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  • Writer's pictureClara Richards

Making Transparency Transparent: What We Learnt

[Editor’s note: This post was written by Hans Gutbrod, coordinator of Transparify, which advocates for greater think tank transparency.] 

In recent months, Transparify has been advocating for think tanks to become more transparent about who funds them. We rated 169 think tanks from across the world, and found that less than a quarter of them are highly transparent. Of the reviewed think tanks in Latin and Central America, only Grupo Faro in Ecuador and IPEA in Brazil were fully transparent, explaining who funds them with what amount and for what purposes. At this point, transparency is the exception rather than the rule.

This is puzzling. At face value, most think tanks should favor transparency. To do their own work, think tanks need governments to be at least somewhat forthcoming. Yet, as the numbers show, think tanks are not particularly transparent themselves. What explains this discrepancy? Are think tanks, as some say, part of an inside clique that has little interest in citizens? Is transparency too new as a concept? Are the donors at fault, as they demand much accounting but little accountability? Or does the discrepancy tell us something more profound about how institutions function?

I will argue that the discrepancy highlights that think tanks (as individuals) follow habits rather than choices. These habits need to be understood, and shaped, so that think tanks can live up to their promise of meaningfully improving the lives of citizens. This argument is relevant in the discussion of capacity building on Politics & Ideas, and suggests that sustained attention can help improve practices.

To change, you need to modify habits, not improve choices. The overwhelming amount of what we do is informed by habits. How we approach research, how we think of policy, how we collaborate, who we talk to, how we write when we sit at the computer, all of these and many more facets of how we work are shaped by habit. This has been highlighted again, recently, by some prominent books. It’s also an idea that is familiar to organizational theorists and, too, to ancient thinkers like Aristotle, who talked about habits within the framework of their conception of virtue.

By contrast, some 20th century economic ideas have led us to emphasize choice, without taking account of the empirical data on how people behave, or the actual costs of choosing. We default back to established ways of work, as they save us the effort of selecting among all the possible options. Understanding the salience of habit matters for making think tanks more effective internally, but it also matters for how think tanks conceive of their own impact. Providing an additional good choice to decision-makers is unlikely to make a difference, unless it provides a single ideal solution to a pressing problem that the decision-maker needs to solve. Such ideal solutions (cheaper, popular, low-risk, legal) are rare and thus not a great benchmark. Instead, think tanks could think of themselves as trying to shape, at least to some extent, the habits of decision-making.

The emphasis on habit is not just an abstract idea, it’s also personal experience. We perhaps had some impact on particular policies while I was working at a research organization in the Caucasus, but what was more important was that together with partners we worked on changing the habits of politicians in Georgia, by demonstrating that good survey work could inform them about the needs and the views of citizens in ways that was relevant to their own political plans.

Given the prevalence of habits, inconsistencies in performance are much more normal than own rhetoric typically makes us believe. To take a familiar example, even those of us who are comfortable with computer software rarely use it as optimally as we could. A few years ago I discovered Windows-key+”D” as the combination that instantly brings up the desktop. Previously I had been faithfully minimizing windows, click by click. Most likely many readers have had similar experiences, of discovering a shortcut to previously cumbersome practices. And we know that there are many more solutions that we do not learn. Why? Again, we do get used to inhabiting our dysfunctional equilibria, as we have many other things to cope with. Between the 1970s and the early 1990s the concept of “entropy” was used to describe why sometimes it feels like we are walking in water. Entropy, also popularized by writers such as Thomas Pynchon, of course had more to say about our condition, but it reminded us of our limitations. There is little to suggest that the grooves of habit, so powerful for individuals, are magically smoothened in institutions.

This power of habit is perhaps the strongest challenge that capacity building runs into. What we do is not so much determined by our capacities, but by our habits. Consequently, single interventions typically have limited results. It takes many iterations to change habits.

What, then, can help us move forward? One key measure is sustained external attention to practice, ideally coupled with a degree of external consequence. Arguably, the practice of hotels internationally improved as a result of powerful criteria, externally applied, with increased demand for those that performed well.

Transparify illustrates one such approach, making think tank practices comparable, rendering transparency transparent, and engaging institutions, encouraging them to be as transparent as most of them would want government to be. We did one round of ratings for 2014, and will do another round for early 2015. At this point, it will be possible to see which think tanks are content with remaining opaque, and which ones care about transparency. This, too, will help us understand what institutions we deal with.

We think this approach of systematic external review is only a beginning, and a particularly promising avenue for improving think tank practice internationally – ideally a field in which think tanks from the South could and should take the lead, since it would make such innovation particularly credible.

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