A response to ‘The false choice between criticism and collaboration’ by John Wonderlich
Tom Steinberg

There should certainly be more adversarial advocacy. (A recent absolute favorite: police union contracts designed to evade accountability, as gathered through FOI requests: http://www.checkthepolice.org/database/ )

The nature of the false choice I’m describing, though, is that the biggest risk to one’s credibility is protect it by overanalyzing about your political capital as an advocate, and failing to take risks as a result.

My experience, from my career, has actually been the opposite of what you imagine. Writing posts like this, for example:


..didn’t shut any meaningful doors, to my knowledge. Sunlight’s lobbying didn’t prevent us from being sources for journalists, and our advocacy didn’t prevent our tools and data from being cited and trusted.

Sometimes collaboration veers off and becomes cooption, and sometimes adversarial advocacy becomes self-indulged performance. Sunlight’s credibility has developed in part because we’ve made good decisions about when to engage in both, in a field where organizations often define themselves by adopting a singular tactic as an aspect of their identity. Sunlight has had the luxury of abstaining from such a commitment, while also building on technical savvy that was so exceedingly rare when we were founded.

I think advocates too often think that the collaborative and adversarial approaches are mutually exclusive. That being critical necessarily means you’ll be disinvited, and that collaboration means you’ve sold out. My experience suggests that both of those worries are rooted in insecurity, and that organizations are stronger when they’re capable of encompassing minor contradictions, and drawing on a variety of tactics.

It’s simpler to just do reports, to only submit foi requests, or to be a holding tank for distinguished former officials, and it adds real coordination costs to engage in the NGO code-switching required to use multiple approaches. It’s also one of the things I love about Sunlight — not only are we a hybrid through approach (technologists, advocates, journalists, etc), but we’re a hybrid in posture, happy to work both with and to tear down, to helpfully open data and to “do open data to them,” to propose reforms or lambast what is clearly hollow.

In other words, I don’t mean to say the career-defining choice is fake, but it’s one that should be taken with far less fear than is generally afforded it, because good advocacy requires both partnership and outrage, and credibility is built in the process of navigating both.

Maybe open data needs more adversarial advocacy. What’s certainly true is that it needs more good adversarial advocacy, and all these coalitions and collaborative projects, to my eye, are likely to be as big a source of it as anything else.