Tag Archives: open

Open Mandate Letters

The newly elected Government of Canada made its ministerial mandate letters available to the public last week. They are absolutely worth checking out both for their content and as a example of public disclosure/communication. I’ll talk about that latter part in a second, but let me first let’s discuss some background information and context.

From a content perspective the mandate letters are filled with a number of ambitious goals. Tzeporah Berman outlines a range of initiatives Ministers have been tasked to attend to from an environmental perspective (this may require access to Facebook). There are other goals to be excited by beyond the environment – the Justice Minister’s mandate letter in particular is worth looking at in detail. Again, it is an ambitious and exciting set of goals.

Some of you may ask: What IS a ministerial mandate letter? In Canada’s parliamentary system they have been how the Prime Minister and the Premier formally articulate the goals, priorities, specific task as well as general tone, for their ministers. In other words, they’re a way for the leader to tell cabinet ministers what he or she expects them to do (and presumably, how they will evaluate their performance).

Interestingly, while this is the first time I’m aware of that the federal government has made mandate letters open, it is actually part of an emerging trend. I believe this first happened in British Columbia under the current Premier (Premier Clark). They also formed part of the recommendations my colleagues and I proposed as part of the Open By Default report I helped draft at the request of Premier Wynn of Ontario. Premier Wynn, after winning the subsequent election, made her ministerial mandate letters public as well.

What I find fascinating is that mandate letters have not been made public before. Making them public has a number of advantages, both to the government, but also for more effective governance in general.

Making them public should help focus the government. It makes everybody, from the Minister, their advisors, down to every employee in the department that minister oversees aware of the minister’s goals. Such clarity is likely quite helpful and probably the most compelling reason for making them open. Governments are super tankers. The more the crew knows which way the ship is supposed to be going, the more individual decisions can be made to help ensure it’s course is accurate. And of course, any crew members that were planning on trying to push a ship in the direction they wanted to go, were likely to do so with or without seeing the mandate letters. At least now they can’t plead ignorance.

It also effectively communicates the government’s goals to the public. This makes it easier for actors outside of government – individual voters, NGO’s, industry groups and others – to better see where their priorities fit into the governments priorities. Some will be happy, others will be frustrated, but at least they know where they stand in a specific tangible and reference-able document.

Finally, mandate letters matters from a governance perspective. Mandate letters that veer far from campaign promises or from the political mandate the government received from voters will make for good fodder by opposition leaders. In addition, Ministers ability to execute against the goals and tasks laid out in their mandate letters are more visible to the public and, of course, the opposition. This form of accountability is likely to be helpful, spurring ministers to be more effective and on task while also granting opposition parties greater ability to point out problems.

Is it possible that a Minister could receive an additional “secret” mandate letter? Absolutely. But having mandate letters be completely secret strikes me as little better. And if a minister is working to complete some of their “secret” tasks, at least the public and opposition can hammer away at the minister asking them why they are not working on completing their stated “public” goals as outlined in the public mandate letter.

Beyond Property Rights: Thinking About Moral Definitions of Openness

“The more you move to the right the more radical you are. Because everywhere on the left you actually have to educate people about the law, which is currently unfair to the user, before you even introduce them to the alternatives. You aren’t even challenging the injustice in the law! On the right you are operating at a level that is liberated from identity and accountability. You are hacking identity.” – Sunil Abraham

I have a new piece up on TechPresident titled: Beyond Property Rights: Thinking About Moral Definitions of Openness.

This piece, as the really fun map I recreated is based on a conversation with Sunil Abraham (@sunil_abraham), the Executive Director of the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore.

If you find this map interesting… check the piece out here.

map of open


Transparency Case Study: There are Good and Bad Ways Your Organization can be made "Open"

If you have not had the chance, I strongly encourage you to check out a fantastic piece of journalism in this week’s Economist on the state of the Catholic Church in America. It’s a wonderful example of investigative and data driven journalism made possible (sadly) by the recent spat of sexual-abuse and bankruptcy cases. As a result some of the normally secret financial records of the Church have been made public enabling the Economist to reconstruct the secret and opaque general finances of the Catholic church in America. It is a fascinating, and at times disturbing read.

The articles also suggests – I believe – a broader lessons for non-profits, governments and companies. Disclosure and transparency are essential to the effective running of an organization. As you read the piece it is clear that more disclosure would probably have compelled the Church to manage its finances in a more fiscally sound manner. It probably would have also made acts that are, at best negligent, at worst corrupt, difficult to impossible. This is, indeed, why many charities, organizations and public companies must conduct audits and publish the results.

But conforming to legal requirements will not shield you from an angry public. My sense is that many member contribution based organizations – from public companies to clubs to governments, are going to feel enormous pressure from their “contributors” to disclose more about how funds are collected, managed, disbursed and used. In a post financial collapse and post Enron era it’s unclear to me that people trust auditors the way they once did. In addition, as technology makes it easier to track money in real time, contributors are going to want more than just an annual audit. Even if they look at it rarely, they are going to want to know there is a dashboard or system they can look at and understand that shows them where the money goes.

I’m open to being wrong about this – and I’m not suggesting this is a panacea that solves all problems, but I nonetheless suspect that many organizations are going to feel pressure to become more transparent. There will be good ways in which that takes place… and bad ways. The Catholic Church story in the Economist is probably an example of the worst possible way: transparency forced upon an organization through the release of documents in a court case.

For anyone running an non-profit, community group, public agency or government department – this makes the article doubly worth reading. It is a case study in the worst possible scenario for your organization. The kind of disaster you never want to have to deal with.

The problem is, and I’m going to go out on a limb here, is that, at some point in the next 10-20 years, there is a non-trivial risk any organization (including your’s, reader) will face a publicity or legitimacy crisis because of a real or imagined problem. Trust me when I tell you: that moment will not be the moment when it is easiest or desirable from a cost, political and cultural perspective, to make your organization more transaparent. So better for you to think about how you’d like to shift policies, culture and norms to make it more transparent and accountable today, when things are okay, than in the crisis.

Consider again the Catholic Church. There are some fascinating and disturbing facts shared in the story that provide some interesting context. On the fascinating side, I had no idea of the scope and size of the Catholic Church. Consider that, according to the article:

“Almost 100m Americans, a third of the nation, have been baptised into the faith and 74m identify themselves as Catholic.”


“there are now over 6,800 Catholic schools (5% of the national total); 630 hospitals (11%) plus a similar number of smaller health facilities; and 244 colleges and universities.”

We are talking about a major non-profit that is providing significant services into numerous communities. It also means that the Catholic church does a lot of things that many other non-profits do. Whatever you are doing, they are probably doing it too.

Now consider some of the terrible financial practices the Church tried/tries to get away with because it thinks no one will be able to see them:

Lying about assets: “In a particularly striking example, the diocese of San Diego listed the value of a whole city block in downtown San Diego at $40,000, the price at which it had been acquired in the 1940s, rather than trying to estimate the current market value, as required. Worse, it altered the forms in which assets had to be listed. The judge in the case, Louise Adler, was so vexed by this and other shenanigans on the part of the diocese that she ordered a special investigation into church finances which was led by Todd Neilson, a former FBI agent and renowned forensic accountant. The diocese ended up settling its sexual-abuse cases for almost $200m.”

Playing fast and loose with finances: “Some dioceses have, in effect, raided priests’ pension funds to cover settlements and other losses. The church regularly collects money in the name of priests’ retirement. But in the dioceses that have gone bust lawyers and judges confirm that those funds are commingled with other investments, which makes them easily diverted to other uses.”

Misleading contributors about the destination of funds: “Under Cardinal Bernard Law, the archdiocese of Boston contributed nothing to its clergy retirement fund between 1986 and 2002, despite receiving an estimated $70m-90m in Easter and Christmas offerings that many parishioners believed would benefit retired priests.”

Using Public Subsidies to Indirectly Fund Unpopular Activities: “Muni bonds are generally tax-free for investors, so the cost of borrowing is lower than it would be for a taxable investment. In other words, the church enjoys a subsidy more commonly associated with local governments and public-sector projects. If the church has issued more debt in part to meet the financial strains caused by the scandals, then the American taxpayer has indirectly helped mitigate the church’s losses from its settlements. Taxpayers may end up on the hook for other costs, too. For example, settlement of the hundreds of possible abuse cases in New York might cause the closure of Catholic schools across the city.”

Of course all of this pales in comparison to the most disturbing part of the article: in several jurisdictions, the church is spending money to lobby governments to no extend the statute of limitations around sexual-abuse cases. This is so that it, and its priests, cannot be charged by authorities diminishing the likelihood that they get sued. The prospect that an organization that is supposed to both model the highest ideals of behaviour as well as protect the most marginalized is trying to limit the statues on such a heinous crime is so profoundly disgusting it is hard to put words to it. The Economist gives it a shot:

Various sources say that Cardinal Dolan and other New York bishops are spending a substantial amount—estimates range from $100,000 a year to well over $1m—on lobbying the state assembly to keep the current statute of limitations in place. His office will not comment on these estimates. This is in addition to the soft lobbying of lawmakers by those with pulpits at their disposal. The USCCB, the highest Catholic body in America, also lobbies the federal government on the issue. In April the California Catholic Conference, an organisation that brings the state’s bishops together, sent a letter to California’s Assembly opposing a bill that would extend the statute and require more rigorous background checks on church workers.

This disgusting discover aside, most organizations are probably not going to have the same profound problems found in the Catholic Church. But in almost every organization, no matter the controls, some form of mismanagement is probably taking place. The question is, will you already have in place policies and a culture that support transparency and disclosure before the problem is discovered – or will the crises become the moment where you have to try to implement them, probably under less than ideal circumstances?

As they said after Watergate “It’s not the Crime that kills you, but the cover up,” good transparency and disclosure can’t stop the crime, but it might help prevent them. Moreover, it can also make the cover up harder and, potentially, make it easier to ease the concerns of contributors and rebuilt trust. One could imagine that if the Church had been more transparent about its finances it might have better protected itself against bankruptcy from some of these cases. More importantly, it’s transparency might have make it easier to rebuilt trust, whereas any chance now will just seem like a reaction to the crises, not a genuine desire to operate differently.

Again, I think the pressure on many orgs to be more transparent is going to grow. And managers should recognize there are good and bad conditions under which such transparency can take place. Read this Economist story. In addition to be fascinating, it is a great case study in the worst case scenario for opaque institutions.

Data Wars: A mini-case study of Southwest Airlines vs. TripIt and Orbitz

As a regular flyer, I’m an enormous fan of TripIt. It’s a simple service in which you forward almost any reservation – airline, hotel, car rental, etc… to plans@tripit.com and their service will scan it, grab the relevant data, and create a calendar of events for you. While it’s a blessing not to have to manually enter my travel plans into my calendar, what’s particularly fantastic is that I give my partner access to the calendar – so she knows when I’m flying out and when I return. With 135,000 miles of travel last year alone, there was a lot of that.

TripIt Pro users, however, have added benefits: they can use TripIt to track how many loyalty points they are gathering. That is, unless you travel on Southwest Airlines. Apparently Southwest sent a legal warning to any company that tracks their members’ loyalty benefits and ordered them to stop doing so. (Award Wallet is another example of an app I use that was affected). In a similar vein, veteran travelers know that Southwest does not appear on many travel search sites like Orbitz.

These are great examples of a data wars – places where a company are fighting over who gets access to customers data. In this case Southwest is using its user license to forbids another company from displaying data Southwest generates, but that its customers might wish to share with others because it is helpful to them. It’s not just that Southwest wants to control its relationship with its customers when it comes to loyalty points, or that it wants to sell them hotels and rental cars though its site. It’s that it wants the data about how you behave, about what choices you make and how you make them. Use another site to access loyalty points and they can’t track or sell to you. Ditto if you use another site to buy airfare for their flights.

Southwest isn’t nuts. But it’s a strategy that won’t work for all companies (and may not work for them) and it has real consequences.

To begin with, they are making it hard for their customers to engage their service. When traveling in the US, I regularly use Kayak and/or other types of airline aggregators – it means I never see Southwest as an option. Nor do I go to their website. The bigger irony of course is that while I frequently find fares on aggregator sites, I often book them on the airline’s site. But again, I don’t go to Southwest because they never appear in any searches I do. Maybe they don’t care about business travelers, but they are making a big trade-off – they get more data about their users and have unique opportunities to sell to them, but I suspect they get far fewer users.

In addition, they may be alienating their customers. I’m not so sure customers will feel like loyalty point data belongs to Southwest. After all, it was their dollars and flying that paid to create the data… why shouldn’t they be able to access a copy of it via an application they find useful?

This was all confirmed by an email from a friend and colleague Gary R., who recently wrote me to say:

While we love Southwest Airlines for its low prices, generous affinity programs and flexibility in changing business trips at the last moment with little consequence, their closed data sharing policy drives up our overall cost of managing travel. Entering flight information manually into TripIt is a pain, yet the service is incredible at keeping one informed during a trip, presenting a palette of options seemingly the instant things go wrong. We have chosen other carriers over Southwest on occasion because they play nicely with Orbitz and TripIt.

I can’t tell if Southwest’s tradeoffs are worth it or not. But any business person must at least recognize there is a tradeoff. That’s the real lesson. You need to find a way to value the data you collect and be able to compare it against the opportunity of a) happier clients and b) potentially accessing more clients. This is particularly true since many customers probably (and rightly) will feel that is data is as much theirs as it is yours. They did co-create it.

Ultimately if you increase the transaction costs of the experience – because you want to shut other actors out – you will lose customers.  Southwest already has.

Definitely expect more of these types of legal battles in the future. Your data is now as important as the service you use. This makes it both powerful, and dangerous in the hands of the wrong people.

The Future of Academic Research

Yesterday, Nature – one of the worlds premier scientific journals recognized University of British Columbia scientist Rosie Redfield as one of the top 10 science newsmakers of 2011.

The reason?

After posting a scathing attack on her blog about a paper that appeared in the journal Science, Redfield decided to attempt to recreate the experiment and has been blogging about her effort over the past year. As Nature describes it:

…that month, Redfield took matters into her own hands: she began attempting to replicate the work in her lab at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and documenting her progress on her blog (http://rrresearch.fieldofscience.com).

The result has been a fascinating story of open science unfolding over the year. Redfield’s blog has become a virtual lab meeting, in which scientists from around the world help to troubleshoot her attempts to grow and study the GFAJ-1 bacteria — the strain isolated by Felisa Wolfe-Simon, lead author of the Science paper and a microbiologist who worked in the lab of Ronald Oremland at the US Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California.

While I’m excited about Redfields blog (more on that below) we should pause and note the above paragraph is a very, very sad reminder of the state of affairs in science. I find the term “open science” to be an oxymoron. The scientific process only works when it is, by definition, open. There is, quite arguably, no such thing as “closed science.” And yet it is a reflection of how 18th century the entire science apparatus remains that Redfields awesome experiment is just that – an experiment. We should celebrate her work, and ask ourselves, why is this not the norm?

So first, to celebrate her work… when I look at Redfields blog, I see exactly what I hope the future of scientific, and indeed all academic research, will look like. Here is someone who is constantly updating their results and sharing what they are doing with their peers, as well as getting input and feedback from colleagues and others around the world. Moreover, she plays to the mediums strengths. While rigorous, she remains inviting and, from my reading, creates a more honest and human view into the world of science. I suspect that this might be much more attractive (and inspiring) to potential scientists. Consider, these two lines from one of her recent posts:

So I’m pretty sure I screwed something up.  But what?  I used the same DNA stock tube I’ve used many times before, and I definitely remember putting 3 µl of DNA into each assay tube.  I made fresh sBHI + novobiocin plates using pre-made BHI agar,, and I definitely remember adding the hemin (4 ml), NAD (80 µl) and novobiocin (40 µl) to the melted agar before I poured the plates.


UPDATE:  My novobiocin plates had no NovR colonies because I had forgotten to add the required hemin supplement to the agar!  How embarrassing – I haven’t made that mistake in years.

and then this blog post title:

Some control results! (Don’t get excited, it’s just a control…)

Here is someone literally walking through their thought processes in a thorough, readable way. Can you imagine anything more helpful for a student or young scientist? And the posts! Wonderfully detailed walk throughs of what has been tried, progress made and set backs uncovered. And what about the candor! The admission of error and the attempts to figure out what went wrong. It’s the type of thinking I see from great hackers as well. It’s also the type of dialogue and discussion you won’t see in a formal academic paper but is exactly what I believe every field (from science, to non-profit, to business) needs more of.

Reading it all, and I’m once again left wondering. Why is this the experiment? Why isn’t this the norm? Particularly at publicly funded universities?

Of course, the answer lies in another question, one I first ran into over a year ago reading this great blog post by Michael Clarke on Why Hasn’t Scientific Publishing Been Disrupted Already? As he so rightly points out:

When Tim Berners-Lee created the Web in 1991, it was with the aim of better facilitating scientific communication and the dissemination of scientific research. Put another way, the Web was designed to disrupt scientific publishing. It was not designed to disrupt bookstores, telecommunications, matchmaking services, newspapers, pornography, stock trading, music distribution, or a great many other industries…

…The one thing that one could have reasonably predicted in 1991, however, was that scientific communication—and the publishing industry that supports the dissemination of scientific research—would radically change over the next couple decades.

And yet it has not.

(Go read the whole article, it is great). Mathew Ingram also has a great piece on this published half a year later called So when does academic publishing get disrupted?

Clarke has a great breakdown on all of this, but my own opinion is that scientific journals survive not because they are an efficient means of transmitting knowledge (they are not – Redfield’s blog shows there are much, much faster ways to spread knowledge). Rather journals survive in their current form because they are the only rating system scientists (and more importantly) universities have to deduce effectiveness, and thus who should get hired, fired, promoted and, most importantly, funded. Indeed, I suspect journals actually impede (and definitely slow) scientific progress. In order to get published scientists regularly hold back sharing and disclosing discoveries and, more often still, data, until they can shape it in such a way that a leading journal will accept it. Indeed, try to get any scientists to publish their data in machine readable formats – even after they have published with it -it’s almost impossible… (notice there are no data catalogs on any major scientific journals websites…) The dirty secret is that this is because they don’t want others using it in case it contains some juicy insight they have so far missed.

Don’t believe me? Just consider this New York Times article on the break throughs in Alzheimer’s. The whole article is about a big break through in scientific research process. What was it? That the scientists agreed they would share their data:

The key to the Alzheimer’s project was an agreement as ambitious as its goal: not just to raise money, not just to do research on a vast scale, but also to share all the data, making every single finding public immediately, available to anyone with a computer anywhere in the world.

This is unprecedented? This is the state of science today? In an era where we could share everything, we opt to share as little as possible. This is the destructive side of the scientific publishing process that is linked to performance.

It is also the sad reason why it is a veteran, established researcher closer to the end of her career that is blogging this way and not a young, up and coming researcher trying to establish herself and get tenure. This type of blog is too risky to ones career. Today “open” science, is not a path forward. It actually hurts you in a system that prefers more inefficient methods at spreading insights, research and data, but is good at creating readily understood rankings.

I’m thrilled that Rosie Redfield has been recognized by Nature (which clearly enjoys the swipe at Science – its competitor). I’m just sad that the today’s culture of science and universities means there aren’t more like her.


Bonus material: If you want to read an opposite view, here is a seriously self-interested defensive of the scientific publishing industry that was totally stunning to read. It’s fascinating that this man and Michael Clarke share the same server. If you look in the comments of that post, there is a link to this excellent post by a researcher at a University in Cardiff that I think is a great counter point.


The Geopolitics of the Open Government Partnership: the beginning of Open vs. Closed

Aside from one or two notable exceptions, there hasn’t been a ton of press about the Open Government Partnership (OGP). This is hardly surprising. The press likes to talk about corruption and bad government, people getting together to talk about actually address these things in far less sexy.

But even where good coverage exists analysts and journalists are, I think, misunderstanding the nature of the partnership and its broader implications should it take hold. Presently it is generally seen as a do good project, one that will help fight corruption and hopefully lead to some better governance (both of which I hope will be true). However, the Open Government Partnership isn’t just about doing good, it has real strategic and geopolitical purposes.

In fact, the OGP is, in part, about a 21st century containment strategy.

For those unfamiliar with 20th century containment, a brief refresher. Containment refers to a strategy outlined by a US diplomat – George Kennan – who while posted in Moscow wrote the famous The Long Telegram in which he outlined the need for a more aggressive policy to deal with an expansionist post-WWII Soviet Union. He argued that such a policy would need to seek to isolate the USSR politically and strategically, in part by positioning the United States as a example in the world that other countries would want to work with. While discussions of “containment” often focus on its military aspects and the eventual arms race, it was equally influential in prompting the ideological battle between the USA and USSR as they sought to demonstrate whose “system” was superior.

So I repeat. The OGP is part of a 21st century containment policy. And I’d go further, it is a effort to forge a new axis around which America specifically, and a broader democratic camp more generally, may seek to organize allies and rally its camp. It abandons the now outdated free-market/democratic vs. state-controlled/communist axis in favour of a more subtle, but more appropriate, open vs. closed.

The former axis makes little sense in a world where authoritarian governments often embrace (quasi) free-market to reign, and even have some of the basic the trappings of a democracy. The Open Government Partnership is part of an effort to redefine and shift the goal posts around what makes for a free-market democracy. Elections and a market place clearly no longer suffice and the OGP essentially sets a new bar in which a state must (in theory) allow itself to be transparent enough to provide its citizens with information (and thus power), in short: it is a state can’t simple have some of the trappings of a democracy, it must be democratic and open.

But that also leaves the larger question. Who is being contained? To find out that answer take a look at the list of OGP participants. And then consider who isn’t, and likely never could be, invited to the party.

OGP members Notably Absent
Czech Republic
Dominican Republic
El Salvador
Slovak Republic
South Africa
United Kingdom
United States


Saudi Arabia

(Indeed much of the middle East)


*India is not part of the OGP but was involved in much of initial work and while it has withdrawn (for domestic political reasons) I suspect it will stay involved tangentially.

So first, what you have here is a group of countries that are broadly democratic. Indeed, if you were going to have a democratic caucus in the United Nations, it might look something like this (there are some players in that list that are struggling, but for them the OGP is another opportunity to consolidate and reinforce the gains they’ve made as well as push for new ones).

In this regards, the OGP should be seen as an effort by the United States and some allies to find some common ground as well as a philosophical touch point that not only separates them from rivals, but that makes their camp more attractive to deal with. It’s no trivial coincidence that on the day of the OGP launch the President announced the United States first fulfilled commitment would be its decision to join the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). The EITI commits the American oil, gas and mining companies to disclose payments made to foreign governments, which would make corruption much more difficult.

This is America essentially signalling to African people and their leaders – do business with us, and we will help prevent corruption in your country. We will let you know if officials get paid off by our corporations. The obvious counter point to this is… the Chinese won’t.

It’s also why Brazil is a co-chair, and the idea was prompted during a meeting with India. This is an effort to bring the most important BRIC countries into the fold.

But even outside the BRICs, the second thing you’ll notice about the list is the number of Latin American, and in particular African countries included. Between the OGP, the fact that the UK is making government transparency a criteria for its foreign aid, and that World Bank is increasingly moving in the same direction, the forces for “open” are laying out one path for development and aid in Africa. One that rewards governance and – ideally – creates opportunities for African citizens. Again, the obvious counter point is… the Chinese won’t.

It may sounds hard to believe but the OGP is much more than a simple pact designed to make heads of state look good. I believe it has real geopolitical aims and may be the first overt, ideological salvo in the what I believe will be the geopolitical axis of Open versus Closed. This is about finding ways to compete for the hearts and minds of the world in a way that China, Russia, Iran and others simple cannot. And, while I agree we can debate the “openness” of the various the signing countries, I like the idea of world in which states compete to be more open. We could do worse.

Interview with Charles Leadbeater – Monday September 19th

I’m excited to share that I’ll be interviewing British public policy and open innovation expert Charles Leadbeater on September 19th as part of a SIG’s webinar series. For readers not familiar with Charles Leadbeater, he is the author of We-Think and numerous other chapters, pamphlets and articles, ranging in focus from social innovation, to entrepreneurship to public sector reform. He served as an adviser to Tony Blair and has a long standing relationship with the British think tank Demos.

Our conversation will initially focus on open innovation, but I’m sure will range all over, touching on the impact of open source methodologies on the private, non-profit and public sector, the future of government services and, of course, the challenges and opportunities around open data.

If you are interested in participating in the webinar you can register here. There is a small fee I’m told is being charged to recover some of the costs for running the event.

If you are participating and have a question you’d like to see asked, or a theme or topic you’d like to see covered, please feel free to comment below or, if you prefer more discretion, send me an email.