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ChanaMessinger

3900 karmaJoined Oct 2019www.chanamessinger.com

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I work at CEA on the Community Health team as deputy head of the team.(Opinions here my own by default though will sometimes speak in a professional capacity).

Personal website: www.chanamessinger.com

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This is mentioned here, but I want to double down on the value of "asking around about the organization and what the experiences of others were". 

I talked to someone recently in tech about whether there were good ways to find out if working at any given tech organization was right for you, and he said basically no, that it was hard to get an accurate picture, that the resources that had tried to do this in the field (like Blind) added some information but gave warped impressions from who posted there. (That said, from a quick skim, it seems a lot better than nothing to me! I'm glad it exists)

So basically my current view is it's hard, and you might need to get information from a bunch of different sources.

I think people do not get karma from the baseline +1 or +2 that comes with making a new comment.

As the post says above, I’d like to share updates the  team has made on its policies based on the internal review we did following the Time article and Owen’s statement as a manager on the team and the person who oversaw the internal review. (My initial description of the internal review is here). In general, these changes have been progressing prior to knowing the boards’ determinations, though thinking from Zach and the EV legal team has been an important input throughout.
 

Changes 

Overall we spent dozens of hours over multiple calendar months in discussions and doing writeups, both internally to our team and getting feedback from Interim CEA CEO Ben West and others. Several team members did retrospectives or analyses on the case, and we consulted with external people (two EAs with some experience thinking about these topics as well as seven professionals in HR, law, consulting and ombuds) for advice on our processes generally. 

From this we created a list of practices to change and additional steps to add. The casework team also reflected on many past cases to check that these changes were robust and applicable across a wide variety of casework. 

Our changes, in rough order of importance:

  1. Defaulting more often to getting input from more people on the team (especially if a case involves someone with power in the EA community) by having multiple caseworkers on a case and/or involving managers for oversight
    1. Specifically, most cases now get seen by more than one person, particularly cases that involve someone with sufficient power in the community (confidentiality constraints may limit how many caseworkers work on a case.)
  2. For the cases we take on, we have a lower bar for proactively reaching out to members to the community in order to get more information. For example, if this same case came up again, we would weigh more highly the importance of getting additional information from the woman Zach mentions above. Our previous approach pointed in this direction as well, but this change will make it less likely we miss an important opportunity.
  3. We are creating a system that automatically flags to us when complaints about the same person come to different caseworkers, making us more likely to catch patterns of poor behavior (this previously was caught in a less systematic way)
  4. We have lowered the bar for what’s considered a personal conflict of interest and improved our systems so it is easier to pass a case on to another caseworker. For instance, if the same case came up again, we would have it owned by someone else.
  5. We’ve added and improved written internal guidelines for considerations to take into account during cases, particularly for cases involving someone with power in the EA community. Previously these were distributed across different documents and tacit understanding; they are now more formalized. 
  6. Automatic reminders for follow-ups on old cases to see if any more action is needed
  7. An update towards overcommunication and explicitness when giving feedback to people whose behavior we’d like to change; an update against assuming the feedback has been understood and incorporated
  8. An update towards escalations to boards, legal teams and HR departments where relevant. 
  9. Better systems (reminders, templates in meetings, etc) for making sure balls aren’t dropped based on when or how information comes in
     

The casework side of our team meets monthly to check that we are using our systems effectively, that we have implemented these changes with new and existing cases, and to update our internal guidelines as needed.

Some notes on the changes

I’m glad we have these changes, though I think it’s worth noting my guess that a big part of what will end up driving change here is also in large part due to CH team members’ individual reflections on the original events (Time article + statement from Owen + original case). 

The list of changes is not exhaustive, since many of the changes stemming from this internal review (depending on your bar for “policy change”) are quite small e.g. “adding a consideration to our list of factors that may make a case more serious.” I think those “nudge” type changes are important and useful for incorporating data without over-updating or over-bureacratizing, though they are harder to assess externally. In general I’m trying to convey our high level changes without creating a laundry list. Nonetheless I hope the descriptions of our process changes help people make accurate updates and have accurate expectations about our team.

There is some broader context, which is that the casework team’s approach in January of 2023 (before the Time article came out) was already in significant ways different than in 2021. For instance, since Catherine joined in late 2021 (and even more so since Charlotte joined in 2023), the casework team has been able to double-check cases more often and have a lower bar for passing on cases where there was a personal connection. The changes as a result of the internal review add on to these previous shifts. 

We’ll be checking in as a team at regular intervals to reflect on the value of these changes at getting better outcomes. This refers both to whether the increased time and effort per case looks like the right call (relative to e.g. handling more cases) and whether the decisions made are overall better (rather than the changes overfitting to this specific instance). 

What’s still underway

In addition to the changes in how we handle personal COIs (with some person one team member has a COI with), we’re still working on a general approach to institutional COIs and what constitutes one, e.g. if a case involves someone in EV leadership. So far our planned approach is to ask for a person external to EV to give an independent view when such an institutional COI comes up in a case we take on, but it’s not obvious that there will always be an appropriate person willing. This will need more work to figure out.

As Zach indicates above, we’ll be working on a more formalized version of our current processes for escalation, COIs, and anything else the boards ask for.

I really don't know how the norms of professional investigative journalism work, but I imagine a lot hinges on whether the source of concern / subject of the piece is the repository of a large amount of relevant information about the central claims. 

e.g. the point is "how much work do you need to put in to make sure your claims are accurate" and then sometimes that implies "no need to get replies from the subject of the piece because you can get the information elsewhere" and sometimes that implies "you have to engage a bunch with the subject of the piece because they have relevant information."

The judgement call is on giving time for "right to reply", not for "taking more time to verify claims", right? Those seem kind of different to me.

Effective giving quick take for giving season

This is quite half-baked because I think my social circle contains not very many E2G folks, but I have a feeling that when EA suddenly came into a lot more funding and the word on the street was that we were “talent constrained, not funding constrained”, some people earning to give ended up pretty jerked around, or at least feeling that way. They may have picked jobs and life plans based on the earn to give model, where it would be years before the plans came to fruition, and in the middle, they lost status and attention from their community. There might have been an additional dynamic where people who took the advice the most seriously ended up deeply embedded in other professional communities, so heard about the switch later or found it harder to reconnect with the community and the new priorities.

I really don’t have an overall view on how bad all of this was, or if anyone should have done anything differently, but I do have a sense that EA has a bit of a feature of jerking people around like this, where priorities and advice change faster than the advice can be fully acted on. The world and the right priorities really do change, though; I’m not sure what should be done except to be clearer about all this, but I suspect it’s hard to properly convey “this seems like the absolute best thing in the world to do, also next year my view could be that it’s basically useless” even if you use those exact words. And maybe people have done this, or maybe it’s worth trying harder. Another approach would be something like insurance.

A frame I’ve been more interested in lately (definitely not original to me) is that earning to give is a kind of resilience / robustness-add for EA, where more donors just means better ability to withstand crazy events, even if in most worlds the small donors aren’t adding much in the way of impact. Not clear that that nets out, but “good in case of tail risk” seems like an important aspect.

A more out-there idea, sort of cobbled together from a me-idea and Ben West-understanding is that, among the many thinking and working styles of EAs, one axis of difference might be “willing to pivot quickly, change their mind and their life plan intensely and often” vs “not as subject to changing EA winds” (not necessarily in tension, but illustrative). Staying with E2G over many years might be related to having being closer to the latter; this might be an under-rated virtue and worth leveraging.


 

Am I understanding right that the main win you see here would have been protecting people from risks they took on the basis that Sam was reasonably trustworthy? 

I also feel pretty unsure but curious about whether a vibe of "don't trust Sam / don't trust the money coming through him" would have helped discover or prevent the fraud - if you have a story for how it could have happened (e.g. via as you say people feeling more empowered to say no to him - maybe it would have via been his staff making fewer crazy moves on his behalf / standing up to him more?), I'd be interested. 

Curious if you have examples of this being done well in communities you've been aware of? I might have asked you this before.

I've been part of an EA group where some emotionally honest conversations were had, and I think they were helpful but weren't a big fix. I think a similar group later did a more explicit and formal version and they found it helpful.

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