Mixing Advocacy, Scholarly Research and Journalism: Can the New America Foundation Square the Circle?

In the spring semester of 2008, I was a fellow researching a paper on think tank ethics ("The Perils of Non-Profit Journalism") at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. I was thus pleased when the New America Foundation's President, Steve Coll, spoke at the Shorenstein Center on March 11, 2008, and expressed his commitment to high ethical standards for journalists, researchers and other think tank staff.

New America Foundation logoThe New America Foundation is a Washington, DC based think tank that has pioneered the introduction of journalism to the traditional think tank mix of advocacy and research. A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Steve Coll is the former Managing Editor of the Washington Post and spent 20 years at the Post as a reporter and editor. Currently, in addition to serving as New America's President, Mr. Coll writes a column for The New Yorker magazine. Launched in 1999, the New America Foundation currently employs more than 100 individuals and has an annual budget of over $10 million. Its Chairman of the Board is Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, Inc.

What ethics policies are adopted by such institutions is not merely an academic question. Fueled by tax-deductible donations and an explosion in philanthropic assets, think tanks have dramatically grown in size and influence. According to the Government Research Service, U.S. think tanks increased in number from eight in 1910, to 98 in 1960, and 1,106 in 2006. According to Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, major media outlets cited the top 25 think tanks 14,790 times in 2007. The largest and most cited think tank, the Brookings Institution, was founded in 1916. By 2008, it had assets of $398 million, an operating budget of $83 million, and more than 200 policy experts.

Since his presentation last year, I've written to Mr. Coll several times, arguing that New America, as a major taxpayer-subsidized media and research institution, should develop and publicly post ethics guidelines. I am pleased to report that on February 10, 2009 -- in the wake of my Politico commentary, "Strengthen Think Tank Accountability" -- New America posted its direct funders online, with apparently only minor exceptions. Last fall, New America posted policies on conflict of interest and nonpartisanship and political activity. New America is one of few major DC think tanks to publicly disclose such information on its website.

An informal survey that I did in February 2008, covering the websites of think tanks included in the Washington Post's "Think Tank Town" (a rotating column featuring the work of 13 of Washington, DC's most prominent think tanks), found that their political activity policy statements were fairly strong, but their conflict of interest statements and funder lists were lacking. The reason for the strong political activity statements may be the need to protect a think tank's tax-exempt non-profit 501(c)(3) status, which allows a think tank to engage in lobbying activity as long as it doesn't constitute more than a small fraction of its work overall.

Despite the significant progress that has been made and New America's status as a leader in ethics disclosure, there is much yet to be done for a think tank of its size and stature. Here is my list of ten recommendations:

New America should list all direct funders. The current list of direct funders was prepared retroactively for 2008, and a few funders from last year asked to remain anonymous. Since those who asked not to be named appear to represent a small fraction of New America's funding, the potential cost in lost revenue from complete disclosure of direct funders appears to be relatively small. New America should tell all future funders that it will henceforth no longer grant them the option of anonymity.

New America should list all direct funders in a timely way, based on well-defined accounting standards. It appears that New America's funders are currently assigned to an accounting period based on when cash, rather than a contract, is received. Moreover, the funding is listed for the prior year. Due to these factors, funding may be publicly disclosed 18 or more months after a contract has been reached. This is analogous to a member of Congress accepting a campaign contribution from an interest group and not having to disclose it until two elections later.

Ideally, disclosure should be updated at least quarterly, or as frequently as we expect for campaign contributions and lobbying contracts. There should also be at least two numbers attached to each funder for each time period: the total amount in the contract at the time the contract became effective, and the cash amount actually dispersed. New America maintains this information electronically for internal purposes. It should thus be a relatively minor task to make it available externally.

New America should list the program or initiative to which the funding is granted. The vast majority of New America's direct funding is given not to the Foundation as a whole, but to its specific programs and initiatives. New America has 12 programs and many more initiatives. One's perception of the independence of a given program or initiative may be quite different if it has a well diversified funding base, or if it is funded by only a half-dozen or fewer major funders.

New America should indicate when its funder list was last updated, and when the next update will occur. This is standard practice for government ethics disclosures, and it is good practice for think tanks as well. The reason is that timing is a critical ingredient of data quality. When the timing of disclosure is discretionary, such disclosure tends to become more a public relations rather than an accountability vehicle. For example, this year the chair of New America's Board of Directors is the CEO of Google, a Fortune 500 company with a large and influential Washington, DC lobbying operation (e.g., see the Center for Digital Democracy, Wired and National Journal). Since such corporate involvement raises red flags among potential donors and media outlets, New America is currently under unusually strong pressure to release financial information and demonstrate its diversified funding base. When the Board leadership changes, however, this external pressure will likely dissipate.

Note that even publishing dates is of limited value because, unlike many academic, journalistic, and government publications, think tank policy papers are primarily self-published. Corrections and ethics disclosures can suddenly show up months after a document was publicized and distributed -- and with no hint that changes have been made.

New America should disclose or ban all significant indirect funding. Currently, there appears to be no commitment to disclose New America's indirect donors. An indirect contribution is one that does not flow through an organization's financial books. For example, company X hires a New America employee for $2,000 a day, as a consultant on an issue the employee has written about for the New America Foundation. This is akin to a political journalist getting paid to work as a speechwriter for a candidate he covers. In another example, company Y reimburses all expenses for a New America employee to travel to an event at its West Coast headquarters, where it demonstrates certain innovations and policy obstacles to its success in the marketplace. The journalistic equivalent would be a travel writer whose way is paid by the resorts he covers. While such undisclosed conflicts of interest do occur in the journalistic world, the best media institutions either ban such financial relationships or require them to be disclosed.

Often, indirect financial support may be even more subtle. Think tank employees are more likely to gain access to public policy decision makers if they have politically influential sponsors. For example, powerful lobbyist X can encourage members of Congress to invite a think tank employee for an office briefing, reserve a Capitol Hill room for a public policy event and staff briefing, or testify at a Congressional hearing. Think tank employees invited to testify at hearings or reserve Hill rooms are likely to secure more press coverage and status as authoritative information sources. In turn, their influence and tangible public policy results are highly prized by think tank donors -- who may have no idea of (and may not want to know) the role of lobbyist X in achieving these accomplishments. In addition, as long as the think tank is approached by the member of Congress, rather than vice-versa, the activity may be educational and not subject to taxation as a lobbying expense. (As stated above, their non-profit status restricts the extent of think tanks' lobbying activities.)

Other ways a company or lobbyist can help a think tank without funds flowing through its books include enhancing event mailing lists, paying directly for event venues, identifying or funding useful academics, providing free legal counsel and tech advice, and making introductions to movers and shakers who possess valuable inside information, including copies of draft Congressional bills weeks or months before they are publicly available. In these cases, the company or lobbyist doesn't get a tax deduction for its services, but it does strengthen its relationship with an independent, third-party endorser of its public policy agenda.

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As part of its internal compliance system, New America should create an audit and ethics subcommittee made up of independent Board members. An independent member is a non-management member of the Board. Currently, New America's internal compliance policy implies that those with information about a potential ethics violation must present this information to a Board including New America's senior management. As long experience demonstrates, this is often highly unrealistic due to management's intrinsic conflicts of interest. Most ethics violations are in management's self-interest (the other type tends to get rooted out quickly), so management may have an incentive not only to ignore the violation, but also to punish the employee foolish enough to call attention to it. Thus, management-based internal compliance systems are widely recognized as inferior to those based on an independent Board subcommittee. That's why the Securities and Exchange Commission mandates independent subcommittees for internal audit and select ethics compliance of public companies. For major think tanks with large Boards such as New America, this should also be the gold standard for internal compliance.

New America should have every employee publishing under New America's name sign its ethics statement. Most public ethics statements are primarily for external show. Forcing employees to sign an ethics statement signals to them that senior management sees the policy as more than a PR gambit. Currently, only New America's officers and senior staff are asked to sign the ethics statement annually. This should be broadened to include all employees, especially fellows and researchers, publishing under New America's name. The need for such ethics awareness and personal responsibility may be most acute for the many New America fellows who, although they are listed on New America's website, have primarily an honorific relationship with the think tank and receive most or all of their earnings from other sources. For other fellows, who are often under pressure from program staff to tailor their work to funders' policy positions, the signed ethics statements may help reinforce the firewall between the program and fellows staff.

New America should adopt a public, written policy concerning staff plagiarism. New America has had a policy banning plagiarism by external entities, including its contractors. But I know of no such policy -- or enforcement actions -- against plagiarism by its own staff. New America places great pressure on its staff to lay claim to innovative public policy ideas. For example, it plasters its website and fundraising appeals with the following claim: "Your tax-deductible gift will help bring promising new voices and ideas into our nation's discourse." But it does not temper this pressure with a clear and enforceable prohibition against plagiarism.

While journalists and advocates are not generally expected to use citations, they also don't tend to make implicit or explicit claims of public policy originality, or expect to be rewarded for doing so. When these same people enter the think tank world, the different expectations require a greater emphasis on genuine modesty and giving credit where credit is due. The question here is not one of style -- Washington is chock-full of people highly skilled in the art of phony modesty -- but of substance. Even in research papers where citations are used, there is excessive pressure to cite based on self-promotion and political alliances, rather than truth. To the extent that New America presents itself as a popularizer and advocate rather than a source of original ideas, no problem arises. But if originality is the claim, then safeguards should be created to ensure the claim's accuracy. Otherwise, New America may be undermining the very innovation it so loudly proclaims it seeks to foster. (For a more detailed discussion of this problem, see my article, "The Quest to Protect Creative Policy Ideas.")

New America should clarify whether it believes its primary responsibility is to the public or to its funders. Currently, New America's ethics guidelines require employees to state loyalty to the New America Foundation. But it's not clear from its ethics guidelines to whom New America owes its primary loyalty: the public or its funders. Clearly, classic journalistic ethics require primary loyalty to the public. For example, few would argue that NPR should elevate the interests of the Kroc family over those of the public, or that the New York Times should consider its main loyalty to be to major shareholder Carlos Slim.

New America's Steve Coll has suggested that the public interest should be paramount. In response to a question about "philanthropy as the new advertising" and what he, the president of a think tank, would say in response to a donor's request for a particular policy position, Coll said he would tell the funder: "I welcome your support, and I'm happy to have lunch with you and tell you what we're doing, but don't tell me what to do."

Arguably, New America has an even greater duty to the public than the typical media organization because it is largely funded, albeit indirectly, as a result of tax deductions granted to donors. I would therefore recommend that New America commit to disclosing all conflicts of interest that a reasonable audience member for its work might deem material -- even if this would hurt the interests of a donor and thus, as a secondary effect, the New America Foundation.

Perhaps this is why think tanks seem so resistant to publicizing their conflict of interest policies: they do not want to have to state whether their primary loyalty is to their donors or to the public. While highly-regarded journalists routinely and publicly wrestle with the difficult trade-offs involved in maintaining loyalty to their readers, I've seen no comparable recent public effort within the think tank community. (In contrast, during the early years of think tanks, when Rockefeller, Carnegie and other "robber barons" set them up, it was a frequent topic of discussion, leading the think tanks to position themselves as "universities without teaching.") New America, by revealing in its conflict of interest guidelines a failure to make such hard choices, has courageously (or inadvertently) brought this problem into the open.

Of course, this assumes that the interests of funders and the public may not be the same. For the sake of argument, then, let's assume that think tank funders collectively represent the public interest. Indeed, I believe that -- compared to other private funders of public policy work -- funders of think tanks and non-profits are less likely to represent narrow and already-influential special interests. But, even if this is so, ethical quandaries may arise if funders lack a commitment to the journalistic or academic research norms that a think tank publicly endorses to bolster its reputation. As one New America donor told me (on a not-for-attribution basis), "I don't care about plagiarism; I fund advocacy that will generate public policy results." Thus, addressing conflicts between the interests of donors and the public does not necessarily resolve the tensions between advocacy, research and journalism.

New America should clearly disclose its policies, if any, for enforcing a firewall between its funding, advocacy, research and journalistic activities. Currently, New America takes credit for all the positive aspects of academic, journalistic and advocacy activities, while overlooking that these activities often lead to ethical conflicts. Highly-regarded media, academic and other organizations with internal conflicts of interest often create firewalls -- such as physically and organizationally separating their news and advertising departments -- to mitigate their impact. At New America, individual program directors raise their own funds and often run operations that include a mix of advocacy, research and journalism. This is analogous to having each editor of a newspaper section sell the advertising for his section and then earn a cut of the advertising revenues, while expecting the editor to remain independent of advertiser influence. Such ethical conflicts cannot be solved by placing a vague burden on employees to disclose them to senior management. Accordingly, this blending of responsibilities should not be used as an excuse to blame employees for any publicized ethical failings. Instead, senior management must clearly state what types of conflicts it will and won't allow.

In the real world, of course, it is impossible to eliminate all the ethical tensions that result from trying to maximize the benefits of bringing advocacy, research and journalism activities under one roof. One can try to square the circle, while recognizing that this can only be done imperfectly. However, the ethical tensions can and should be mitigated. This requires disclosing and wrestling with the conflicts -- not pretending that they do not exist.

My guess is that, in the future, more think tanks will increasingly mix advocacy, research and journalistic activities. As New America illustrates, there can be great synergy in doing so. Donors, in particular, have proven very receptive to this mix. But as these synergies grow, so will the ethical tensions and the need for fresh thinking to deal with the new information landscape. Perhaps a way will be found to reconcile all these tensions. If so, I haven't seen it.

I fear that in coming to this conclusion I have been too harsh. A half-loaf is better than none, and New America can and should be applauded as a non-profit journalism and think tank ethics leader. So let us applaud New America, while keeping in mind that there is still a lot of progress yet to be made.

J.H. Snider, the president of iSolon.org, has been a fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, at the New America Foundation, and in two U.S. Senate offices.