An Interview with Bill Sweeney, IFES President & CEO

Bill Sweeney, IFES’ new president & CEO, sat down with Jamie Dettmer, IFES director of communications and advocacy, and Laura Osio, IFES press officer, to talk about why he joined IFES, his involvement in the early days of the U.S. democracy-promotion movement, his experience on an elections observation mission in the Philippines, the Obama administration’s perspective on democracy promotion, and his plans for IFES. Sweeney, who has served as vice-president for global government affairs at Electronic Data Systems (EDS) and was a deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee, has a long history with IFES. He served on the board of directors from 1993 to 2001 and was chairman of IFES from 1999 to 2000.

You were highly involved at the advent of the American democracy promotion movement. How did you become involved and what was your contribution?

When President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher delivered the original Westminster speeches on the opportunity to democratic countries with the fall of the Iron curtain, the chairmen of the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee came together to found the National Endowment for Democracy. I was in charge of congressional liaison for the Democratic National Committee at that time. I had finished almost five years working for the Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill, before I joined the DNC in 1981. I became the Democratic staff lobbyist for the creation of the National Endowment for Democracy.

The next real engagement for me was in 1986 when the first international elections observation team was put together which was for the Marcos-Aquino race in the Philippines. At the time it was a very conflicted situation in terms of American politics where President Marcos had friends and enemies in both the Democratic and Republican parties, so the composition of the team had to be one that could talk to both sides and give a complete assessment.

I was at the time a political consultant working exclusively for Democrats but with extensive trusted ties on the Republican side of the aisle and so the Republican administration at the time, approached me to start some of the approaches to the Democrats to participate in the election observation team and to minimize the political fallout on that observation team’s funding as it went through to Congress. So, I worked on getting the funding and on creating the observation team.

I was then asked to be a member of that observation team, so I spent most of the election period in Leyte, which was the home province of Mrs. Marcos. That was quite an education. The co-chairs of this mission were President Misael Pastrana of Colombia, the father of our IFES board member. The other co-chair on the international delegation was John Hume, from Northern Ireland. And the co-chairs of the U.S. delegation were Senator Lugar (R-IN), now on our board, and Senator John Kerry (D-MA). This was a very high powered political group as well as high-powered technical team, and if you dig up the list of the other members of the mission, you would be surprised by how many people have stayed in the democracy movement over the course of the past 25 years.

How do you think the democracy promotion movement has changed?

First, it’s more professional. There are now technologies and metrics and histories, which really didn’t exist. Second, it’s now much more global. In the early days it was almost completely a Western enterprise. Now with associations of election officials where you’re dealing with multiple generations of election history it is much more global and that’s reflected here at IFES. We’ve got so many people from so many different countries and backgrounds, including national election commissioners, on the team. Third, it is much more competitive. As is always the case, these fields attract both the original players and the successor generation, then private-sector companies, and so it is a much more crowded field than it was in its infancy, as you would expect.

I think the final point is that you’ve actually got some career professionals now who have worked in multiple situations for three or fourth different entities involved in the business of elections. This provides almost a fraternity and sorority of election professionals. It really is a transformation, for me, and I am looking at not a mature, because it is still an emergent craft, but far more developed one than it was when I was involved even ten years ago.

For the past 18 years you were Vice President of Global Government Affairs at EDS. How will your experience there help you in your role here?

I would say three ways. First, I know a surprising number of political leaders who care intensely about democracy. They are parliamentarians, leaders of countries around the world where EDS has done business or where I was representing EDS in global policy organizations. I have been to the World Economic Forum a few times and I have been to other types of meetings like that. So, that is one aspect.

Second, 25 percent of EDS’ 22 billion dollars of activity every year involve public sector contracts in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Israel, Gaza, Hong Kong, a whole variety of places. I bring a fair amount of experience around the art of both attracting government business and then being able to service government business so as to retain it, and since much of the funding for IFES and much of the funding for the democracy movement globally depends on the trust and support of the public sector, perhaps I can help a little bit there.

And then finally, there are a number of disciplines, both in business and in technology, that I can hopefully bring to how we manage our affairs, how we conduct ourselves so that we can be best in class within the democracy movement. Some of that simply requires introduction of new technologies and new disciplines and new methodologies. In the business world I have had a little bit more exposure to that than some of our colleagues who have been more involved in the democracy movement only because the business world has a more immediate quarterly, monthly, bottom line orientation.

Why did you take the job as President and CEO?

When Hewlett-Packard acquired EDS I had been basically responsible for global government affairs for EDS for 10 years. I was in serious need of re-potting; I was in serious need of finding a new mountain to climb. And this sounds crazy, but since 1973, as I finished one assignment, the next was immediately on the horizon. So, this was the first time that I took inventory of my career and tried to figure out what I like to do, what I don’t like to do, what parts of the résumé I want to fully exercise, what parts of the résumé had a future to it. And I went through all sorts of searches with a whole variety of companies big and small, U.S. and multinational, but when the IFES search committee came to me and said “we would like you to think of this” they offered me the chance to do something that I care about intensely. It offered me the chance to rebrand myself, refresh, renew, re-grow, whatever the terminology we want to use is, because many of the assignments that were presented to me were doing global government affairs for some other company or some other interest. Interesting, but I had done that. And this also offered me the opportunity to deploy more of the experiences that I have gotten over a career in a framework, in a field, that I care about that I think really makes a difference, so that became a very exciting personal challenge, and in the first two weeks, I haven’t been disappointed.

What do you hope to accomplish at IFES?

I think IFES does the best work in the field. I think it’s got a reputation for integrity and professionalism that is unmatched. I don’t think it’s as well known as it could be. I also believe that the world of democracy, the challenge of democracy, in the next few years is going to involve, particularly with some of the maturing societies, different challenges in terms of civic education that IFES is perfectly positioned for to be in a leadership role.

So, if there were two or three things to accomplish, number one, it would be to restore in a larger sense the original mission of democracy promotion, which is democracy promotion. I think President Obama said it perfectly in the Cairo speech because that mission has been tarnished by the experiences of the last few years.

Second is then to take IFES and put this team at the front of that parade. I am a very competitive person and I know in our field we don’t judge things by winning and losing or who’s placed first, second or third, but I’d like to see IFES, the IFES team, the IFES brand, the integrity and values that the team brings to the process in so many places around the world, I’d like to see that recognized as universally as I think it should be. And that is more than public relations. That is a fair amount of work that all of us have got to do so as to earn and keep that respect, to earn and retain that title. From what I have seen, we certainly have the capability to do the work and earn the respect.

The Obama administration appears to be thinking about reframing the policy towards democracy promotion and wanting a clean start. In his Cairo speech, President Obama underscored that “no system of government can or should be imposed” but made it plain that governments who have “power through consent, not coercion” will have a true friend and champion in the form of the United States. What was your reaction to that speech?

My reaction to the Obama speech was that the President laid out the original mission of democracy promotion. The societies that choose not to engage with the aspirations of their people are putting themselves at risk, not at risk in a sense of being attacked or invaded, but they are not being a part of the movement of the 21st century. People who have not studied politicians closely should realize that a speech like this was drafted by President Obama. These are his words, and he probably wrote them on a yellow pad because that is his style.  The little bit I know about the Cairo speech, he took time on this trip to personally finish this speech. So those are his words. His words, his pen, and all deliberate. So, it is as strong a statement, I think, about democracy promotion as we are going to see. And we all ought to just understand that.

Slightly inside the Beltway, in the chatter shop that is Washington DC, there has been much talk - and quite a few policy papers and books - questioning whether political stability or economic development has to come before democracy development. What are your thoughts?

I don’t think there’s a rule. I think we’re dealing with situational analysis and the opportunity to introduce democracy as part of one of the pillars of a society. We have to take advantage of that opportunity when it exists. If you try to use the same sets of metrics around the American Revolution or what I witnessed in 1986 in the Philippines, would you have thought democracy would have taken place? Probably not.  And so, when people are given the opportunity to make a choice about their destiny, then that is the time to try and build a democracy movement. And sometimes when we’re dealing in economies where the majority of the population lives on less than one dollar a day, what is the talk about economic stability? When we are dealing with societies which are less than a generation away from dictatorship or authoritarianism, when are the conditions going to be right? You know, democracy is like one of those flowers you find in an Iraqi field. How did that seed get there and how did it get through the rocks? I don’t know, but it did get there and we ought to water it. And we ought to see it bloom and maybe it will get some cousins. The point is, if the society wants to take the chance in determining its own future and can do that through the ballot box and we have the privilege and opportunity to be there to facilitate that, and to make it transparent and to make it something that the voters within the society trust, then we ought to seize every opportunity that there is.