The Important Precedent in the Social Innovation Fund’s Disclosure Policy

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On Friday, September 17, the Social Innovation Fund released the names of all 63 reviewers of applications for SIF funding and the names of 43 of the 59 SIF applicants that applied for grants but did not win. These were disclosures that had been requested by NPQ and it was the second round of  disclosures that came as a result of calls for further transparency at the Social Innovation Fund.

Placed at the Corporation for National and Community Service, the $50 million Social Innovation Fund’s goal is to fund and replicate nonprofit programs that innovate in the areas of economic opportunity, healthy futures and, youth development and school support. In that it was billed as a flagship program, many observers were interested in understanding how and why SIF chose the 11 grantees who won awards. This interest was heightened by an awareness that there were potential conflicts of interest between certain of the CNCS and SIF leadership and some of the winning grantees. Yet the original announcements made about the grantees and the process contained scant information that might have put concerns to rest.

This resulted in NPQ’s requests for transparency. For a full timeline of events see here.

We commend CNCS and SIF for the latest disclosures but  there is still one issue that NPQ would still like to see addressed regarding the first round of funding and one request that would help promote transparency in these kinds of competitive grants processes in the future:

For this round of disclosures, we would still like to know which reviewers were used for the rounds that followed the initial review. The issues of conflict of interest get more intense at the levels where decisions are made that contradict the judgment of reviewers at an earlier phase.

And, in furtherance of open government standards at CNCS and elsewhere at federal agencies, NPQ would like to request the legal opinion on which these recent disclosures were based. NPQ believes that the decision to publish information about this process may have been at least partially  based on a legal opinion and we would like to see that opinion published so it can serve as a precedent or at least thoughtful guidance for openness in future processes. NPQ was unable last week to get an acknowledgement from the Corporation’s spokespersons that it had obtained a written legal opinion from its in-house counsel, nor were we able to obtain a copy of the opinion for ourselves.

The Corporation’s spokesperson, Ashley Ettienne told NPQ that the FOIA law is relatively precise on what can and cannot be released and disclosed. But we believe that the counsel’s written opinion is of precedential value because indeed FOIA is not as precise as the spokesperson would have us believe.  Were it precise, each federal department wouldn’t articulate separate (and different) FOIA compliance strategies.  If the agency believes in transparency, this should extend to transparency on precedential opinions of import to other agencies.

Finally, NPQ sincerely hopes that any decisions to further disclose have stemmed from the highest levels of the Corporation and the White House, because that would contain the promise of  greater change.

Etienne also said that Friday’s release was a “significant step forward” for the Corporation, and the “first time” that this “level of information was shared with the public.”  Good for the Corporation—and good for the commentators and critics from the nonprofit sector, and the social entrepreneurship groups that pressed the Corporation to let the sun shine in.

Although Etienne said that the agency has “been on a trajectory for greater transparency” in its programs, no doubt spurred along by President Obama’s open government policy directive, there is more the Corporation and other agencies can and should do to make subsequent rounds of funding more open.

Remember that when the Corporation released its first phase of steps toward increased disclosure and transparency, the information was given to the Chronicle of Philanthropy anonymously. When even statements about transparency are given anonymously, the message and the means don’t fit.

It is easy to feel like the commitment to open government in such cases is thin.  The onus is not just on the Corporation nor its CEO, Patrick Corvington.  It is on the White House as well, where some of the open government milestones seem to be lagging.

If the SIF policy announcements represent a “first time” for this level of transparency in the Corporation, it would be fitting to see the Corporation’s legal opinion and its next steps in transparency become the vanguard for the federal government’s overall open government initiative.