A conversation with Philip Heymann on December 20, 2013


Note: These notes give an overview of the major points made by Philip Heymann.


Good Ventures spoke to Philip Heymann to learn more about opportunities for philanthropy in US public policy. Conversation topics included success stories from Prof. Heymann’s own work as well as opportunities for philanthropy in the areas of criminal justice, intelligence and national security, and executive governance.

Success stories

The following are examples of areas where Prof. Heymann feels his work made a positive impact:

Ending torture-based interrogation

The Obama administration was interested in ending torture-based interrogation when it took office in 2009. Prof. Heymann’s team (including Robert Fein and John MacGaffin) received funding from the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board to analyze the effectiveness of torture versus other interrogation methods, such as rapport-based methods. Prof. Heymann then met with top officials to discuss their findings. As a result, the FBI created a non-coercive interrogation unit called HIG (High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group) based on the model recommended by Prof. Heymann’s team. HIG is now responsible for almost all of the government’s terrorism interrogation work. This intervention was effective because it was well timed; the FBI and CIA were interested in ending torture-based interrogation and were looking for alternatives.

Minimizing violence in South Africa

Prof. Heymann led an international committee to find ways to minimize violence taking place in apartheid South Africa at peaceful demonstrations by black South Africans. The committee presented its proposal to the Goldstone Commission, which included supporters of both the National Party and the African National Congress (ANC). The proposal was made into law by the South African parliament and effectively ended killings at demonstrations and parades. Again, the proposal was successful in part because it was well timed; the situation in South Africa was at a tipping point when the Goldstone Commission intervened.

Strategic intervention

Finding good opportunities for intervention is often a matter of identifying unstable situations where change is likely to occur soon. The above-mentioned interventions were successful because governments were eager to make changes but did not have a plan of action. In both cases, nongovernmental groups contributed the proposals that led to change. John Kingdon discusses how to identify good opportunities for intervention in his book, Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies.

Criminal justice reform

Criminal justice reform is a promising area for philanthropy. Many officials are eager to make progress on reform, including the president and the attorney general, both of whom are framing reform as a way to reduce spending. It is likely that Democrats and Republicans will be able to work together on this issue without having to make significant compromises.

Sentencing guidelines

Although sentencing guidelines already draw a lot of attention and funding, it may be worth investing in this area if the problem can be framed in a new way. It would be helpful to study federal and local sentencing guidelines for drug-related offenses, including California state guidelines and mandatory minimum sentences. As deputy attorney general, Prof. Heymann conducted a study that found that the great majority of federal prisoners on mandatory minimum sentences had never been convicted of violent crimes. This type of information paves the way for future reform.

Thoughts on “swift and certain” sanctions

Drug use could be greatly diminished by an idea of Professor Mark Kleiman (UCLA).  Any addict arrested for a drug crime would receive a relatively long sentence of probation with a condition that he appears twice a week for drug testing.  If he does not appear or tests dirty, he would be immediately jailed for a few days.  The absolute certainly of even a short punishment has a major deterrent effect. The problem with this approach is that it requires the cooperation of probation departments, which are generally understaffed, poorly organized, and likely unable to handle the increased workload. It would be useful to conduct a study to better understand the capacity of probation departments to adopt such a “zero tolerance” option.

Generally speaking, it is a good idea to invest in technocratic approaches to improving the functioning of government, which tend to be underfunded, but they cannot be relied on exclusively. 

Prosecutorial excess

Establishing a program on prosecutorial excess at a respected law school could help reduce prosecutorial excess. (Similar programs include the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University.) Another possible intervention would be to publish a list of the worst state and federal prosecutions each year, which could have a major effect on the behavior of prosecutors.

Other people for Good Ventures to talk to

Intelligence and national security

Secret programs

The NSA is a powerful agency that urgently needs to be reformed and for which reform seems likely. The president already has two commissions focused on the NSA, but outside groups could influence how reform takes place. The US spends around $70-80 billion a year on intelligence, but little is known about the cost-benefit of such programs. Many believe that oversight committees are ineffective and that the NSA does not evaluate itself effectively. There is work to be done in finding more effective ways to monitor secret programs, either by making Congress responsible for oversight or by establishing a neutral organization to oversee programs.

Big data

There is a large scope for work around “big data,” which refers to the processing of large amounts of data for use in private and public decision-making.  Also important would be to set up meetings with companies such as Facebook, Google and Apple to better understand the problems they have with the government requiring them to provide access to metadata.

Targeted killing

Prof. Heymann and Juliette Kayyem of the Belfer Center directed a project to examine and propose solutions to national security issues such as targeted killing. The project, which was funded by the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism, assembled a group including former intelligence officials and civil liberties agencies for several two-day meetings. Current officials were not invited, due to potential conflicts of interest. Ms. Kayyem and Prof. Heymann generated proposals and later produced a book detailing the group’s conclusions. The project seems to have had an impact; it's an example of addressing an issue at an early stage, before the field has become crowded.


Increasing private input

Increasing private input in federal-level decision-making would be useful and inexpensive. Currently, the federal government does not regularly seek the opinions of people in academia or private practice. For example, the attorney general could meet once a month with an advisory group of academics and professionals to discuss major issues facing the government. In terms of funding, this would only require covering the costs of travel and perhaps a one-day honorarium for the advisory group. A caveat is that open meeting statutes would require the meetings and their conclusions to be made public, which could make them less effective. It would be good to talk to a cabinet officer who is interested in the cause, such as Eric Holder, as well as people who understand the laws regarding open meetings.

Restoring public confidence in government and finance

There is a large opportunity for work aimed at improving the competence and reputation of the US government. Many people now graduate law school with around $120,000 in loans, which means government service may not feel like a feasible option for them. A philanthropist could pay off the student loans of individuals who go to work for the government. Sam Heyman and Bob Fiske each funded such a project for certain government positions.

Many Americans are deeply suspicious of the finance sector; efforts to build confidence in the finance sector are also important.

Other areas

Good Ventures asked for Prof. Heymann's thoughts on the following issue areas:

Impacts of philanthropy

To learn more about the impacts of philanthropy, Prof. Heymann recommends speaking to The Hauser Institute for Civil Society at Harvard Kennedy School; Mark Moore, the Hauser Professor of Nonprofit Organizations; Derek Bok, the former President of Harvard; and Joel Fleishman, a professor at Duke University.