The Hewlett Foundation has funded the Engine Room since 2014 for its Matchbox program, which provides partner organizations with support to use data and technology strategically and responsibly in pursuit of their goals. In this second OpenGov Conversation, I speak with the Engine Room’s co-founder, Alix Dunn, and Matchbox program director Julia Keseru. Julia is temporarily serving as executive director while Alix advises Open Society Foundations on their technology and data practices.

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Julia Keseru (left) with Rebecca Williams at this year’s International Open Data Conference

The Questions:

  • How to select partnerships?
  • Is mission creep inevitable?
  • How to replicate technology without ignoring context?
  • Why are funders so impatient?
  • How to prevent #whitewashing?
  • How to think about citizen participation of non-citizens?
  • Reading recommendations

DS: Strictly speaking, the Engine Room isn’t a funder, but like a funder you select partner organizations and provide them with resources to increase their impact. What is it that you saw in the work of an organization like the Institute for Public Policy Research in Namibia or ¿Quién Compró? in Mexico that seemed to position them to make a real impact with your support?

JK: There’s always something different to fall in love with. Some of the groups we’re working with have very strong project ideas and might be great at storytelling, while others know their communities inside out and have incredibly convincing theories of change. We select for different variables that seem relevant for change, such as project maturity, digital readiness, and more. We then try to select groups that seem strong in each dimension but lack the necessary in-house expertise to implement successful data and technology projects on their own.

A focused approach can make a huge difference too. ‘Open gov’ groups have tried to become experts at everything — budgets, procurements, parliaments, journalism, advocacy, research, you name it. When you look at the change that has happened in the world, though, it seems more effective to specialize in a few areas and to be very strategic about partnerships.

DS: I’m also biased toward deep specialization and strong partnerships. But there is a tendency for organizations to become all things to all funders. This was one of the remarks I saw in response to Sunlight Foundation’s recent announcement — they were so successful in fundraising early on that they grew to become an organization that seemingly did everything without specializing in any one thing. How do you resist funding that would pull the organization from your core areas of specialization? Is mission creep inevitable?

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Engine Room co-founder Alix Dunn speaking at the Open Data Institute

AD: I worry about mission creep, and balancing opportunistic and strategic tactics. If we were a business, success (money) would mean we met demand while generating the resources to grow. Success in the social sector can be measured (impact), but impact does not necessarily pay the bills. This means we are pressured to contort to a system that allocates resources in ways that sometimes feel random. I think we are lucky in that we are not first movers in the data and technology support sector so it has been easier to learn from organizations who have come before us and find a niche approach where we can add value. That said, specialization in using data and technology for social change is still a surprisingly rare and siloed skill set. This means that demand is unlimited and comes from all over the world, and from every sector. I think we can facilitate mission expansion and capacity to do more without mission drift/creep if we act deliberately, and work to:

  • Know when to say no.
  • Continue honest appraisals of our impact, so we can cut work that isn’t adding a lot of value.
  • Build out our fee-for-service wing so that our core revenue is more within our control (lack of control over core revenue is, I think, one of the main drivers of drift)
  • Develop, iterate, and internalize our organizational vision so we know who we want to be and why, without getting caught up in the ‘blob’ style of growth – in which getting bigger is the main metric success (rather than making an impact).

DS: Jonathan Fox has recently been advocating to funders and others that we should focus less on scaling up solutions and more on building coalitions between policy advocates, watchdog organizations, the media, grassroots organizations, the private sector and reformers within government. This reminds me of a point I’ve heard you make, which is that it’s easier to standardize data collection and analysis than to organize effective advocacy strategies. What’s the implication for your partnerships as you aim to replicate technological platforms without ignoring context via your Replication Sprints?

AD: I agree with Jonathon Fox. I think we are recovering from a huge overpromise that data technology and data can change things on their own. A key part of that overpromise was that because data and technology can change things, and data and technology tools can scale, that social change can scale cheaply and dramatically. This overpromise led to opportunity costs as funders shifted priorities to chase easy wins and magical solutions. As we recover from this, it’s important to be reminded that it is most often institutions and committed communities that change things. But we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Technology and data can play an important part in that change: amplifying issues to broader audiences, connecting neighbors around common causes, and allowing for alternative, data-informed narratives to emerge about what needs to change in our world.

We have worked to design and test new methods of providing adaptable support that is countable, measurable, and replicable so we can support more organizations. Replication sprints are one way of exploring how we can capitalize on the reusable nature of technology while adapting to deep variability of context and supporting partner organizations to develop enabling environments for data and technology in the future. At its heart is a desire for more precision, efficiency, and multi-dimensional support to organizations doing the artful work of making change a reality.

JK: I think you need to do both: scale up and encourage more collaboration. None of these approaches will bring about meaningful change alone, and a healthy ecosystem of funders and grantees should not require such strict priorities — that can be very counterproductive. That said, I also agree with Jonathan: our work does need to be grounded in the social and political realities where we operate. For example, as much as we would love to see beneficial ownership data disclosed in Namibia by tomorrow, the reality is that even the most basic information on company ownership is hard to access. Our local partner can’t just start by introducing international standards; they first need to understand what is blocking the government from moving from paper files to digital records. Sometimes it’s political will, other times it’s a lack of resources, other times it comes down to obsolete laws. Most often, though, it’s a combination of many factors. Our best bet is to understand these complexities from the beginning and come up with equally complex responses.

That’s why I have high expectations for the replication sprints: Instead of getting rid of entire concepts and shouting failure immediately, we need a scientist’s iterative approach: examine which elements work and which don’t, tweak the original approach, and work hard until we find the right solution.

AD & JK: You have said this a couple of times (including in your dialogue with Mark Cridge) and we couldn’t agree more: systematic change does not happen overnight. Yet, most funders want to see ‘impact’ almost immediately. What is your advice to small local organizations that struggle between doing impactful work, which takes time, and proving ‘success’ to funders that want faster returns to justify their support?

DS: That’s an important observation, and I think both funders and grantees are to blame, but mostly funders. When I started out in philanthropy, I used to do this awkward dance with prospective grantees where we’d agree on totally unrealistic goals and metrics because they justified the “transformative” and “revolutionary” rhetoric that we’ve all grown accustomed to. There was a lot of “this year we have 100 users of our app, but by next year we’ll have 3 million, and then we expect an Arab Spring-like revolution followed by authentic democracy.” Instead of pushing back and advocating for incremental advances toward long-term strategies, I was guilty of encouraging the revolutionary rhetoric and unrealistic goals. Then, two or three years later it would come time to discuss a grant renewal and it unfairly falls to the grantee to explain the gap between ambition and results, when really the funder is equally guilty.

These days I hope I’m more thoughtful. I find myself suggesting to organizations that they lower their ambitions and think strategically with longer time horizons and in partnership with other actors. Fortunately, I work at a foundation that believes in sustained support for committed work to address complex problems. To answer your question, my advice to small organizations is to help funders become more realistic about the pace of social change by explaining all of the complexities of the problem they are addressing. Somehow we understand intuitively that a single court case between two parties can take ten years to resolve and yet we still think we’ll fix democracy in a couple years with an app.

AD & JK: As governments are pushed to become more open, how will we know if officials are just becoming better at hiding malfeasance from sight? And if we know they are, how do we prevent them from using open gov to whitewash their actions?

DS: I thought James McKinney framed the concern well at a recent conference when he wrote that “open washing is increasing openness in one (minor) area in order to maintain or lower the bar for openness in another (major) area.” The difficulty is that there is no consensus about what constitutes major and what constitutes minor. This is a tension and a never-ending debate that, for me, is rooted in the ambiguity of how we interpret “openness.”

What we regularly call “open government” or “civic tech” is really a conglomeration of (at least) three distinct communities working toward different goals. First was the human rights community that saw Access to Information Laws as mechanisms to gain more information about human rights abuses and corruption by the powerful. Then there was the technology sector that wanted to use government information to help inform the decisions of their users. Finally, there was the development sector wanting to help governments make better policies and decisions while simultaneously applying citizen pressure for better political representation and service delivery.

These three different groups were brought together under the theory that a big tent of diverse actors would be able to accomplish more together.  I’m more inclined, however, to side with Harlan Yu and David Robinson’s critique that ambiguity leads to conceptual confusion and unclear strategies. I also think it creates a scenario, as your colleague Zara Rahman has pointed out, where governments are applauded for releasing data about public transport even as they make it more difficult to gain access to politically sensitive information like corruption and human rights abuses. In my opinion, we’d be much better off if we didn’t conflate all these things as “openness.”

AD & JK: There seems to be a general trend of funding international mechanisms to create safe spaces where governments can make small incremental policy changes in the hopes that this will lead to long-term transparency. Do you ever worry that there is an underfunding of investigation and sharp-toothed critique of governments because it conflicts with this softer approach? Or that in a zero-sum funding world, that this might happen?

DS: It’s hard to generalize, but I think we’re pretty well balanced right now in the funding of collaboration and confrontation with governments — and we definitely want both. Power corrupts, no doubt, but constantly pointing at every little flaw in government also undermines our trust in democracy and citizens’ willingness to participate and pay taxes.

I look at some funders like Bloomberg Philanthropies or the World Bank and I wish they’d be more critical of some of the governments they work with. I also look at funders like Open Society Foundations, where I used to work, and it sometimes seems like they never have a good thing to say about any government. All in all, I think it tends to balance out, and that we should stay vigilant to make sure that the funding landscape isn’t too unbalanced one way or the other.

AD & JK: While this falls out of traditional open gov discussion, we hear more (and use more) terms like citizen-generated data and government’s duty to citizens. With migration and displacement crises the new normal, how does Hewlett consider non-citizens or displaced persons in its conception of service delivery and duty bearers?

DS: Totally. How can we talk willy-nilly about ‘citizens’ and ‘citizen participation’ when so many people don’t have access to the citizenship documents that are almost always required to participate or even receive services? I’m inspired by the research of Michael Clemens at the Center for Global Development and Namati’s work to secure citizenship rights in Kenya and Bangladesh. But we haven’t defined explicitly how so-called stateless individuals fit into our strategy. It’s a good nudge and something we’ll give more thought.

What’s the most illuminating thing you’ve read in 2016?

AD: I spent a week in Sicily this summer, and wanted to better understand the corruption and crime that has ravaged the island. I read Excellent Cadavers, a book about two magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino and who spent 30 years amassing evidence and exposing politicians who were colluding with the mafia. They did all of this knowing that one day they would be killed for the work they were doing. I was reminded that social change takes decades and commitments from all parts of society (politicians, citizens, international community), and that in-depth investigations in environments of impunity take huge energy and follow-through for them to make a difference. It was also a reminder that heroes do exist.

JK: I really loved this thoughtful piece from Alex Howard and John Wonderlich on the harmfulness of weaponized transparency. Another illuminating read was the often cited paper from Tiago Peixoto and Jonathan Fox on the importance of involving government agencies in the design of opengov platforms. Finally, Krzysztof Madejski gave a really great overview of tools for investigation just a few weeks ago. But to be honest, my biggest crush is fiction: these days I’m all about authors with multicultural backgrounds, like Jhumpa Lahiri, Mia Alvar or Junot Diaz, probably because I’ve been moving continents a lot lately. And I can’t wait to finish Between the World and Me from Ta-Nehisi Coates, a very powerful description of what is like to be a black man and raise a black son in contemporary America. (Hint: not nice.)

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