In this post in going to write about the tensions that I find myself struggling with about ODI’s role in the wider ecosystem of organisations working around data.

I want to preface this by saying this is absolutely not a “poor me” post. We at ODI and I personally have been immensely fortunate to have received backing from funders like the UK government and Omidyar Network (now Luminate), support from other organisations and the data community at large. I have played a senior role at ODI since it started and now as its CEO I completely recognise my personal responsibility in ODI’s shape and form and activities. Indeed that’s why I’m writing this post. I want to talk about an area where I don’t think we’re doing as well as I’d like us to but I’m struggling to find a way to do better given the other responsibilities I have to my team and the organisation.

For me, one measure of whether ODI is successful is whether other organisations, including businesses, in the ecosystem do well. This is something we share with other organisations that are trying to help grow ecosystems rather than themselves - such as the Catapults in the UK or the Open Contracting Partnership (which I’m on the Advisory Board of) - or aim to scale their impact through partnerships rather than size - such as Open Knowledge International or Privacy International. We have had three core values at ODI since its foundation: expert, enabling and fearless. Part of being enabling is helping others succeed.

Now, ODI is a big organisation relative to others working in this space. We have over 50 people in our team, not including associates and subcontractors. Our turnover is roughly £5m annually now (though very little of that now is secure core/unrestricted funding). We invest in communications so we make a lot of noise. We invest in public policy and we’re based in London so we get to have good links into governments and attend the roundtables and launches and receptions that bring influence and opportunities. We also have some incredibly talented and well respected experts in our team.

I think of this as like being a well-meaning elephant in a crowded room with lots of other animals. We’re all trying to break through a wall and there’s no way we’re going to do it alone. The elephant can cause some serious damage to the wall but it sometimes squashes small animals underfoot without meaning to, just because it doesn’t see them. It bumps into other animals in annoying and damaging ways as it manoeuvres. It lifts some animals onto its back where they can get a better angle on the wall for a while but there’s only so much room and they keep falling off.

And then there’s the food. Most of it is placed really high up on shelves. The higher the shelves the more food there is on them. The elephant is tall and one of the only creatures that can reach the higher shelves. It’s well-meaning so it tries to share the food it gets around. Sometimes it forms a bridge with its body so other animals can get to higher shelves too. But it’s also hungry. It needs more food than the other animals just to survive and if it gets too weak it won’t be able to kick the wall any more, or reach the high shelves, or lift up any other animals.

How much should it eat? How should it choose which other animals to lift up or share food with? Should it be trying to grow bigger and taller so it can kick the wall harder and reach the higher shelves?

Analogies are fun. Zoom out from the elephant melodrama and the room is actually a small corner of a massive hanger of passive diplodocuses and brontosauruses who are able to reach even higher shelves and don’t care about the wall at all. Look at the adjoining paddock and there are animals who can feed from the ground (lucky things with their endowments). Look beyond and there be monsters - carnivores feeding on each other.

What I wrestle with is what the elephant should do, what ODI should do, what I should do in this situation. And of course there are no black and white answers here, just lots of ands. Eat enough to survive and share the food around. Work with people you work well with and choose partners fairly. Kick that wall hard yourself and help others kick it.

Some real examples:

  1. ODI’s big innovation grant from UK government comes with T&C’s on it that mean we get no overhead recovery (which we need to pay for things like desks, recruitment, financial administration, and reaching up to those high shelves to get more money) when we contract people or organisations outside ODI. In effect that means it costs us money to share that money, but we have also seen that “stimulus fund” approaches, and bringing in real expertise we lack in house, are much more effective at delivering high quality work and achieving impact than doing everything ourselves. So we have targets for external spend, and support the costs that don’t get covered “from elsewhere”.

  2. We developed the Data Ethics Canvas and made it openly available for others to pick up and use. Then we invested money “from elsewhere” into developing workshops and webinars around it and started selling those, and developing other advisory products that bring margin in (to be the “from elsewhere” money). Other organisations have done similarly, some through adopting the Canvas themselves (which is great, because what we really care about it knocking down that wall). But it means we could start competing with organisations we want to succeed.

  3. We’re putting together a bid for a new programme and we want to do it with a partner. An open procurement process isn’t appropriate because there’s no guarantee anything will come of it. But there are lots of potential partners who we could work with, who would each bring different perspectives and approaches - the point of involving them early is that it enables us to shape the programme to suit. We choose one but I know others could have been just as good and may be unhappy we chose someone else, and I couldn’t hand on heart say the choice was anything but arbitrary.

  4. This has happened so many times: we run an open procurement process for a piece of work and send the call to a number of different organisations, all of which are friends and allies we want to work with and all of whom we think could do the work. We score the resulting proposals and one wins because it’s closest to what we have in mind, which is determined by how we have shaped the project and the call. The organisations that don’t succeed are naturally disappointed, particularly when we’ve said we want to find ways to work with them (which we do), and ask why we even approached them for a bid, which they put unpaid time and effort into, if we weren’t going to choose them.

  5. Again a common pattern: an ally wants to take on a piece of work but isn’t constituted in the right way, isn’t big enough or secure enough or on the right government framework, so asks us to front it. They do the work, we take on administration, financial and reputational risk, but have limited control over the client relationship or work quality. If we insert ourselves into the project more, it feels like we’re exploiting others’ work - from their perspective we’re not really adding value. But if we stay hands off and something goes wrong, we are legally liable and our reputation could suffer.

I could go on. And again, I’m not moaning or saying any of this is in any way unfair on ODI. These are just the consequences of our position. I just wish I knew how to navigate them better, in a way that is fair both to the ODI team and organisation, and our friends and allies and partners; in a way that builds alliances rather than resentment, creates impact rather than conflict.

Answers on a postcard please.