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Perspective: Edwin Meese III Discusses Institutional Mission Fidelity and the Advantage of Broad-Based Support

This post is a part of a recurring series titled, “Perspectives on Think Tank Ethics and Governance.”  Each Perspective post will feature highlights from a personal interview.  In this week’s post, Edwin Meese III, Ronald Reagan Distinguished Fellow Emeritus at the Heritage Foundation and former chairman of Heritage’s Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, comments on mission fidelity, management practices, and the advantage of a broad base of support.  The interview took place on October 25, 2012.

Mr. Meese, we were talking about having an inner discipline about being committed to the mission. [How do you] not allow the possibility of specific donations to divert you from your principles?

MEESE:  As you say, we don’t do contract work, [and] we don’t take any governmental funds from any government. We try to be very transparent in all that we do. We are clear about what our mission is, clear about what our principles are, clear about what our objectives are, clear about what our overall philosophy is.  [P]eople who desire to become members of Heritage, who desire to contribute to Heritage Foundation, understand that that they are contributing because they want to be part of and support the work we do rather than the other way around.

Everybody has a mission statement, and it’s often highly general. So how do you figure out what [the mission statement] means in the context of specific research programs?

MEESE:  Well, for one thing, we set up our primary principles of individual liberty, limited government, free market economics, strong national defense, support of what we call “traditional American values.” That [last one is] the only one that’s a little bit nebulous there, and by that we mean family and religion, we mean patriotism, we mean things like a commitment to work, individual responsibility.  Then, we have our mission: to promote a society in which freedom, opportunity, prosperity, and civil society flourish. We say clearly, we are nonpartisan, but we are conservative, so we are committed to a philosophy but not to a political party or any candidates.

It’s hard to resist partisan pressures when they arise. How do you do that?

MEESE:  Well, it’s not hard, because we’ve been doing it so long, and everybody who is here understands that.  But we are attentive to the issue, and we have a system within our management structure so that we provide guidance to all of our people, particularly in an election year, as to how they are to act and how they are to respond to things like questions from a political organization of any sort.  [T]he organizers must understand that we would give the same thing to their opponents.

For example, if they call, we provide briefings to candidates across the board. Now, obviously, one party is more likely to ask questions and to seek information from a conservative organization than the other party, but we do [briefings] on a nonpartisan basis. The second the thing we do is, we don’t get involved in support—Heritage itself—in support of legislation or opposition to specific legislation. We do have a 501(c)(4) organization, Heritage Action for America is a sister organization, and they they are able to lobby, but again, not to support specific candidates or anything like that.

A lot of the research that scholars at think tanks do is more applied than what’s going on in academic departments. Where do you see the position of think tanks and what they do, related to academia on one side and activists on the other?

MEESE:  I would say that that we pride ourselves on [our] information being factual, on being supported by evidence, by looking at counterarguments, and by trying to provide recommendations in terms of what policy will be. Our policy ideas, if you will, can be useful, and hopefully would be adopted by people of whatever political party, based on the overall direction of our philosophy. Our President, Ed Feulner, has said that he often hears from Democrat congressman that they look at Heritage materials—our issue briefs, for example—and they can use everything up to the final page, which has the the conclusion and the recommendations. They said they tear that page off and use the rest of it. We consider that a good thing.

Do you have any internal ethics policies or conflict of interest policies and guidelines in the organization?

MEESE:  Gosh, only on political activity. We have clear-cut rules on political activity. But we do have a management structure, so somebody from the beginning people in the organization, policy analysts who start here of as well as support people, all the way to the president, they have someone that can go to for advice and guidance on any of the, what you might call ethics issues. And likewise, we have we have reviews for factual matters, so we have a series of editorial reviews of anything coming out of here.

So, you have a quality review process, where you vet work before it’s published.

MEESE:  Sometimes we may even have more than one. Say we are doing something on national security law. We will want to make sure that it is been vetted by people who are our experts on national security as well as by our legal experts. If they were talking about something like the Law of the Sea Treaty, they would want to have it vetted by, not only their experts from the navigational standpoint, the economics standpoint, but also from the constitutional legal standpoint.

So, this process of review is to make sure that we have [good] quality in terms of accuracy, as well as of course readability and those other qualities. That is part of our regular process. [E]very Monday morning at our management meetings, where we have our our senior management and our next level of management, we have a review of all the topics that are being researched, and what you might call “major policy documents.”

If you were going to give some advice to a new, small think tank that is just getting off the ground and trying to develop best practices, what advice would you give them?

MEESE:  Well, first of all, hire good scholars. Look carefully at people’s background for, obviously, intellectual capability, as well as the other things you need, writing style and all that. Look at their background in terms of their education, and ascertain to make sure they have intellectual integrity. Those qualities you need. And then, of course, a thorough review of the policies of the organization—the things we’ve been talking about, the mission, the philosophy, and those kinds of things—hopefully before they are hired.

The next thing, of course, would be that they understand the review process, and then particularly having a process of how you handle what you might call complaints, criticisms, that sort of thing.  [L]et’s say somebody publishes paper and the next day you have EJ Dionne or someone like that criticizing the paper.  We would want to first speak to the analyst who wrote the paper and probably that person’s superior officer to see whether the criticism was in any way justified or accurate. If it isn’t, we decide what kind of rebuttal we want to have, whether we’re just going to let it go because it’s inconsequential or nobody believes that person anyway. Or, they’ve got a good point, and we go back and check our informational resources to make sure we are accurate. If we’re right, we defend the position. If somebody’s made a mistake, we correct it. In other words, we maintain absolute integrity in terms of factual matter.

How do you handle instances of empirical disagreement when they crop up within the organization? For example, if one person thinks program X tends to increase literacy, and another person can’t find that effect, how do you hammer those things out?

MEESE:  It goes to the next level of management. If we get to a total impasse, then we would figure out how to handle it. Usually it’s not so much on a factual matter as it is, like you say, an interpretation or an idea of how we are proceed from there. Sometimes, take a tough subject like immigration policy, as we have a couple years ago, where we were essentially at odds with what George W. [Bush] wanted to do, and some of the others, and we had people on both sides within the organization, several sides that case. So, what we will often do is put together a working group, and I’m often asked to head them up, or someone else fairly senior here. We would bring all people together and argue it out and ultimately either reach a consensus, which is often what we are able to do, or just have to flat make a decision.

I took a look at your annual reports, and I noticed that you seem to recognize a lot of your donors.

MEESE:  We want to recognize, particularly the major donors, but we also have 700,000 people who are members, so even what we put in our annual report is just a very small fraction of our total body of contributors.

Would you say that there are any advantages to having a very broad donor base in terms of the mission, or being able to maintain a measure of independence from any one donor?

MEESE:  Absolutely, that’s very important. The broader the base, the better, not being dependent on any one individual, or one organization, or one foundation. We are probably, of all the major research and education foundations, less dependent on corporate support than most. It’s certainly less than 6% [of annual revenues]. I’m not sure exactly, but somewhere very, very low. And that’s for a reason, because we have had situations when corporations disagree with us or want us to move in a particular direction that’s favorable towards their ideas or their products. We just don’t do that, so we deliberately keep our corporate support as a small percentage of our total support.

Perspective: Sarah Rosen Wartell on Ethics, Fundraising, and “Pay for Play”

This post is a part of a recurring series titled, “Perspectives on Think Tank Ethics and Governance.”  Each Perspective post will feature highlights from a personal interview.  In this week’s post, Sarah Rosen Wartell, President of the Urban Institute, comments on ethics, fundraising, and the reputational cost of “pay for play.”  The interview took place on January 31, 2013.

You have emphasized that there are a great diversity of organizations out there that consider themselves think tanks. It is hard to talk about what think tanks do in a general sense. How do you feel that diversity is reflected in a diverse set of ethical questions or constraints? How do different institutional models raise different kinds of ethical questions?

WARTELL:  Even “ethics” is a word that has a set of value propositions implied in it. If you are an institution [that] is crystal clear that [it has] a philosophy, [that philosophy] is embedded in the mission.  It underlies the scholars that they choose, the issues that they choose, etc. Does that work therefore raise an ethical question? Inevitably, there are choices that are made about what work to initiate, what work to publish, and when to publish it. I don’t think there’s anything unethical about an institution that says that its mission is to advance a set of values to then shape its work agenda in a way that advances those values.

Transparency seems to be the key to ethical behavior in that regard. I think the risk is where people—and no institution is without its own lenses, no people are without their own lenses—where you purport to advance fact in a highly skewed way. I do think there are ethical questions there, but I don’t think that there is a problem with a particular think tank choosing to publish work that advances their agenda and not publish work that I might want to publish that advances a different vision.

I think the bigger source of ethical dilemmas in the think tank world comes from the sources of funding. [R]emember, at its founding [the Urban Institute] had very prominent corporate support. My guess is [that] in those days, it was not particularly agenda driven. That was just sort of what companies did. These days there’s a great deal of funding for think tanks that comes from the business community, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, I hope that we can do a better job of participating in that as a source of revenue, particularly as a source of discretionary revenue that allows you to skate to where the puck is going to be. I also think that those relationships tend to create more information sharing.  If you tend to simply sit in your think tank, and you don’t engage with people in industry, you’re less likely to have [all the relevant] knowledge.  So, I think those financial relationships with corporations often bring a kind of knowledge and perspective [to] the institution that’s very positive.

But there are cases where the outcomes and agenda of an institution get driven by the funding sources. I take money from the Ford Foundation.  Is my agenda driven by the values of the Ford Foundation? Sure. The questions they choose to fund here affect our work. So why is it any different, and I think it is different, if Wells Fargo wants to fund us? In that case, it’s very important to create firewalls and have good judgment. It’s one thing to collect information and get perspective. It’s another thing to let anybody have review or approval over products, to let anybody fund particular products as opposed to an issue area or a set of activities, like conferences, where there’s branding and transparency of the involvement. I think some of the biggest dilemmas in the think tank world are really around this question of retaining your credibility as an institution who comes to independent conclusions without being driven by your sources of funding.

In my prior place of employ, [the Center for American Progress], we did have a corporate giving program. It was for general support. It was unrelated to any advice, etc. But there was a sort of constant churn, inevitably, when they didn’t like something that was coming out of another part of the institution. Some companies said, “Well, I don’t want to support you anymore.” Generally, they were spreading their money around town. That’s the way they do this. But sometimes it became uncomfortable for them, and they would withdraw support, and you had to have a value proposition that that’s not going to cause us to stop doing a body of work.

At different institutions, there are [other] perceptions.  When I hear people talk about different think tanks, they will tell you that this place or that place is more driven by [funding].  I think almost all of them believe that they have policies in place that protect them against being driven by funder’s agendas.  But, people will say disparagingly of a place that it’s a “pay to play” shop.  As a think tank manager, you really want to guard against the perception of that.  I don’t know that I think it’s always fair when it is [said], but I think it is one of the more prevalent ethical issues that think tanks face.

What makes something “pay for play?” Is it pre-publication review? Is it a commitment to reach a particular conclusion? Is it a focused financial interest in the outcome? I’d love to get a better handle on the concept.

WARTELL:  I’ll be honest: I haven’t thought that much about what makes something unacceptable. [T]here are occasional scandals around think tanks. I can remember, when we were starting [the Center for American Progress], it happened that some foreign government gave a great deal of money to, I want to say it was Heritage but don’t remember…

I think [that story concerned] Heritage. Frankly, the Malaysia-Heritage story and that story involving Abramoff are the only ones I know about. I wish I had better folk knowledge.

WARTELL:  I think maybe those were the only ones that ever came out at that level of reporting. I am sure that there are others where the tank took a hit reputationally. I mean, you can go out and hire any economic research firm, and a trade group will do it a lot of the time, to answer a question. The report has some credibility, absolutely, and certain firms bring more credibility than others do. That is just like government-contracted research. There is nothing illegitimate or unethical or anything about that.

Which goes back to my point: transparency. I think the key thing here is if you are doing work because a source of funds provides that work, and the source of funds has an interest in the outcome, [you are criticized if] you are not letting it be known that you have a source of funds.  A bunch of universities were criticized for taking oil sector money. I think there has probably been very similar criticism of universities around tobacco, but I don’t know for sure. There was a report published [by the Center for American Progress] called “Big Oil University,” and there was controversy around the report itself. It was about universities that had set up research shops that were funded with a great deal of [oil money].

Were they researching a subject about which oil companies have a stake?

WARTELL:  Clean energy, in many cases. You’re not going to be able to get resources to [do] that kind of work if you are not, in many cases, taking private sector money. So the real question is about whether [you have] the controls and processes in place, and universities have gone through this process with a great deal more rigor probably, of trying to figure out what their standards are.  Think about engineering schools, and the like. Tons of work [is] done that there is probably a commercial interest in for firms. Is that unethical? Again, I don’t think so. Transparency is hugely important. Healthcare research, pharmaceutical company support for drug research is huge. Think tanks are, I think, less far along in terms of the development of the jurisprudence, if you will, about how to think about this.

That’s where I’m hoping to help.

WARTELL:  Well, let me know what you think, because we are trying to figure out our own policies in this regard.

What is “Pay for Play?”

No think tank wants to be known as a “pay for play” organization, but the concept is rather like “pornography.”  People think they know “pay for play” when they see it, but its necessary and sufficient conditions remain obscure.  That’s too bad, because think tanks have a lively interest in determining exactly what “pay for play” ought to mean.  You can’t make policies about something unless you can define it.

Perhaps it is easier to say what “pay for play” is not.  The aspersion can’t simply refer to an earmarked donation from a benefactor with a passionate ideological conviction.  Think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, the Center for American Progress, and the Cato Institute attract support from individuals who want to advance a particular conception of a just society, and such donors often have a favorite issue.  I used to work on education policy at Cato.  I never fundraised, but I sensed that my work was easy to support because libertarian philanthropists tend to care deeply about school reform.  Research support is not ethically suspect just because a supporter, unsurprisingly, considers the research important.

Nor is a contract between a think tank and a funder “pay for play” just because the think tank specifically agrees to answer that funder’s research question.  Such deals are usually called “contract research.”  The Urban Institute and the Rand Corporation do a lot of contract research for both public and private clients, and they receive nary a sideways glance for it.

Lack of timely disclosure is a common element of financial relationships that give rise to the occasional think tank scandal.  But all by itself, lack of disclosure seems insufficient to make a funding relationship an example of “pay for play.”  Most obviously, very small donations don’t seem to require disclosure.  The Heritage Foundation reports that it has “hundreds of thousands” of individual members, making it “the most broadly supported think tank in America.”  Heritage’s 2011 annual report lists hundreds, but certainly not hundreds of thousands, of supporters.  It doesn’t seem like a problem that the think tank does not disclose the identity of every small contributor.

Whether think tanks ought to disclose very large contributions is a more debatable question.  But even very large contributions can’t be characterized as “pay for play” if they are truly unconditional.  A posthumous gift of $1 million, conveyed anonymously by an executor to a lucky think tank, would probably be as welcome as the discovery of a buried treasure underneath the auditorium.

The term “pay for play” suggests that some sort of quid pro quo is involved—that the supporter is getting something out of the relationship besides the warm feeling of a good deed done.  The question is: what exactly is that something else?

What characteristics must a funding relationship have in order to count as “pay for play” in the think tank world?  Make your suggestions in the comments.