Condoleezza Rice at OpenGov: The Nature of Democracy and Takeaways for Local Leaders

June 14, 2017 – Autumn Carter

Accepting an invitation from OpenGov on behalf of our Women@OpenGov group, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice joined our entire team for a fireside chat at OpenGov’s headquarters in Redwood City, California yesterday. Dr. Rice’s recently released New York Times Best Seller, Democracy: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom, underpinned a discussion that covered areas including growing up as a black girl in segregated Birmingham, managing Stanford University’s budget as Provost, and witnessing the birth and collapse of regimes throughout her tenure in public service.

In her book, Rice argues democracy is an inherently messy undertaking, but one whose resulting institutions ultimately grant greater freedom. Furthermore, the messiness that characterizes democracies extends from the highest levels of the international world order, down to our local governments, and throughout our civil and legal institutions. “Every new democracy has near-death experiences, crucible moments when the institutional framework is tested and strengthened by its response. Even the world’s most successful democracies, including our own, can point to these moments, from the Civil War to the civil rights movement,” she writes.

In our discussion of what strengthens institutions – and what undermines them – several takeaways emerged:

  • Democracy takes different forms given variables such as time, place, and history.
  • Transparency strengthens trust in public institutions.
  • Budgets communicate priorities.
  • In reality, the world order does not reflect a zero-sum game.


“Democracy is never a straight line.”

During the fireside chat, Rice said what works for one community does not translate perfectly to others. Two nations pursuing democracy in different centuries, for instance, will have more or fewer examples of democracies before them. Pursuing democracies in different countries means different historical, cultural, and institutional histories will influence their transitions. As a result, “democracy is never a straight line,” she concluded.

Still, she argues, the long-term trajectory points toward the adoption of democracies globally. In her book, she writes, “Elections still attract long lines of first-time voters…No matter their station in life, people are drawn to the idea that they should determine their own fate. Ironically, while those of us who live in liberty express skepticism about democracy’s promise, people who do not yet enjoy its benefits seem determined to win it.”

“The more transparency, the better.”

When asked what conditions undermine long-standing democracies, Rice pointed to two: 1) low public trust in institutions and 2) proliferation of information and social silos throughout society. She noted that it is incredibly easy for those in power to lose trust and credibility, but that it is incredibly difficult for them to restore it subsequently. And when we engage almost exclusively with those with whom we agree, it leads to information and social silos that limit our own understanding of the broader world we inhabit.

When explaining why OpenGov is valuable for governments, Rice said the software has operational benefits – namely facilitating the management of scarce resources and ease of adoption alongside existing processes. However, her third point was that OpenGov facilitates transparency and that transparency, in turn, strengthens institutions. “The way we stay upright is through institutions…The more transparency, the better,” she said.

“Budgets are a reflection of priorities.”

At one point, Dr. Rice conveyed a key operational management lesson from her tenure as Stanford University’s Provost (1993-99) and later as head of the U.S. State Department (2005-08). She explained that as a leader and decision-maker, having a deep understanding of the organization’s budget is critical. “Budgets are a reflection of priorities,” she said firmly. Being familiar with it provides institutional knowledge that is essential for heading an organization. That familiarity also strengthens communication around the budget, and being able to communicate its decisions and priorities clearly ultimately strengthens institutional trust.

Our ebook, Budgeting Best Practices for Local Governments, makes a similar point: “Because budgets are complex and detailed, achieving understanding and trust requires effectively translating large amounts of data and complex policy into simple, clear information.”

“When people believe there is a zero-sum order, they will fight to the death.”

Finally, the discussion rounded out on the dangers of zero-sum thinking. In a true zero-sum engagement, no party can gain unless the other loses equally. In other words, in a zero-sum worldview, there is no potential for a win-win outcome and negotiation becomes a pointless endeavor rather than a viable path to conflict resolution. Thus, Dr. Rice said, “When people believe there is a zero-sum order, they will fight to the death.”

Rice, a Russia specialist, devotes significant ink in her book to Russia’s failed attempts to establish a full-fledged democracy. She discusses the factors, including Vladimir Putin’s ascension to the Presidency, that undermined those attempts in the years following the fall of the Soviet Union. During the talk, Putin came to personify the impact of a zero-sum mindset when Rice said, “Putin is a zero-sum kind of guy.”

In her book, she elaborates on how he systematically eliminated the institutions that had come to comprise an initial foundation for democracy in post-Soviet Russia. “…Putin does not rule as an absolute tyrant. Rather, he has skillfully constructed and nurtured an alternative institutional basis from which to undermine liberal change…Vladimir Putin uses just enough repression to cow the population, but not too much so that blood runs in the streets.”

Implications for Local Leaders

If we consider the implications of a zero-sum approach for local leaders, I imagine they would look similar in principle. Local leaders routinely find themselves in positions where they strive for an outcome that seems nearly impossible to achieve. Perhaps their revenues are constrained, or they must navigate from a political impasse, or crisis conditions are changing so frequently that there is little stakeholder buy-in for any immediate decision. In those scenarios, an all-or-nothing approach to problem-solving may seem like a forcing function, but it instead limits the number of potential outcomes. And while some individual decisions are so narrowly constrained that direct tradeoffs are unavoidable, embracing a zero-sum worldview systematically positions leaders so they operate almost exclusively on the extreme margins. On those margins, the risks are higher and the long-run is less stable.

Taken together, our discussion with Dr. Rice centered around a common thread: universality. Governance presents inherent challenges despite differences of makeup, circumstance, scope, size, time, or place. Given those differences, the following best practices apply broadly to public sector institutions even if the details of their implications vary:

  • Institutional Messiness. Embrace democracy’s messiness as part of the process.
  • Public Trust. Build trust to maintain institutional credibility and stability.
  • Budget Priorities. Align communication about budgets with the priorities they reflect.
  • Zero-Sum Worldviews. Avoid zero-sum thinking to maximize long-run outcomes.

Rice’s book concludes with a chapter called “2016.” It is a reflection on the current state of our own democracy in the U.S. “A revolt against political and economic elites, their institutions, and their globalizing and sometimes moralizing views has upended the status quo and left all to wonder, What comes next?” she writes. The political upheaval and conflicts people see and feel in their own communities are salient, but Rice warns, “…We do know that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – populism, nativism, protectionism, and isolationism – served neither democracy nor peace very well the last time [before World War II]…The victory for democracy [today] is that those who longed for change have done so through it, not around it.”

Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s latest book, Democracy: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom, is now available.


Autumn Carter leads Government Affairs at OpenGov.