The Obama administration has promised the American public that it would be the most open and transparent administration in U.S. history. To date, that promise has been contradicted by the design and implementation of the Social Innovation Fund (SIF), the administration’s flagship program for the nonprofit sector.
“In all my years of studying the federal government, its presidential appointees, senior officials, and agencies, the most common mistakes involve appearance, and the most egregious violations of federal law regarding full disclosures have involved the spirit of action, not the fine letter of the law,” says Paul Light, NYU Wagner’s Paulette Goddard Professor of Public Service and one of the nation’s most respected observers of the behavior of our nation’s executive branch. Light’s comment would be useful if it were absorbed by the well-intentioned implementers of the Social Innovation Fund at the Corporation for National and Community Service.
The unwillingness of the SIF to release certain program records to the public—and the press—does not live up to the administration’s open government commitment. Additionally, the fact that there is a pre-existing relationship between the director of the SIF, Paul Carttar, and New Profit, one of the funded intermediaries, that was acknowledged as a potential conflict of interest when he assumed that role, makes it particularly important that SIF and the Corporation act in ways that are more—not less—transparent than other federal agencies.
The Social Innovation Fund was authorized under the SERVE America Act, co-sponsored by Republican Senator Orrin Hatch and Democrat Ted Kennedy. Congress gave the SIF $50 million to deploy through regrantmaking intermediaries to pick examples of innovation to strengthen, replicate, and bring to scale. The design of the program requires matching funds of at least two non-federal dollars for every SIF dollar. One dollar is given by the intermediary and one raised by the grantee of the intermediary.
A little more than a week ago, the Corporation announced the 11 regrantmaking intermediary winners of the Social Innovation Fund money. Although SIF convened a panel of 60 outside experts to review 69 proposals based on a set of pre-established criteria, it has not revealed the names of the applicants, the reviewers, the proposals that were submitted, or the contents of the ratings forms provided from members of the panel to the SIF staff.
In an interview with the Nonprofit Quarterly’s Editor-in-Chief, Ruth McCambridge, Carttar point to its application development process as proof of the SIF’s commitment to openness, asserting that some significant aspects of the application were changed in consult with the field it sought to engage. But the lack of access to basic information regarding the applicant selection process is troublesome. The refusal to provide applicant names stands in contrast to, for instance, the Department of Education’s process for evaluating applicants for the Promise Neighborhoods program. In that instance, the DoE published a list of all 339 of the Promise Neighborhood applicants including the names of the lead organizations and their partners.
But at the Corporation’s press conference on July 22, SIF director Paul Carttar and the Corporation’s CEO Patrick Corvington declined when asked if they would reveal the names of the other applicants and provide copies of both the successful and unsuccessful applications.
Carttar explained to NPQ the SIF’s rationale for keeping the proposals and even the names of the applicants confidential: “It was really a strategic decision that was meant to lower the barriers to participation. It was a brand new program without precedent in some ways. We expected that a lot of the applicants would not necessarily have experience as federal grantees and the stakes were perceived to be high. For us to achieve our mission we wanted to get the strongest intermediary applicants with the best track records and providing them with some confidentiality was part of that plan.”
Carttar indicated that the SIF might favor an approach to information release that relies on the applicants’ willingness to disclose both the fact they applied and the content of their proposals. “Our hope,” he said, “is to try to enlist them in the cause so they will do so voluntarily.” However, this seems to place the responsibility for appropriate disclosure on the applicants rather than on the Corporation.
NPQ asked Carttar for a list of the names of applicants, the original applications, the review panel’s comments and ratings, and, if they were not assured of confidentiality, the names of the expert reviewers (some of whom have already identified themselves on web pages, including one who used her SIF rating experience to write a column).
Regarding the evaluators’ ratings, which are critical to the public’s assurance of a process free of favoritism, Carttar indicated that the SIF had only thus far planned to release the information to applicants to “provide feedback.” He told us, “We want to find ways to help them promote their proposals to other funders.” He indicated that he would have to consult counsel to see if the review panels’ ratings and feedback could also be shared with the public.
Without knowing exactly when the SIF plans to make these documents available and how much it will withhold or redact, the SIF’s approach can not yet be seen as adequately representative of the open government that President Obama pledged. But there is still time to make the grants process transparent. There are two areas in which we would like to see clarification and explanation in order to more fully understand how the agency’s decision-making processes fit or failed President Obama’s open government imperative:
Make the Proposals Public: Once the SIF proposals were received by the Corporation, they became government records. Other than trade secrets and some aspects of the financial information in them, it is difficult to imagine how the Corporation could reject public disclosure. Under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the proposals of both SIF winners and SIF losers should be considered public records for the purpose of public transparency. Moreover, for the SIF to cite the nature of the lead applicants or grants and their presumed desire to remain anonymous as the reason for keeping SIF applications secret is unjustifiable. If the entire range of applicants matches the organizational demographic of the announced SIF winners, the applicants are tax exempt foundations and tax exempt intermediaries applying for public dollars, lacking any significant program elements that would be trade secrets.
To give confidentiality based on the applicants’ request or presumed need for confidentiality, contradicting President Obama’s open government executive order and the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, raises questions about SIF and the Corporation staff’s understanding the role and importance of open government operations. In this case, it is not clear that the applicants requested confidentiality, but rather the Corporation assumed that without confidentiality, the program would not attract the best possible applicants. The Corporation is a public sector agency whose staff do not have the latitude of reinterpreting laws based on the desires of their applicants and grantees, much less presumptions of their desires for confidentiality.
Make the Ratings Public: In light of some of the interrelationships between the Coporation staff and some of the intermediaries and their partners, the public has a right to know what the ratings were of the 69 applicants. Specifically the public should have access to information about which high-ranking groups were denied funding, and which low-ranking groups were funded. The ratings and comments of the panels, even if the names of the expert panelists are redacted, are public record and therefore should be disclosed.
When President Obama announced the Open Government Initiative, his first point was straightforward: “Government should be transparent. Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing. Information maintained by the Federal Government is a national asset. My Administration will take appropriate action, consistent with law and policy, to disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use.” Through the Office of Management and Budget, the President directed every federal agency to come up with a plan for making information in their control accessible to the public. View the memo here [PDF]. The requirement included identifying new data sets that the agencies would make transparent and accessible online.
Justice Secretary Eric Holder joined the process issuing a memorandum of instructions on FOIA [PDF], citing a statement from the President that “The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails.” Holder added, “An agency should not withhold information simply because it may do so legally. I strongly encourage agencies to make discretionary disclosures of information. An agency should not withhold records merely because it can demonstrate, as a technical matter, that the records fall within the scope of a FOIA exemption.”
The Corporation’s response [PDF] to the President’s Open Government executive order promised a complete inventory of the data sets it possesses and could and should make public. There is no question that one data set should be made public—the 69 applications for Social Innovation Fund money and the ratings and comments of the 60 outside experts. There is no legal justification, no national security justification, and no trade secret justification for denying the public access to their contents. Equally as important as the laws and practices about open government, as a program dedicated to learning about innovation the Social Innovation Fund should be committed to maximizing transparency and disclosure so that the entire nonprofit sector can participate in this public policy experiment.
[Note: In the interest of full disclosure, we wish to note that one of the winning applicants for a SIF grant, the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, provides grant funding to the Nonprofit Quarterly. A member of the board of directors of NINA, the nonprofit that oversees NPQ, is a high ranking staff member for another winning applicant, Jobs for the Future. A member of the NPQ’s editorial committee served as one of the outside experts on the review panels. And NPQ’s National Correspondent served as a vice president of another of the winning applicants, the Local Initiatives Support Corporation from 1994 to 1998 and has provided consulting assistance to national LISC and to various local LISC program offices until 2009 on topics unrelated to the contents of LISC’s SIF grant award.]