Shining a light in
Greater transparency is part of the zeitgeist of the political era, as different layers of government rush to publish what they spend, and even the prime minister’s private text messages are revealed to the world at large. Thinktanks are no exception to the prevailing mood. The recently launched website Who Funds You? rated 20 thinktanks on their funding transparency and brings greater accessibility to the issue than is currently afforded by the maze that is the Electoral Commission website. It grouped the tanks into five traffic-light-coloured categories, from A to E, shaded green to red. Left Foot Forward was quick to spot how rightwing thinktanks were ‘much less transparent than leftwing organisations’; indeed, the left-to-right spectrum of five A to E categories on whofundsyou.org reflects the political continuum, with organisations like Progress, Compass and the new economics foundation on the left and the Adam Smith Institute, TaxPayers’ Alliance and ResPublica languishing in the right-hand column. And somehow it comes about that liberal-minded thinktanks like CentreForum fall right in the middle, in the aptly yellow-coloured category C column.
Elsewhere in thinktank news, the coalition is taking on a reform of the civil service which aims to inject greater transparency and accountability into the functioning of Whitehall. The Institute for Government has scrutinised the new plans, subjecting them to seven tests and similarly rating them green to red, noting that ‘the quality of policymaking is inconsistent and needs to be improved’ and ‘the old idea of a civil service “generalist” is dead.’
Reform, however, wasted no time in excoriating the plans for their lack of ambition and delayed appearance. Director Andrew Haldenby does not mince his words: ‘There are many good people in the central civil service who behave as if they are personally answerable for what they do,’ he writes, ‘but they do so despite the system, not because of it. Whitehall is based firmly on the idea that ministers are accountable for the performance of their departments, which lets individual civil servants off the hook.’ He singles out home secretary Theresa May and Michael Gove, the education secretary, as the ministers most gung-ho for further reform and, looking at the Labour years, writes that ‘ministers like David Blunkett, Liam Byrne and Caroline Flint were strongly supportive of a reform agenda. The coalition should have learnt the right lesson from Labour’s experience, which was to act immediately and decisively.’
Meanwhile, reaction has been distinctly mixed to government plans to add to the ways of measuring child poverty. The Centre for Social Justice, founded by work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, declared that, ‘Poverty is about more than money – it is about the family breakdown, addiction, debt-traps, and failing schools that blight the lives of our children.’ The tank further claims, in a statement more than tinged with the hue of ideology, that ‘Labour’s misguided child poverty targets’ which were ‘based mainly on income inequality targets have led to narrow and expensive policy responses, costing taxpayers at least £150bn from 2004 to 2010.’ The centre’s director adds, ‘we know there are 1.3 million children with an addicted parent yet on the technical measure some will not be in “poverty”. But surely we should realise that this, too, is a form of poverty.’ That it may be, but saying it is ‘a form of’ is not the same as saying ‘it is’, and it rather dodges the question of whether one is more likely to fall prey to debt and addiction when one’s income is lower. Labour MP Kate Green, a former head of the Child Poverty Action Group, which produces extensive research on the subject, wrote recently for ProgressOnline that ‘adequate incomes matter for the effectiveness of all other mechanisms for tackling poverty’ and reminded readers that the Labour government understood the broader context and hence introduced sure start, the national childcare strategy, and fought homelessness and more. Poverty is complex and multifaceted and the more that can be done to understand it the better, as long as moves that claim to be about greater transparency are not, in fact, about shifting the blame.
Adam Smith Institute, Centre for Social Justice, CentreForum, child poverty, Child Poverty Action Group, civil service, Compass, Institute for Government, new economics foundation, Progress, reform, ResPublica, Taxpayers Alliance, thinktanks, transparency, WhoFundsYou