between the Employment Policies Institute and Berman was mentioned in only 3% of news stories that cited the institute or quoted its research director.

The problem is, in part, due to a lack of transparency among think tanks. The impacts go well beyond US policy debates and impact Western and developing countries.

“Think tanks can play a positive role producing independent, in-depth policy research to inform politicians, media and the public. As key players in democratic politics, they have a responsibility to be transparent about their operations,” said Dr Hans Gutbrod, executive director for Transparify’s.

A first-ever rating of think tank transparency reveals that many do not disclose where the money is coming from, especially ones established in developing countries. Only 21 out of 169 think tanks assessed are considered to be ‘highly transparent,’ according to a survey conducted by Transparify.

Think TanksThink tanks, like the conservative Heritage Foundation and the liberal Center for American Progress, have increasingly come under criticism for their political leanings. These influential research bodies say they are providing rigorous analysis for making policy prescriptions. That may not be the case, especially when it comes to the influence of money.

Think tanks leading in transparency come from around the world, such as Groupo Faro from Ecuador, the Centre for Monitoring and Research from Montenegro, the African Economic Research Consortium from Kenya and the World Resources Institute from the US.

Two of the world’s leading international development think tanks also made the list: The Center for Global Development based in the US and the Overseas Development Institute from the UK. Meanwhile, the democracy promotion think tank funded by billionaire George Soros, the Open Society Foundation, was among the worst on the list.

The majority of think tanks provide little to no information regarding where their funding comes from. Gutbrod expects the number of transparent think tanks to double by the end of the year. He says it is vital for all to be transparent given the influence of think tanks in their respective countries.

“Making think tanks financially transparent is not a panacea, but it is an important step on the road to making developing country policies work better for the poor,” says Till Bruckner, advocacy manager for Transparify.

Some think tanks took steps to improve their transparency when Transparify began asking them questions about what is being disclosed. He said the Center for Global Development said it was working on better transparency internally.

“My impression was that disclosing funders had been on their agenda for a long time, but they just hadn’t gotten around to implementing it yet,” said Bruckner to Humanosphere. “We do believe that being transparent about who funds you is a necessary part of safeguarding and signalling integrity.”

One group said that it already had a mechanism in place and would not be making any changes. The point in the effort is not to reveal every single person who supports a think tank, but to show the major influencers. An index serves as the starting point for think tank transparency and accountability.

“We’re aware that other factors count too, and we certainly welcome a debate in the policy research community about what these other factors may be,” said Bruckner. “We contacted over 150 think tanks one by one, and we’re certainly listening to what they are telling us.”

“We hope this will evolve into a broader debate within the think tank community .


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]