New paper on the standards of transparency for think tanks

Conference Milan

Next Saturday, July 4 I will be presenting at the II International Conference on Public Policy in Milan, Italy the results of my research on the accountability of think tanks. The paper, entitled “Towards new standards in the ethics of policy research organizations” explores the following questions:

  • How can we speak of the transparency of think tanks beyond the disclosure of funding?

Financial transparency is an important tool to uncover the influence of special interest in the work of think tanks; however, it’s clearly not sufficient if it’s not followed by more insightful research on the content of policy recommendations that can identify who final beneficiaries are and what is the ideological framing of a certain organization. In other words, the mere acceptance of financial transparency as a sufficient index of openness can reinforce the perception of compliant organizations as sources of non-aligned expertise, instead of revealing the specific forms of influence brokerage and power-knowledge interactions. But can advocates push their demands further and identify new typologies of critical information for proactive disclosure?

  • Should think tanks be accountable in spite of their formal independence from both the public and the private for-profit sectors?

The notion of accountability is a very strong topic of debate among public administration scholars and practitioners. Without a commonly accepted definition, it stands for the ability of public servants and elected officials to be responsive towards citizens, but it’s a heavily context-dependent notion with severe operational difficulties. Can this notion be applied in the context of (usually ) private institutions like think tanks? What adaptations and requirements should be met for this translation to happen?

  • Is current investigative journalism efficient in promoting an informed debate about the role of policy research organizations in advanced democracies?

Information covered by the media is naturally skewed towards the ‘newsworthy’. Can this feature be supportive of a nuanced discussion about the role of think tanks, or does it naturally prevent the public from distinguishing between more and less accountable think tanks?

You can read the abstract below and access the complete paper here. Also, feel free to browse the rest of the panels of this first-tier conference.

The traditional understanding of American Think Tanks as neutral sources of technical expertise free of ideological orientation has been severely damaged both by the advent and dominance of advocacy focused institutions since the nineteen eighties (Rich, 2005) and by radical critiques according to which the field of Think Tanks has relegated social and political scientists working in university departments to the margins of public debate, a move that has especially damaged leftist thinkers (Medvetz, 2012). Departing from the acknowledgement that in the twenty first century bias and ideology are not to be considered obscure weaknesses, but much rather strategic elements and definers of the set of values that underlie the work of any credible Think Tank, this paper will analyze the complex feedback between investigative journalism and financial transparency as a collaborative enterprise aimed at exposing the relation between research and interest. Both unintended consequences and positive outcomes of the investigation/disclosure alliance will be highlighted using, among other evidence, recent pieces appeared in the major American newspapers and interviews with scholars of different Think Tanks based in Washington, DC in view of attaining a more nuanced notion of accountability. Different institutional notions of credibility and creation of value will then be compared with the most advanced standards derived from the public sector (accountability) and from the business and marketing fields (non-profit branding), but specifically applied to the field of Think Tanks. The results will be highly valuable for both scholars in the field, transparency advocates and practitioners, especially if involved with new policy research enterprises.

Key words: Think Tanks, accountability, transparency, ideology, bias

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