The Case Against a US OGP National Action Plan in 2017

Earlier this week, holdover US administration officials convened a standing meeting of domestic Open Government Partnership (OGP) stakeholders to share thinking and plans for how to move forward on the country’s OGP agenda this year. Per OGP’s calendar, the US is due to “co-create” a new OGP National Action Plan this year (its fourth), delivering one by June 2017. While I personally couldn’t attend the meeting due to scheduling conflicts, a number of friends and colleagues did, and from the summaries that were shared with me, there was unsurprising angst and questioning as to how an open government plan could be pursued this year in light of ongoing political transitions in the United States.

Carryover staff from the previous administration (bless them) indicated to attendees that they were carrying on with business as usual until new bosses and/or different guidance were in place. While I sympathize with the desire to maintain a certain degree of momentum on the open government agenda in 2017, I don’t believe that attempting to produce an OGP National Action Plan this year is necessarily a great idea. Here’s why.

1) Misalignment of core values. Suffice it to say that thus far, the Trump administration has in many respects been openly hostile to core values that lie at the heart of open government and OGP.  These include, but are certainly not limited to:

- Dismissing basic transparency norms: Candidate Trump was the first candidate in modern US political history who refused to release his personal tax returns to the public. He promised to do so after his IRS audit was complete, but then immediately backtracked on that promise during the transition period, with a chief advisor publicly stated that the tax returns would in fact never be released. Lying about a commitment to core transparency norms violates the spirit of the Open Government Declaration, to which the US is a signatory.

- Flouting common sense conflicts of interest provisions: The President’s unwillingness to shed himself of his business interests before taking office, despite overwhelming advice to the contrary from outside ethics experts as well as the US government’s own internal ethics watchdog, is an affront to common sense conflicts of interest safeguards, tenets that are central to open government. It has also landed the president in court, with additional lawsuits undoubtedly to come, all arguing that the president has violated constitutional conflicts of interest and anti-bribery provisions. The Open Government Declaration states, “We commit to having robust anti-corruption policies, mechanisms and practices, ensuring transparency in the management of public finances and government purchasing, and strengthening the rule of law. We commit to maintaining or establishing a legal framework to make public information on the income and assets of national, high ranking public officials.” This does not describe the Trump administration thus far. At all.

- Intimidation of and open hostility towards the media: The president and his team have made no attempt to hide their disdain for mainstream media, openly describing the media as their primary political opponent and “some of the worst people” Trump has met. While the press, as a whole, has not shown signs of abdicating its watchdog role, we have seen how, in other countries, constant berating of the press and independent watchdogs (including civil society organizations) has a chilling effect over time. This antagonistic approach to the media flies in the face of the Open Government Declaration’s exhortation to, “[protect] the ability of not-for-profit and civil society organizations to operate in ways consistent with our commitment to freedom of expression, association, and opinion.”

- Rolling back existing open government commitments: The administration’s early gutting of Dodd-Frank’s Section 1504 extractives transparency measures, themselves enshrined in previous US NAPs, was a body blow to domestic open government reforms. The repeal was almost certainly a “gift” to US oil and energy companies and the new US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, former head of energy giant ExxonMobile. (Fun fact: the US Secretary of State has historically been quite involved in US leadership around OGP. That should make things interesting moving forward, to say the least.) I can hardly think of a move better designed to signal outright hostility towards open government than rolling back 1504 so early in a new administration.

Co-creating an OGP National Action Plan under these conditions runs major risks for civil society in the United States, who by participating in the creation of a fourth NAP might inadvertently “open wash” an administration that currently has little to no respect for the basic tenets of open government. Publishing a 2017 OGP National Action Plan would tacitly endorse and normalize many of the administration’s norms-busting policy positions, something to be strongly avoided. Should the administration release the president’s tax returns, satisfactorily resolve his conflicts of interest, and rebuild bridges with the media, US civil society might indeed consider linking up to co-create a new NAP. But until those litmus tests are passed, it’s hard to fathom the upside to moving ahead with a new US NAP.

2) It’s ok to skip an Action Plan cycle, especially during political transition periods. Were the US to skip a NAP cycle in 2017, it certainly wouldn’t be the first country to do so. More importantly, OGP would carry on uninterrupted despite the US’ important role as an original founding country of the partnership.

I sit on OGP’s Criteria and Standards subcommittee, which deals with (among other issues) countries that have missed their NAP deadlines. It happens dozens of times each year, whether countries filing late NAPs themselves or missing deadlines for submitting self-assessments tracking their progress against specific NAP commitments. OGP takes a non-punitive approach to dealing with those missed deadlines, and in recent years has even formalized an approach to giving countries 12-18 additional months to resolve their delays, when merited.  In many cases, the reason for missed deadlines is political, and often linked to recent political transitions. Sound familiar? Both the Trump administration and US civil society should think long and hard about taking advantage of that flexibility, buying more time for the new administration to settle in and for some of the “litmus test” issues flagged above to hopefully improve.

3) There’s no one to co-create with. The new administration has been playing catchup ever since the transition when it comes to filling key leadership positions in the Federal government, including those traditionally in charge of open government and transparency programs. While a few erstwhile holdovers have performed an amazing public service by continuing to serve in the first few months of the Trump administration, it seems nearly impossible to create a meaningful new NAP absent new leaders in (among other key offices and departments) the US Chief Technology Officer’s office, the Office of Management and Budget, an administrator and top officials at the US Agency for International Development, key Under and Assistant Secretaries of State and Treasury, and key officials serving at the National Security Council (where one assumes there will be renewed staff upheaval following Michael Flynn’s recent ignominious ouster as National Security Advisor). Creating a new NAP without sufficient senior leadership buy-in feels like wasted effort, and the commitments contained in that half-baked NAP would be particularly susceptible to poor implementation in the out-years.

What to do instead of a fourth NAP this year? For one, simply wait. Sure, things might get worse, but they also might stabilize throughout the course of 2017. With more senior officials in place later this year and in early-2018, the time might be more ripe to consider co-creating a NAP, particularly if progress has been made on the litmus test challenges.

Second, look to the cities and states for progress on open government in 2017. There’s a terrific team of open government reformers in Austin, Texas under Mayor Steve Adler’s leadership who have crafted some excellent open government reforms as part of the OGP “Pioneers” tier of subnational governments; New Orleans is also part of OGP’s subnational program.

Third, spend the time building out alliances with less-usual suspects that might support the open government agenda in the years to come, particularly in the interior states of the US (much of the open government community in the country has been historically clustered in Washington,  Chicago, New York City, and San Francisco). If we’re to continue building a resilient “movement” of open government boosters in the United States, it has to grow beyond high-income urban areas.

Fourth, focus on implementation of existing NAP commitments. As OGP’s own Independent Reporting Mechanism points out, there are a number of existing US OGP commitments that need stronger implementation. Using this transition year to help Federal departments strengthen their implementation of existing commitments might be the best use of time and (limited) political capital, as opposed to pouring resources into a difficult NAP process.

What’s your opinion; NAP or no NAP in 2017? Sound off in the comments section below.

OGP Bingo at the summit plenary on Wednesday Dec. 7

Dear friends – As part of my role serving as OGP steering committee member provocateur, I’m following through on a high-level political commitment to develop “OGP Bingo” for this year’s summit.

Summits are moments for political commitment and create the space to drive ambitious reforms. Their opening plenaries can also be painfully dull, crammed with dry and unambitious speeches. Ennui and hunger set in, interest fades, and momentum can be lost. How best to combat those challenges? Bingo!

How to play

- Attached are downloadable bingo cards customized with many of your favorite open government/OGP buzzwords.

- Choose one (and only one!) card to be your own; either print it out or have it available on your laptop during the opening plenary.

- As the opening plenary speeches begin, listen closely to the speeches for the invocation of the buzzwords listed on your card. As you hear a phrase/word that appears on your card, place an “X” in that cell. Everyone gets the “Free” space in the middle.

- There will be four winners: a) First to get any line (up, down, left, right, diagonally) b) First to get all four corners c) First to get two diagonal lines through the middle (an "X"), and d) First to get a "blackout" (all squares)

- When you have reached any of the above four Bingo goals on your card, use the #OGP16 and #OGPBingo hashtags on Twitter to announce your success, and include a screenshot or photo of your card as proof.

Winners will receive my unending affection and heaps of praise from your peers on social media.


The Most Frustrating Things About Sunlight’s Sun Setting

So, Sunlight Foundation is possibly shutting its doors in the coming months following an unsuccessful search for a new Executive Director. I’ve been livid about the announcement for the past few days, but not because Sunlight might go away (as sad and as unfortunate as that is). I’m instead upset about what appears to be ineptitude by the Sunlight board to do its job effectively, a problem that goes back to at least 2014 but appears to have now gotten so bad that the board is dragging the organization down into oblivion. As a non-profit and civic tech community, we need to at least learn from this experience to avoid it happening again in such a dramatic and destructive fashion.

(Some caveats before I launch in. I have intentionally not consulted friends currently working at Sunlight or Sunlight alumni on these thoughts, largely to avoid stressing them out further. As such, there are almost certainly nuances I am missing and/or inaccuracies in what follows, and I’ll do my best to flag what is my perception/opinion versus established fact.)

Lesson #1: Founder’s syndrome is a real thing

I don’t know Mike Klein; I only met him once at a lovely Sunlight holiday party at his house a number of years ago. But it seems fair to say that this whole mess might have been managed better with increased awareness around the dangers of “founder’s syndrome,” where non-profit (co)founders make bad decisions out of personal affection for (or unhealthy amounts of control over) an organization. Klein’s recent blog post and decision to seek a merger are part of a series of seemingly whipsawed reactions following Ellen Miller’s retirement in 2014. When I left Global Integrity in 2014, I wrote about the risks of founder’s syndrome there that I had begun to sense. I’m not saying I’ve been any smarter than the leadership team at Sunlight in the interim, but the current crisis seems to suggest that founder’s syndrome is indeed a very real risk to non-profits, especially as they approach the 10-year mark. We need to watch for it and tackle it to the ground (even if that’s extremely painful and bloody) before it presents a mortal threat to organizations.

Lesson #2: Leadership transitions are really hard

I left Global Integrity around the same time that Ellen Miller retired from Sunlight. The processes were very different: from start to finish the leadership transition at Global Integrity lasted about 6 months and did not involve an external search firm. At Sunlight, it was nearly a year and a half (not all of it public), involving search firms and extensive sequencing and choreography. Yet the selection of Chris Gates to be the new head of Sunlight in 2014 was baffling (at least to me) from a fit perspective. Many fans of Sunlight (including me) worried privately that it wouldn’t work out…which is sadly what came to pass and ultimately set the stage for the current crisis. There’s no magical formula for getting leadership transitions right at non-profits (fast vs. slow, search firm vs. no firm, etc.) but, boy, is it fraught with risk. Non-profits need to constantly be thinking about succession planning, even in their early years, to avoid launching a leadership transition without adequate alignment between the board and senior management.

Lesson #3: Boards don’t always have the right strategic answers

There are many confusing and surprising arguments offered in Mike Klein’s rationale for shuttering parts of Sunlight and merging others. I find a number of them flawed interpretations of the current state of play in civic tech. Among them:

“We are aware that the robust maturation of technology over the past decade has — happily but substantially — reduced the urgency of Sunlight’s early role as a leading transparency innovator.” If “maturation of technology” refers to a limited set of web- and API-based techniques and tools, perhaps. But what about the myriad of vanguard technological approaches on offer to civic tech organizations today that weren’t present at Sunlight’s founding, including artificial intelligence, machine learning, big data, and the Internet of Things? There are very few civic tech organizations leveraging those tools and techniques currently, and Sunlight Labs could have made an enormous contribution by leading the civic tech community into the next decade with those tools.

“In addition, the board had to recognize that Sunlight’s initiating objective— to build support for better legislation against and regulation of the power of money in politics— has been significantly limited by the US Supreme Court’s 5-4 Citizens United decision.” So Supreme Court justices never die or retire? Anchoring one’s organizational strategy on a nearly split decision Supreme Court case that could be revisited under a future court seems, well, potentially short-sighted.

“The board has not found a candidate for executive director who persuaded us of both a compelling new strategic vision and of their capacity to lead Sunlight to its achievement.” I have no idea who applied or who didn’t for the Sunlight gig. But it was still one of the most exciting, plumb jobs in civic tech, and I find it really hard to imagine that some pretty superstar candidates didn’t pitch the board on a compelling vision for the future. Another way of interpreting this assertion might be, “We went through the motions of recruiting but were always biased towards shuttering the institution.”

Whether I’m right or wrong on these specific points is less the issue; what’s the more important take away is that boards (whether non-profit or corporate) don’t always have the right answers to important strategic questions. There needs to be a constant, healthy tension between the board and senior management on these questions, and sometimes the board needs to defer to management on important strategic pivots. Put another way: boards are often well-intentioned but too out of touch with an organization’s day-to-day operations to have a monopoly on wisdom, especially in the non-profit context (where they are rarely compensated and potentially less inclined to dedicate time to learning about the organization from top to bottom). I say this as someone who sits on multiple non-profit boards and likely frustrates his counterpart colleagues in senior management!

To sum up: the collapse of Sunlight feels, tragically, more self-induced than anything external, and I lay a healthy chunk of blame at the feet of the board. If nothing else, let’s try and learn from this painful moment in a way that strengthens peer organizations (and their boards) moving forward.

Measuring Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies: Launch of the SDG16 Data Initiative

(Posting here, because PDFs are just awful for Save the Dates! But if you insist on the PDF with everyone's logos, here it is.)

Organized by: “SDG 16 Data Initiative:” International IDEA, Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD), Namati, Open Society Foundations (OSF), Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), Saferworld, Results for Development (R4D), Small Arms Survey (SAS), Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), Transparency, Accountability & Participation (TAP) Network, Transparency International, and World Justice Project (WJP).

When: Thursday, 14 July, 6:15 7:30 PM

Where: Conference Room D, UN Conference Building

To meet the ambition of the SDGs, it is essential that they are matched by equally comprehensive and inclusive data collection, monitoring and accountability measures. While national governments and specialized intergovernmental institutions will be responsible for official UN monitoring of the SDGs, supplementary data from nongovernmental sources - including civil society organizations and research institutions will also play a crucial role in providing the most complete and accurate picture possible of progress towards these new global goals. This is especially true of SDG16, with its ten targets aimed at achieving its overarching goal of promoting peaceful, just and inclusive societies.

This side event at the UN’s High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development marks the launch of the SDG16 Data Initiative, a partnership for the compilation and publication of existing statistical indicators for measuring SDG16, supported by some of the world’s foremost experts, organizations and data providers on these issues. This launch event will present this new SDG16 platform, showcasing the best available data on all the SDG16 targets and prompting a new global dialogue on the collective challenges and opportunities for measuring progress towards SDG16 at all levels.

With opening remarks by:
Ms. Lisa Bersales, Head of Philippines Statistics Authority (PSA) and co-chair of the IAEG- SDGs

Mr. Paul Gulleik Larsen, Project Leader SDGs, Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Mr. Nathaniel Heller, Managing Director, Results for Development Institute (R4D) 

Reaching Me On Vacation (2016 Update)

I've written before about my strong belief in truly unplugging from work/email while on holiday. That attitude, sadly, seems to elicit fascination and admiration from many friends and colleagues who otherwise feel obligated to a) worry about work while on holiday, and thus b) check their email while on holiday.

But there is good news people: you are not nearly as important as you think you are! Neither am I! The world will survive, quite easily, without you looking at or replying to email for a week or two at a time. I have done this many times and have lived to tell the tale.

I came to my current, purist "no email" approach following more than one vacation in the early days of running Global Integrity where I ended up spending non-trivial time on stressful work issues while on holiday in some otherwise amazing location. That sucked. The low point came when I was forced to remotely referee a dispute between two employees over who opened the damn window in the office and who was being rude to whom in not shutting it when asked. I kid you not. This was an amazingly effective way to raise my blood pressure back to normal work levels, which is absolutely terrible on a vacation.

The only and best way to avoid this kind of nonsensical distraction while on holiday is to simply not look at your email. No glancing, no quick skimming, no short replies. Just. No. Email. How can you do it? Some tips:

  • Do not bring a laptop. Period. In 98% of cases you won't ever really need a laptop, even for emergency responses (see below). In the 2% of emergency cases you'll figure out temporary access to a computer if desperate times call for it (think the hotel business lounge, the villa property manager, etc). The laptop stays at home. (Oh wait, you store important email and files on your machine that can only be accessed locally? 2004 called and it wants its data management methods back. The cloud, people; check it out.)
  • Turn off all email and calendar notifications on your phone and tablet. These devices are allowed on my holiday trips because they are helpful in investigating dinner ideas, checking the weather, and researching transport options. But their evil email and calendar apps remain untouched until I touch down, literally, back at my home airport. During vacation, I make sure that those apps are set to not ping me with badge alerts, chimes, or banner notifications.
  • Set clear out of office messages (email & phone) indicating that you "will not be checking message until [date]," and leave contact details for colleagues that are backfilling for you in your absence. It's important to be clear that you won't be checking messages, at all, as opposed to the usual "I'll be slow to reply" euphemism we ordinarily invoke, which translates roughly to, "I'm working on vacation because I'm a sucker."

See how easy that was? Give it a try the next time you head off for an adventure!

Lastly, in my specific case in 2016, the following supplementary rules apply:

My colleagues at R4D (as noted in my out of office messages) will be able to reach me in a true emergency via SMS/phone. If your need to reach me during vacation meets one of the criteria below, you may contact them and ask them to send me an SMS.  Otherwise, I very much appreciate your respect for the time off and look forward to catching up upon my return.

Reasons to contact me during vacation:

  • Someone has filed a lawsuit against me. 
  • You or your organization wishes to provide financial support to Results for Development in excess of US$50,000.
  • I have won the lottery or an award involving a cash prize in excess of US$50,000.  

Reasons not to contact me during vacation: 

  • Anything that is not included in the above list.