What I learned during 5 years at Transparency International

Saying goodbye in July 2018

I joined Transparency International in early 2013 on a one-year maternity contract — curious to see whether and how my global advocacy experience in the human rights world of the UN and Geneva would transfer into the financial world of G20 summits and OECD discussions. I was eager to impress, having decided in advance I wanted to make myself indispensable and stay for 3–5 years, not just the one-year contract.

It’s now mid-way through 2018 and It’s time for me to move on (in fact the Maggie from 2012 thinks I’ve hung around an extra 6 months too long). In many ways it’s the perfect scenario — I’ve given what I could give, and I have learned so much in return.

Here are some of my learnings. Some, we did well at Transparency International, others less well, and others still I saw other organisations and collaborators doing well.

1. Collaborate, don’t compete.

Anti-corruption organisations collaborate with each other, more-so than human rights or development organisations (in my experience). And we’ve seen some incredible success as a result. In a previous job we would get read-outs of how comparator organisations were doing press-wise compared to us. At Transparency International, we would instead celebrate and share and retweet when brilliant colleagues from Global Witness, or Corruption Watch or Open Contracting Partnership or a host of others would get into the media for a piece of work or an exposé. We conducted joint research, shared platforms, promoted each other and invited each other in to closed door meetings. And we were stronger for it.

2. Drop the ego

For collaboration to work — you need to drop the ego. You need to be able to celebrate when partners are on the BBC talking about the Panama Papers, not bemoan the fact your organisation isn’t on prime time. It’s so important not to be driven by communications (or worse, branding) teams who need the hits to hit their targets — but aren’t focused on the main prize.

3. Just shut up sometimes.

Remember that your voice will be perceived differently by different audiences. Sometimes it’s crucial for an NGO of such high-standing as Transparency International to issue a statement or speak in a meeting. Other times, it’s as important to be quiet, either to support partners, or because sometimes, your voice might actually harm your strategy. We worked with partners from different backgrounds, whether parliamentarians or business groups or academics, supporting them and helping amplify their voices because they could have much better impact than us in many scenarios.

4. Take risks

It’s very easy to fall into a rhythm of operating from international meeting to international meeting, Summit to Summit, policy paper to policy paper. But some of our most impactful work was when that formula was ripped apart and we jumped out of our comfort zone. In 2014, I threw myself out of mine in the lead up to the G20 Summit in Brisbane. I had heard from multiple sources that the G20 Beneficial Ownership Transparency Principles had been scuppered by China with just 2 short months to go. China’s late opposition meant that consensus couldn’t be reached and the Principles — albeit less strong than we wanted — would be dropped. We tried multiple methods to convince China, via other governments and through businesses to get back on board. But with a week to go, we had to do what Transparency International did rarely — call a country out. We took to the media and engaged the Ministries via reporters in different countries. China responded angrily, retorting that they were not in opposition to any planned G20 anti-corruption output. Journalists became angry and upset with me — had I mislead them? I asked to see exactly what questions they had asked and realised that China was misleading the journalists on the document under discussion. Once I suggested specific language to ask, the responses from China were more muffled. “Ah, that paper, that’s just at discussion phase”. I know that discussions continued late into the night the eve of the Summit. But when the Principles were adopted late the next day, I knew that had we followed the prescription of policy paper, meeting and Summit, we’d never have seen them come to light.

5. Don’t walk away

NGOs often celebrate, then move on after they win something. In the past, we have certainly pushed for good language to be included in a communiqué or a declaration but haven’t always followed up to ensure it is put into practice. It’s sometimes about resources, but often about lack of a longer-term vision or strategy. Those G20 beneficial Ownership Principles were different. We wanted each G20 country to do what they said they would do (and importantly, they were their own commitments, not a set of Transparency International standards). That’s why we spent a year breaking down each of the ten principles into individual components and developing a methodology to assess whether and how each and every country were implementing them, regardless of legal structure. We found that after one year, 15 of the G20 members had weak or average legal frameworks in place. Two years later, this was reduced to 11 — and nine countries had moved up a category. Yes, we still think progress is slow, but we can also see, and acknowledge the countries (Brazil, Italy, Germany and France in case you’re wondering) which were making the most progress.

I’m also incredibly proud of the monitoring work being conducted out of Transparency International UK. Following the Anti-Corruption Summit in 2016, I was fortunate enough to collaborate with exceptional colleagues (hi Jameela Raymond and Rachel Davies-Teka) to identify all 648 commitments made by 43 participating governments, and then monitor when and how well governments were putting them into practice (check out their global pledge tracker). We found that sometimes political will at the highest level (and in the most lavish of venues) didn’t always translate back into the ministries responsible with putting them into practice. Our colleagues in Kenya, keen to get cracking on implementation, ended up spending 3 months going from ministry to ministry in Nairobi, simply informing officials of what their superiors had committed them to do in London.

6. Incentivise and reward (credit where credit is due)

Some governments did do a good job! And it’s only right to acknowledge that. The UK government chose a tricky subject to get global backing on and I hope that leadership doesn’t slide in the future. Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Afghanistan all took a huge risk to agree to strong corporate transparency targets at the Anti-Corruption Summit and each are still trying to work through the challenges to get them there. We provided a platform (and incentive) to Ukraine and Ghana to share what they were doing on this front in a major business Summit in New York in September 2017. Yes, NGOs often use sticks, but there are carrots too.

7. Know your stuff

The best and most effective advocacy work we ever did was when our policies were backed up by exceptional research and evidence. Going in to a meeting or forum or Summit, with advocacy messages backed up by the detailed research of extremely skilled colleagues (shout out to Maira Martini, Ben Cowdock and Steve Goodrich) was a breeze. Transparency International UK for example, is a regular at the table, alongside banks, companies, government bodies and law enforcement — because their research is unrivalled.

8. Innovate, test and try (and don’t be punished for it)

Colleagues in TI and in other NGOs have told me how they wish they could test and try things a bit more. It links to the point about taking risks. The ideal would be a place where you are rewarded for testing something, even if it doesn’t work.

Transparency International took some risks recently and tried innovating with our organisational structure. We became almost totally flat-structured and reduced the bureaucratic layers in-house. It didn’t function perfectly though we didn’t totally invest in it either. Layers are being re-introduced, but we still learned from the process. One aspect of the way we were meant to function was that if you had a concern or a problem, you had to bring a proposal to the table on how to resolve it. That proposal would go through iterations in your team until everyone could see agree that the way forward would at the very least not set the team back. Innovate, iterate, test and try.

9. Bring more than problems and policy to the table

Being involved in setting up OpenOwnership is one of the things I’m most proud of, because it wraps up many of the learnings above into one. OpenOwnership is a multi-stakeholder collaboration that is putting a solution on the table. As more and more countries try to publish information on who ultimately owns and controls companies that are operating in their jurisdictions, it’s crucial that the data is connected across borders and that governments and businesses are supported to make this data as useful as possible. Seven of the world’s leading transparency organisations and companies came together to set it up a few years ago. Many governments believe NGOs are just watch dogs. We yap when we don’t like something. OpenOwnership undermines that perception entirely. We are creating solutions and using technology to help lower costs for governments and make a dent in the anti-corruption world.

10. There aren’t as many enemies as you think.

Coming from the human rights world, I had a perception that companies (and many governments) were generally, uniformly bad. Sure, this might be a reflection on myself more than anything, but I never collaborated or even spoke to companies in previous roles. That’s just not possible in the anti-corruption world. Businesses are crucial partners if we’re genuinely to tackle corruption.

There also aren’t as many enemies as we think. Yes they exist, and yes they are powerful. But there are a lot of people in governments or in businesses who are framed as enemies, but who who probably just don’t care, or are simply not very good at their jobs, or are stuck in a bureaucracy or are incompetent. But you will always find champions, the people who are trying to change things up, the ones who are committed to getting things done. You just need to find them and support them and build their power.

11. People make organisations

It’s so important to tap into the energy of the “doers”. An organisation or business is unlikely to be kitted out with a whole squadron of people thinking forward two steps and working out three separate angles to tackle a problem. They are the people who connect people when they don’t need to, treble-check results to ensure the organisation is on firm ground, seek to convey information in new, better ways rather than use the existing, ok templates. But when people are constrained — either through micro-management or heavy hierarchy and bureaucracy their energy will be extinguished — or channelled into fighting the system and not fighting the global problem. Better to identify, support, enable the doers.

12. Be angry. Be thirsty. If you’re not, then move on.

There are so many battles we can take on and there is no end to the organisations or movements that want for us to care. More and more I’ve come to believe that you need to be really angry to make a difference. It’s not enough to think it’s important. Sure, you need to measure your anger out with a good strategy and some clear thinking, but if you don’t care deeply about something, it might be time to move on.

I still care deeply about tackling ending corruption and the imbalances of power that allow corruption to happen. It’s time for me to move on from Transparency International but I’m not throwing the towel in. I’m still angry.

Many of these learnings are an extension of what I had already learned in previous jobs, others may seem intuitive, others may be more personal to me. My plan is to take these rich learnings that I’ve had the pleasure and the honour of learning at Transparency International and apply to a specific problem.

I’m moving on to join the Sport Integrity Global Alliance to try and end corruption and promote integrity in the sport sector specifically.

In the meantime, what other lessons have you learned that I can take with me? And do any of these not resonate with you? Let me know!

General Manager, Lewes FC. Director of Equal Playing Field. Formerly @anticorruption @minorityrights @amnesty