Category Archives: Work

Term-limiting your organization can be a gift to future you.

For just a great many mission-based organizations, there is some point in time at which it should have accomplished its mission. If it’s done that, then it should stop. And if it hasn’t accomplished its mission by then, it should still stop, because it’s apparently not able to get the job done.

The landscape is littered with zombie non-profits that exist to exist, doing work that is almost wholly unrelated to their original purpose, so that its employees may continue to be employed. Is your goal to build promote the building of roads suitable for automobiles? Cool, do that, and stop once you’ve accomplished that. Otherwise, a century later, you’ll just be a sad, sprawling towing insurance company that could be easily replaced by an app. A review of the non-profits supported by any local community foundation will yield vast numbers of organizations that long ago ceased to be useful, as those community foundations know, but a board member golfs with the board chair of that non-profit, and, hey, they employ people…so.

Three years ago, when a few of us were planning U.S. Open Data, then-US-Deputy-CTO Nick Sinai made a suggestion premised on this notion. He said I should plan to shut down the organization after a few years. At first, the proposal struck me as bizarre. Wouldn’t it make more sense to build something lasting? When you’re trying to foster a movement, doesn’t a time limit hinder that goal? The answer, as it turned out, was a very clear no.

Having a clear, public drop-dead date (which we set at four years) for U.S. Open Data has been a gift. It’s informed my work on a daily, even hourly, basis.

The organization was created to further the cause of open data—that is, to advance something larger than any one organization, that will outlast any one organization. Trying to do that with U.S. Open Data on a permanent basis (whatever that means) would mean working to make U.S. Open Data to be important enough that funders would want to support it, and creating a permanent fundraising infrastructure. And in building the larger network infrastructure of open data, our incentive would be to place ourselves at the center of that network, so that we’d be too important to go away.  When people approached us about creating new businesses or organizations in this space, our incentive would be to discourage them, to reduce competition. So we see that the best interests of a single actor don’t necessarily overlap with the best interests of a cause.

This organizational term limit informed every major decision that we made, most every minor decision, and a great many trivial ones. With an overall incentive to build up the open data ecosystem, instead of building up ourselves, we’ve been forced to consider the decisions before us not in terms of “what is best for us?” but instead in terms of “what is best for open data?” This approach clarifies every decision, forcing the morally superior decision. And the most reliable way to make morally superior decisions is to make sure that’s in your best interest.

Like Odysseus lashing himself to his ship’s mast, we declared our time limit publicly, at the outset, to ensure that we’d be held to it. Am I good enough person to shut down an organization just to keep it from potentially losing its way in years to come? Maybe. Best not to test it.

To anybody looking to start a mission-based non-profit, especially one with a goal-based mission (“build a monument”) as opposed to an unlimited mission (“support the arts”), I heartily recommend establishing a publicly-promoted end date.

Making it work requires 1) setting a date certain instead of something vague 2) having a board that is committed to making you adhere to that date and 3) reminding people early and often of your term limit. These three things will ensure that you’ll be held to your own standards, and that nobody will be caught by surprise when your organization goes away.

As a benefit, this creates a sort of sustainability in funding that’s appealing to the right funders. When your organization’s goal isn’t existence in perpetuity, funding it no longer becomes an exercise in long-term strategy. Depending on the organization’s time limit, it might be possible to fund its entire existence in a single grant. (We had two general funding grants: one from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and one from the Shuttleworth Foundation.)

Ultimately, every grant-funded organization will eventually be terminated by an inability to obtain additional funding, at the point at which they either have accomplished their mission (and funders see no reason to continue to support them) or they have failed to accomplish their mission (and, again, funders see no reason to continue to support them). In short, you can decide to term-limit your own organization, or you can wait for funders to do that for you, at time of their choosing.

Term limits aren’t right for all mission-based organizations, but many of them should regard the use of term limits as their null hypothesis. It may be harder to reject than you suspect.

Request for Awesome.

I was lucky enough to spend last week at the Aspen Institute, attending the annual Forum on Communications and Society. Thirty-odd of us spent four days talking about how to make government more open and more innovative. The guest list will leave reasonable people wondering how I got invited—Madeline Albright, Toomas Hendrik Ilves (the President of Estonia), Esther Dyson, Reed Hundt (FCC Chairman under President Clinton), and Eric Schmidt (chairman of Google) were just some of the most famous attendees.

Aspen View

We broke into groups, and were assigned general topics on which to devise a proposal for how to make governance more open and innovative. I wound up in a group with Esther Dyson, Tim Hwang, Max Ogden, Christine Outram, David Robinson, and Christina Xu. We came up with some pretty great proposals, at least one of which I intend to pursue personally, but ultimately we settled on the need to overhaul the government RFP process, and to create a policy vehicle to bid out lightweight, low-dollar technical projects, and to attract bids from startups and other small, nimble tech organizations. The idea isn’t to replace the existing RFP process, but to create a parallel one that will enable government to be more nimble.

We call our proposal Request for Awesome, and it has been received enthusiastically. Two days after we announced our proposal, a half dozen cities had committed to implementing it, and no doubt more have rolled in in the week since. Max and Tim are particularly involved in pushing this forward, and I don’t doubt that they’ll spread this farther.

I was very impressed by the Aspen Institute and by the Forum on Communications and Society. I’ve probably been to a dozen conferences so far this year, and this one was head and shoulders above the rest, perhaps the best I’ve ever been to. The Aspen Institute enjoys a strong reputation, and now I see why. Here’s hoping I get invited back some day.

My new job and its effect on my blogging.

I started a job with the White House about two and a half weeks ago. (For you federal government geeks, it’s via an assignment from the GSA, which in turn is via an IPA from UVA.) The plan is to take the train up to D.C. once a week, and work in Charlottesville for the rest of the week. I have waited this long to write about it here because I’ve been hoping that I could write the work that I’m doing, because I think it’s interesting and exciting. But the specifics of my project are still confidential, and are likely to be for at least another few weeks, and I don’t think it’s fair to wait that long to say anything, since it affects what I’ll be writing about here. Suffice it to say it pertains to open government technology.

The effect of this is that I will not be blogging about partisan politics for the duration, and generally avoiding political matters. Nobody has told me to do this, or even suggested it obliquely. It’s no in way a requirement of the job. But I think it’s the right thing, for one simple reason: I don’t think I can write honestly about politics if I’m going to make my living working for the president. I could try, but I don’t think I could avoid bias, no matter how convinced I might be that I was exhibiting none. I have restricted my writing accordingly for the past two weeks, and I’m more or less happy with the balance that I have struck.

Oddly, this doesn’t conflict with my other new line of work, as a John S. and James L. Knight Foundation News Challenge Fellow, building The State Decoded. That’s because my $160,000 grant hasn’t actually arrived yet and, based on the paperwork that I got in the mail today, it looks like it won’t for another couple of months. So The State Decoded remains an evenings-and-weekends project for me (though less so with this new job—the folks at the White House work all the time, and I’m just trying to keep up) until I complete this project and return to my prior commitment with the Knight Foundation.

I’m having an adventure.

WSJ joins in questioning Goldman Sachs guns story.

Last week I called out Bloomberg’s Alice Schroeder for a bullshit story about Goldman Sachs executives being “armed to the teeth.” Today the Wall Street Journal joins in. They asked the NYPD who confirmed that it’s just not true. A grand total of four Goldman Sachs employees have pistol permits. One is a security guard. One is head of security. Two have permits allowing them to have guns in their homes. Only one of the four is a trader. His permit was issued in 2001. Either Alice Schroeder is a liar or she’s a very bad reporter.

I figured that my initial blog entry about this would be a clear hit—as I explained, it’s obvious that the widely-reported story was made up—but while well trafficked, my article wasn’t nearly as popular as I thought it would be. The well-known proprietor of one famous blog was defensive, nearly argumentative with me, when I pointed out my rebuttal to the Bloomberg story (which he’d written about). He e-mailed the author, who (apparently) never got back to him, and never wrote anything about it. I’m convinced that a lot of bad reporters get away with doing a crappy job by doing the same thing that Schroeder did in this instance (and is still doing)—ignoring the questions and complaints. The VQR and WSJ fiskings of this piece aren’t going to get anything near the traction that the original story did. This is how bad journalism survives.

Chris Anderson’s Free contains what is apparently plagiarized text.

Over on VQR I wrote:

In the course of reading Chris Anderson’s new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price (Hyperion, $26.99), for a review in an upcoming issue of VQR, we have discovered almost a dozen passages that are reproduced nearly verbatim from uncredited sources. These instances were identified after a cursory investigation, after I checked by hand several dozen suspect passages in the whole of the 274-page book. This was not an exhaustive search, since I don’t have access to an electronic version of the book. Most of the passages, but not all, come from Wikipedia. Anderson is the author of the best-selling 2006 book The Long Tail and is the editor-in-chief of Wired magazine. The official publication date for Free is July 7.

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Podcast: My interview with photojournalist Ashley Gilbertson.

I interviewed photojournalist Ashley Gilbertson about the stunning rate of suicide among Iraq/Afghanistan veterans. It averages about 700 each month. More soldiers have died by their own hand after returning home than in country. Ash wrote “The Life and Lonely Death of Noah Pierce” for the current issue of VQR, the story of one 23-year-old vet who, after two tours in Iraq, killed himself a year ago July.

Murat Williams’ 1966 forecast of Virginia politics today.

I recently stumbled across an article from the Spring 1966 issue of Virginia Quarterly Review, Murat W. Williams’ “Virginia Politics: Winds of Change.” The author—a Rhodes scholar, WWII veteran, and U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador—argues that Virginia’s conservatism (fiscal and otherwise) cannot hold in the face of the changing demographics of the state. Williams’ prescience is kind of stunning at times. Here’s an illustrative excerpt:

America’s fastest area of metropolitan growth in the 1960’s, Greater Washington, is swallowing the Northern counties of Virginia. […] Half-surrounding the nation’s capital and embracing already some of the most powerful and expensive elements of Government, Virginia will feel the pressure of growing affluence and the restlessness of a population that will be looking for new opportunities and demanding space for sports, for recreation, for education, and for investment. The suburban spread in the northern counties can be expected to double. […] To face such expansion, ordinary politics and ordinary politicians are not enough. Those who preach retrenchment in the conviction that depression is around the corner are likely to be left behind in the growing new world. Those who would be niggardly in expenditure for education and social improvement will count the cost of miserliness in later social explosion. Those who are content to see the spread of suburban ugliness without provision today for recreation and cultural outlet, without planning for better communities, will face the repeated crises of the many sicknesses of affluence.

The irony here is that Williams was speaking of Democrats like Harry F. Byrd (and quotes him saying that “the Truman Democratic Party was a ‘greater menace to this country than Russia'”), not Republicans. But Republicans had the unfortunate timing to take control of Virginia politics just as this demographic shift took place, and are in the process of bearing the public’s ire, while Democrats have positioned themselves to be the party of change against their own legacy.