Think tanks are pushing agendas important to corporate donors, at times blurring the line between researchers and lobbyists. And they are doing so while reaping the benefits of their tax-exempt status, sometimes without disclosing their connections to corporate interests.
This was the central allegation made against the Brookings Institution, founded in 1916 and therefore one of the oldest think tanks in Washington D.C., on 7th August. Eric Lipton and Brooke Williams at the New York Times focussed on a $400,000 donation made to Brookings by various parts of the Lennar Corporation, which was ploughed into a Metropolitan Policy Program focussed on city-driven growth.
Lennar joined Brookings's Metropolitan Leadership Council alongside other top donors in July 2010. That month, the company won approval to take forward San Francisco's largest redevelopment project since it was rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake. With $1.1bn private finance and $1.55 public funds, the project is turning the former Hunters Point naval shipyard into a 700-acre housing, education and commercial development. Awkwardly, Lennar's Kofi Bonner became a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings program in 2014.
The Brookings response almost immediate, and on Medium. The top lines are that Brookings has its own agenda: relevant corporate partners are chosen for research areas chosen independently. Second, you can't call publicly-available research which advises a variety of public and private stakeholders "fee-for-service" work. A line-by-line rebuttal followed on 11th August on the Brookings website. What's to learn from this?
The public interest, the corporate stakeholder. A key claim from Brookings chief Strobe Talbot in rebutting the New York Times article is that "all stakeholders have interests". The key delineation to make, in his view, is between the "business interest" and the "social interest" of the corporations that fund research, and to only provide intellectual support to the latter. Brookings criticises the reporters' choice of the Metropolitan Policy Program on the basis that they chose documents that fit their argument. It could be argued that a narrative of elite manipulation of the political process is loudly expressed and heard everywhere, but housing seems especially explosive.
Why? The rush to globalised cities means the release of public land is essential to meet housing needs. But communities are ever more dependent on private financing and construction. A 2013 report from the City Administrator found that the San Francisco Housing Authority "cannot adequately deliver housing services to its residents" and called for it to be 're-envisioned'. In the UK, the Department for Communities and Local Government has been selling off land to accommodate 160,000 homes by 2020: progress is tortuously slow. Developers' stock took a hit after the referendum, and the largest - Barratt's - announced it may slow down its building programme. A recent report from the Royal Town Planning Institute concurs that private sector builders are paralysed by Brexit, but argues that public planners have lost strategic leadership over new development. When it comes to one of the most pressing policy issues in this country - and one of the most difficult to solve - a conflict already exists between "business interest" and "social interest". It must be negotiated rather than wished away.
Disinterested research and pushing the product. Across the internal documents uncovered by reporters Lipton and Williams, Brookings Institution staff refer to "research and content products" and how donor branding will be integrated into them. Talbot argues that "our interest is to gather the facts, listen to knowledgeable parties, analyze the situation, and try to come up with solutions that benefit the community as a whole." The commercial production of research for a marketplace of policy ideas and the task of realising solutions within actually existing communities would seem to drag Brookings in opposite directions. Sound a bit theoretical? JPMorgan Chase, another donor to the Brookings programme, also fund a Slate podcast called Placemakers, so they are clearly interested in "stories about the spaces we inhabit and the people who shape them".
Think tanks have competitive pressure in the marketplace of ideas, but they also have donor pressure over the solutions they can offer. Talbot, alongside Brooking's Managing Director Kimberly Churches, argued earlier this year that donors "want to see evidence of results from their contributions". In response, they simply insist that Brookings will end relationships and return money when donors ask for particular research outcomes. More broadly, they offer no broad principle for how think tanks can gain "the funding we need while shoring up the independence that we cherish."
To sum up, for particular areas of policy like housing, conflicts of interest may be inevitable due to the dimensions of the policy challenge. Moreover, there's a conflict between the business of offering solutions and the practice of offering solutions that might actually work, exacerbated by market and donor pressure. The oldest Washington think tank doesn't have a solution to this existential challenge: do we?