Stonewalling at the Social Innovation Fund
President Barack Obama's new Social Innovation Fund (SIF) has done many things well over the past few months. With $50 million in federal grant money to support innovative programs across the nation, SIF pulled together a selection process in record time, pushed out 11 grants to some of the very best organizations in the country, and is well on its way to becoming one of the most important efforts to stimulate social change in recent history.
Despite this initial success, SIF is also becoming a study in what doesn't work in government transparency. Contrary to the Obama administration's promise of sunshine in government, SIF has refused to provide basic information about its process for choosing the 11 winners. It has yet to release a full description of its final criteria, for example, the names of all reviewers, or even a simple list of all applicants. Apparently, SIF promised all applicants that the also-rans would never be named, even though it never issued written guidance to that effect.
Under pressure from the Nonprofit Quarterly, SIF has made a handful of relatively minor concessions. It has promised to open up the process next year and has released two brief explanations of its four-stage review process.
However, even though SIF has agreed to release the written applications from the 11 winners, it has set no deadlines for doing so. Moreover, there are rumors that the winners will be allowed to redact their applications to protect any information they deem inappropriate.
There is no excuse for the stonewalling. SIF is not a secret agency and these are not national security grants. SIF is but a small node at the Corporation for National and Community Service.
I was a reviewer during the first round of the application process and saw absolutely nothing that might justify the stonewalling. My two colleagues and I worked hard under intense pressure to rate the six proposals we received. I can attest that there was no pressure whatsoever to favor any applicants.
The criteria for each review were perfectly appropriate. Up to 45 points were to be awarded for program design, 35 points for organizational capacity, and 20 points for cost-effectiveness and budget. The final rating categories were also appropriate. Applications were to be rated as excellent, strong, satisfactory, or weak and nonresponsive.
The question is why SIF would be so cautious about releasing information. Perhaps the answer lies in the possible disconnection between some of the ratings and the final selections. Simply asked, how many applications were rated as weak and nonresponsive in a first-phase review, but won a grant anyway?
I know of at least one. I helped review it in the first round of the process. Despite the applicant's innovative track record, it provided insufficient information on its program, showed serious weaknesses in its capacity to manage federal dollars, and submitted meager assurances on cost-effectiveness and budget accuracy.
I have no idea how this applicant reached the winner's circle. My experience has been that a weak and nonresponsive rating is the death knell in a federal grant competition. I can only surmise that this applicant was invited to revise and resubmit. Such invitations are familiar in the federal grant process, but are rarely issued to applicants who receive an initial weak and nonresponsive rating.
Given the applicant's impressive lobbying effort on behalf of SIF, its success raises inevitable questions about fairness, conflicts of interest, and undue pressure. Was the applicant the only one invited to resubmit? Were others given the same chance? Who conducted the negotiations leading to the applicant's final budget, which was cut in half somewhere along the way? And just what happened in the "clarifying discussions" that SIF held with each of the 11 winners at the end of the process?
These questions deserve answers, if only to protect the reputation of the 10 other winners. But SIF's general behavior over the past weeks has been nothing short of weak and non-responsive. The longer SIF keeps its records closed, the more the controversy will build. Sooner or later, this story will reach Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), with all that means for national headlines.
SIF would be well advised to release everything now. With next year's appropriation pending, SIF's very existence is at risk. It should not be sacrificed because its leaders insist on needless secrecy.
August 18, 2010; 2:11 PM ET |
Federal government leadership
Save & Share:
Previous: Budget cuts at DOD: Gates to the rescue | Next: Why Democrats are scared of government reform
Please email us to report offensive comments.
Posted by: davidbornstein | August 26, 2010 1:55 AM
Posted by: judithclaire1939 | August 22, 2010 10:21 PM
Posted by: hunter340 | August 22, 2010 4:00 PM
Posted by: SeniorVet | August 22, 2010 12:54 PM
Posted by: junomoneta88 | August 22, 2010 10:18 AM
Posted by: LadyChurchillUSA | August 22, 2010 7:16 AM
Posted by: DiscerningCitizen | August 22, 2010 5:33 AM
Posted by: janet8 | August 21, 2010 11:16 PM
Posted by: CalP | August 21, 2010 1:53 PM
Posted by: wtrowan | August 21, 2010 12:45 PM
Posted by: SharkDr55 | August 21, 2010 12:32 PM
Posted by: carlbatey | August 21, 2010 11:36 AM
Posted by: wmpowellfan | August 21, 2010 7:05 AM
Posted by: josephfranklyn | August 20, 2010 11:42 PM
Posted by: allamer1 | August 20, 2010 8:02 PM
Posted by: bintaboo | August 20, 2010 4:45 PM
Posted by: SteveGoldberg | August 20, 2010 3:42 PM
Posted by: Curmudgeon10 | August 20, 2010 2:31 PM
Posted by: ZZim | August 20, 2010 1:50 PM
Posted by: FredinVicksburg | August 20, 2010 1:37 PM
Posted by: ChiTownSkeptic | August 20, 2010 12:11 PM
Posted by: joanz3 | August 20, 2010 9:44 AM
Posted by: Paul Light | August 20, 2010 9:34 AM
Posted by: thornegp2626 | August 20, 2010 8:31 AM
Posted by: SteveGoldberg | August 20, 2010 8:14 AM
Posted by: DwightCollins | August 20, 2010 5:30 AM
Posted by: jhpbriton | August 19, 2010 8:22 PM
Posted by: alance | August 19, 2010 5:32 PM
The comments to this entry are closed.