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

Tom Steinberg
2 min readApr 28, 2016

Hi John,

Thanks for writing such a detailed response to my piece. In the Twitter era writing more than 20 words in reply to anything is the highest form of compliment.

As with so many essays, the body of your post is easier to defend than the title, but it is the title that always gets the circulation and so it’s the title that I’m mainly going to address.

Your headline is ‘the false choice between criticism and collaboration’. And yet in terms of individuals making fundamental decisions on how work in the field of transparency, accountability and open government, the choice isn’t false at all, it’s so real as to be career defining.

At base it’s all about the question ‘Are you really, truly trusted by decision-makers or not?’ No matter what the issue, if you make or endorse criticisms that are too tough, decision makers will exclude you from their circle of trust. I imagine you probably know how that feels, from your own career.

My argument is that too many people, me included, chose to make the compromises required to be allowed into the inner circles of the transparency and open data decision-makers. In retrospect, that I believe that was the wrong call because it diminished the total hours in the day that were available to be spent on external campaigning.

You’re obviously right that governments rarely respond to campaigns that consist only of hostile outsiders and that have no sympathetic negotiators and interpreters. Generally such purely hostile campaigns only work in situations where the entire government falls and is replaced by another (keep an eye on Brazil and Iceland, though, it does happen in our sector). But when it comes to less dramatic change (for example automated contract publication by municipalities) it seems unlikely that good progress will be made without quite a few friendly and sympathetic moderates. So I acknowledge the truth in that.

My claim is simply that the resources expended on the ‘nice’ side of the balance have been too great, and and those spent on the ‘tough’ side have been too modest. I wonder if you actually disagree with that, at all.



Tom Steinberg

Trying to get real about the connection between digital technologies and social needs. Full list of writings at http://tomsteinberg.co.uk