Civil society is a balancing force to government, in leading change. This is especially true in the US. To explore the dimensions of this element for driving change in Washington DC, I met with consultant Russ Gaskin, advocates at Human Rights Watch International, and open data lobbyists at the Sunlight Foundation.

I was struck by the diversity of the non-government organisation (NGO) scene in Washington DC, and the number of organisations with dedicated roles to drive initiatives, lobby government and lead change from the outside. This seems not to apply to the same degree in New Zealand today ? it's interesting to ponder why that is the case, and what the impact is for our country.

Collective impact approaches

Russ Gaskin from Co:Creative specialises in how to create effective collective impact networks that mobilise diverse players to target a common goal together. I was keen to meet with Russ as we have been drawing on his experience by distance as we bring together a variety of stakeholders to tackle the challenge of harnessing the power of data for the benefit of all New Zealanders.

Russ Gaskin

Russ Gaskin

One of the questions I had for Russ was with whether voices from the margins could have impact in a cross-sector group with many strong voices. We have been wondering how to make sure that M?ori and community voices are listened to in a higher-powered group.

Russ told me that critical factors to address power imbalances within networks include choosing the right representatives, preparing them before the meetings, and facilitating sessions well. To be effective, a collective-impact network has to bring together four voices: Expertise (head); experience (heart); intent (spirit); and design (hands). Those representing the voice of experience are the people who have to live with the choices made.

In leading collaborative change, Russ advised that the bigger the goal, the more effective the collective network. The goal has to be big enough to drive different behaviour and thinking by a variety of players. This is one of the key characteristics of successful group initiatives.

We talked about the danger points in a collectively-led change process and the need for courage, resilience and stamina to make it through them. This applies particularly at the point of highest divergence in a ‘diverge to converge’ model ? what Russ has labelled the ‘Groan Zone’.

groan zone diagram

Groan Zone diagram

[Russ spoke at an LDC member’s event in November 2013 about how to approach the most difficult problems in leadership. You can read more about Russ' presentation on our website.]

Building coalitions for change

NGOs are an active part of the political landscape in Washington DC. Human Rights Watch International is one of the most respected internationally in its field.

It has a proven track record of bringing together coalitions of NGOs to lead change campaigns, notably in the area of disarmament. Starting with the ban land mines campaign, which won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1997, an NGO coalition model has been applied for more recent campaigns against cluster bombs and killer robots.

My sister, Mary Wareham is Advocacy Director for the disarmament division at Human Rights Watch. I spoke with Mary and her colleague Mark Hiznay to explore the factors that make for successful coalitions. Their work brings together only NGOs ? they are careful to maintain independence from the governments that they lobby. Some of the keys to collaboration on change campaigns are that:

  • partner organisations have to be willing to share name recognition with others
  • they have to sign on to a joint project, rather than pursuing separate aims
  • they need to speak the same message, with one voice, at the right time to have impact.
Evelyn and Mary Wareham

Evelyn and Mary

The impact of tech and data on NGOs: Data philanthropy

We talked about how technology and data are creating change in organisations like Human Rights Watch. Organisations are pursuing the same goals using different tools. Social media platforms have become critical for collaboration on advocacy and research. Twitter is often the most direct source of current information and evidence, as well as a key lobbying tool. Facebook is a means to share images and draw on the collective expertise of communities of practice (for example to identify munitions used in contravention of international treaties). Avaaz enables campaigners to draw together the 100,000 plus signatures that are now needed to gain the attention of a government such the Obama administration. Kickstarter is a means for micro funding campaigns and goals.

Evidence is critical for effective campaigning. Human Rights Watch specialises in expert research resulting in high-profile investigative reports and advice. However, most researchers are not expert on data analytics, and prefer to use a case-study approach. In our changing world, important information is often supplied directly to researchers or available online as large datasets. Human Rights Watch recently appointed a big data-lead, who is bringing technology and tools to support researchers with finding the insights and stories when data is received by Human Rights Watch. This has had major impact, for example, in documenting the stories of detainees transferred around the US.

Shining the light on government

Washington DC has a proliferation of NGOs working on transparency and open government. They play a key role in lobbying from the outside to drive change in government policy and practice, and often work in loose coalitions together.

I met with Matt Rumsey from the Sunlight Foundation, which was established nine years ago with an initial focus on opening information on election campaign financing. It now has 35?40 staff and is funded by grants from foundations and individual donors. He told me that some of the other NGOs in this domain include:

  • OpenTheGovernment.org
  • Centre for Effective Government
  • POGO (the Project On Government Oversight)
  • Open Government Foundation
  • Data Transparency Coalition
  • Union of Concerned Scientists
  • Coalition for Sensible Safeguards.

A special feature of the Sunlight Foundation are its Labs ? teams of developers who produce tools and insights from open government data. They develop products and platforms for wider reuse, for example ‘Scout’ a tool that tracks legislative development and participation in parliamentary debates at federal and state level. The Labs follow a similar innovation process to the IDEO process that I learnt about at MIT, with a strong aim to get out and get into the heads of users ? and indeed worked with IDEO on development of an app recently.

Other areas for the Sunlight Foundation include:

  • Lobbying to influence US government policy on open data
  • Producing stories and assisting journalists working in traditional media
  • International, state and local: building capacity by bringing people together, developing joint declaration.

Sunlight pushed for the policy of publishing inventories of all data held by a government agency (rather than only open data, which agencies have decided themselves to release). This was picked up in the Obama administration's Open Data Executive Order in 2013.

Sunlight holds an annual ‘unconference’ event called the Transparency Camp to bring together a cross-section of people working to increase transparency through access to data.

One of the innovations that came from a Transparency Camp is the ‘Code for America’ initiative, which takes data developers and places them with a city or organisation for one year to deliver impact from data.

Matt Rumsey, Sunshine Foundation and Evelyn Wareham

Matt Rumsey, Sunshine Foundation and Evelyn