When to engage with adversarial organizations

I was recently invited to the DiploHack, a hackathon on the topic of transparency for civic tech activists and diplomats of the European Union, hosted by the Council of the EU.

First, a few words about the Council. This institution is what people mean when they describe the EU as an opaque bureaucracy led by unelected officials detached from the people. On most European legislation (and all legislation before 2009), the Council has the last word. It brings together ministers from all 28 member states. In most member states, ministers are unelected and accountable only to their prime minister - they are professional politicians above all. The Council takes decisions behind close doors, so that no one knows how it finds compromises. Most of the time, the Council refuses to communicate documents under the European freedom of information legislation. To oversimplify, the Council is what’s wrong about the EU.

That the Council asks civic tech activists to work on transparency within its walls is akin to the CIA organizing a hackathon at Langley on how to end torture. This is an adequate comparison. The EU-Turkey deportation deal agreed by the Council of 18 March 2016, for instance, which puts an end to the 1951 Convention on refugees, will cause hundreds of deaths. For me to attend DiploHack was out of the question.

Wouldn’t engagement with the Council pressure it into becoming more open? After all, developing personal ties with diplomats at the Council would ensure that they better understand the position of civic tech activists. In the long run, it could lead to improvements in the way the Council operates.

To answer this question, one must know when to engage with adversarial organizations - organizations whose work opposes one’s actions or beliefs. Economically speaking, it is fairly easy. One must engage when the benefits are greater than the costs, i.e when the impact of one’s engagement with the organization will change the organization more than the organization will benefit from the collaboration to further their initial goals, either by using the collaboration to improve its standing or by tarnishing one’s reputation. (The gap between the two outcomes can be covered with money or favors to convince an opponent to collaborate, but this is an issue of corruption, not collaboration.)

Such an answer might make economic sense but it is utterly useless in real life, where the costs and benefits cannot be simply weighted. I offer three criteria that are of use to know if a collaboration is worth the trouble.

The organization must be acting in good faith

Some organizations have become expert at whitewashing their actions through public relations efforts, including hackathons and outreach programs. The European Commission is an expert at creating the appearance of discussion when it in fact only seeks some positions. Its public consultation process is made in such a way that only Brusselite consultants can take part. While NGOs are invited to contribute, the very setup of the consultations are so long, technical and cumbersome that it favors those who have a lot of free time, i.e those with the deepest pockets. The consultations are available only in French, German and English, which shows how much the Commission cares about the remaining 300 million EU citizens who are not native speakers of these languages.

Other organizations ostensibly engage with civil society but pursue goals that are far from honest discussion. I once attended a hackathon hosted by a large German publisher, for instance, where the official goal was to “reimagine content”. Five minutes in the event, it was clear that the organizers where more interested in poaching talent and ideas to improve the performance of their advertising than in thinking about news.

The organization must share the definitions of the issues at stake

Activists and legacy organizations can work in good faith but have totally different definitions in mind. It can be that an organization sees a collaboration as an end in itself and do not intend for the collaboration to have any other implication, whereas activists expect the collaboration to have an impact.

I once worked for the World Bank to advise on the open data strategy of a small and poor country. In this country, one in five person is literate, one in ten uses internet and the government owned (at the time) 3 servers. Not to mention corruption. The government wanted to acquire four servers for its upcoming open data portal. My report advised to pursue a much less ambitious strategy using off-the-shelf tools and grow the portal as the country developed. It caused an uproar and went directly to the bin. Another person was commissioned to do the report and endorse the government’s strategy. Of course, the goal of the World Bank was never to foster an open data strategy in the country, but to shape the discourse surrounding the issue by having people talking together under the Bank’s terms.

In such cases, the question of engagement has more to do with the cost of opportunity. What else could have been done with the time spent engaging with the organization?

The organization must be able to act upon the results of the collaboration

An organization can fulfill the two criteria above but still ensure that the collaboration does not bear fruit by sending in its most junior staff or by not giving its staff the resources needed.

This is what happened to the open data strategy of the French government. Most of the personnel dedicated to opening the government’s data vaults were youngsters confined to a cozy office in the center of Paris. Despite their energy and goodwill, their work has absolutely zero impact in the French provinces, where most of the people live and most of the data lies.

In the case of DiploHack, criteria 2 and 3 are not met. The data open for the event is the one on the EU open data portal, which puts online the data the Commission accepts to publish (i.e not the interesting ones), showing that the Council understands transparency as a one-way concept, where the administration decides what should be transparent. Furthermore, no senior official has been announced, implying that the Council will not act upon the results of the event.

Some great examples of collaboration with civil society include the French government’s République Numérique initiative. NGOs and citizens were invited by the minister herself to amend a legislation proposal through an easy-to-use platform. Some of the comments made it into the bill that was discussed in parliament.

Other cases of civil society’s collaboration with the government resulted in the total destruction of the former by the latter. This is what happened to intellectuals in the USSR, for instance (I certainly do not imply that theirs was an easy choice to make, quite to the contrary).

Just like one cannot convince someone to change their world view through discussion, it can be more appropriate not to engage with an institution. If the three conditions laid out above are not met, I argue that the best option is not to collaborate. Instead, resources should be devoted to documenting the actions of the institution for future confrontation, either within the institution or outside of it.