Integrity, independence and think tanks

15 May 2018

On Saturday Oliver Wright, Policy Editor for The Times, wrote an article entitled “Big companies ‘buy influence’ with funding for think tanks”. The article’s first sentence was, “Independent think tanks are being paid by companies to write policy reports and to gain access to senior politicians.”  It mentioned Reform in terms of our sponsored meetings:

“Other think tanks make money through organising private meetings with politicians on areas of policy that are of interest to their sponsors. In February Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, attended an event organised by the think tank Reform. The event was sponsored by BAI Communications, whose chief executive attended.”

I have three points to make. The first is that scrutiny is good. Oliver Wright is asking the right question. Think tanks should be challenging themselves about their integrity as much as journalists do. There is no point in an organisation like Reform if we are not offering independent thinking – that is our value and why we are worth supporting. We think a lot about how to ensure that independence. We are also transparent about our corporate support.

Second, there is a clear difference, both legal and ethical, between the work that Reform does and activity termed “lobbying”.  In legal terms, “lobbying” is the organisation of private meetings between Ministers and Permanent Secretaries and companies. Only those parties attend and the aim is to discuss a narrow commercial interest of the firm.

In contrast, at a typical Reform sponsored seminar, there are around 20 attendees other than the policy maker and the sponsor. Those attendees include other companies, frequently including competitors of the sponsor (because those competitors will also have good knowledge of the policy issue in question). They also include public service leaders, MPs and academics i.e. people who would notice immediately if the meeting was actually a lobbying one.

The subject for discussion is a key current policy issue. If a potential sponsor wanted to hold a discussion on a subject of narrow interest to them, we would not go ahead with the event. That has happened over Reform’s life but very rarely. I can think of three examples over the last decade.

Third, some people would say that any sponsored event with a policymaker is necessarily suspect and so shouldn’t happen. (I think of this as the Private Eye point of view.) I don’t agree with this.

If policy issues are going to be properly discussed, all of the relevant voices need to be around the table. An event on (say) the future of the health service should be attended by policymakers, clinicians, leading NHS managers and also those companies that work with the Service in regard to the provision of ideas, equipment, drugs, clinical services and so on. (The NAO estimates that approaching half of the NHS budget is spent on private sector companies.)

Some of those companies will sponsor an event because their work gives them detailed knowledge of the policy question at hand. That is a good thing to do because that direct knowledge and experience, often right up-to-the-minute, greatly helps the thinking of policymakers.

The policy debate would be much diminished if companies and policymakers were not around the same table. Given that, the task is to ensure that the meetings are held with integrity, as I have set out above.

I’m glad to get these thoughts on the record and really happy to keep talking to Oliver and others about these questions.

Andrew Haldenby, Director, Reform

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