Archives for the month of: June, 2009

I’ve been dithering about this for months now, even though my friend Angelique has been telling me I need to do it.

But I finally went ahead and created a “public profile” on Facebook. The difference between that and just a regular profile is that anyone can “become a fan” of my public profile, while if you want to “friend” my regular profile I have to approve you.

My vision for the public profile is to make it one of the main social network nodes in my digital life. I really want to add lots of useful, interesting, informative, and fun material to it.

But I’m a bit at a loss as to what that will look like. So far, I am importing my blog posts (so you may in fact be reading this on the public page already and I have posted a question on the “discussion boards.”

Me brooding at the Harwood Public Innovators Summit. Photo by Aaron Leavy.

Me brooding at the Harwood Public Innovators Summit. This is the icon for my new "public profile" page at Facebook. Photo by Aaron Leavy.

I need your help. What else should I be doing? If you click on the discussion board link, it’ll take you to my post asking that very question. If you wouldn’t mind, try answering over there.

This is all experimental! Maybe it will work and become a really cool hangout. Or maybe it just won’t be dreadful. Or, over time, I’ll see it’s not worthwhile at all. Help me out and let’s find out!

P.S. So you can tell the difference between my “personal” Facebook profile and my “public” page, I am using different profile images. My personal one is the familiar Brad-smiling-at-you photo, taken by my friend Eric Jensen (and it’s also used in the liner notes of my band’s latest CD).

My public page image is a shot taken at the most recent Harwood Public Innovators Summit by my friend Aaron Leavy. It’s me being all broody and thoughtful. I thought it might inspire, you know, thoughtfulness or something.

People in my field have been aflutter since January over the White House’s efforts to craft what’s called an “Open Governmemnt Initiative.” On his first full day in office, President Obama issued a memorandum calling for us to “work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration” between the government and the people.

Since then, the administration has worked diligently to figure out just what this might look like. And people in my field, the civic engagement field, have watched very closely. At every turn my inbox and newsreaders have kept me abreast.

Yesterday, I realized with a sinking feeling: I don’t really understand it all.

The bitter irony is that I came to this realization in the midst of reading a blog post purporting to make it all clear for me.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the idea of open government. But if you asked me to tell you about the administration’s plans to implement that idea, I’d stare at you like a deer in headlights.

That’s a hard admission to make.

Here is what I know so far:

  • For some reason the “open governmemnt initiative” is housed in the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
  • At various times, the “public” (people with computers) has been asked to “brainstorm” ideas (at a different site) for what the government ought to do to be more open. They’ve also been asked to vote on different ideas.
  • There are at least three phases to this brainstorming business, but I am not sure what the difference between one and another is. One is “brainstorm,” the next is “dig deeper,” and the last is “draft.” (I guess I get that last one.)
  • Meanwhile, various external groups have been working this system. This has generated a huge amount of chatter. In some cases, people have been promoting their individual good ideas, asking people to vote them up or down. In other cases, organizations and networks of groups that have been working on issues of civic engagement have sets of principles that they would like to see adopted. (I am a signatory to one such set, the Core Principles for Public Engagement.) In still other cases, some organized political groups have tried to flood the system with bonehead and off-topic ideas (like the perennial “legalize marijuana” suggestion).
  • Even more meanwhile, some groups have created ad hoc symposia and other meetings (online and in-person) designed to “gather input,” or “discuss ideas,” or to map out “best practices.”

It’s pretty embarrassing to say all this adds up to a big mish-mosh that’s hard to follow. But I know I am not alone. How do I know this? Because my friends and colleagues keep writing blog posts and sending emails explaining the “process.”

It seems to me that the whole thing is creaking under its own weight, and the “it” does not even exist yet.

The “Experts Trap”

From under the snow bank by Flickr user Michael Filion

From under the snow bank by Flickr user Michael Filion

I do not blame the organizers. They are doing the best they can. It’s a hard thing to create a whole new initiative inside the Federal government. At some point, however, someone needs to take a step back and look at everything and ask themselves a few questions:

  1. Will all this really result in more openness and collaboration?
  2. Are we too enamored with tools and technology, and letting it push aside just talking to people?
  3. How will ordinary, non-technical, non-civic people react to this?
  4. Are we falling into the experts trap?

That last danger is the one I fear the most. There is a large, pent-up demand throughout my field for the Federal government to take civic engagement seriously. Very smart people have a lot of important things to say — but some of that will be unintelligible to regular people.

Relying on “civic engagement experts” will get us an expert-driven, complicated set of plans and processes. And eventually, it is these experts who will take the public input and craft something to present to the President.

But, what I think President Obama was talking about is something far more simple. He was talking about a mindset change on the part of both citizens and government. Both need to see that there’s a role for interaction.

For citizens, this means taking opportunities to raise their voice and work substantively in ways that stretch them. (Most citizens see their civic duty as ending once they cast their vote, if they vote at all.)

For government, it means viewing citizens as — well, as citizens and not as “customers” or “clients” to be “served.” Or, just as often, as nuisances to be tolerated.

Certainly, to embed such a mindset will take hard work. But the hard work is the kind of day-in, day-out management work that any good CEO or senior leader will recognize: You set the tone, you create examples, you align incentive systems, and you cheerlead.

Civic engagement does not have to be rocket science. In fact, it’s best if it’s not.

An offhand question asked by a colleague the other day got me thinking. She asked me, “In five years, what would you like to be known for?” This is a slightly different version of the standard where-do-you-want-to-be-in-five-years query.

The way it was framed drew me up short and made me think.

My immediate answer was “I would like to be known for helping people be the people they aspire to be in public life.”

The reason this got me thinking is that I am a part of the “nonprofit sector” or “philanthropic sector.” Among my colleagues, everyone is talking about change. They’ve been talking change since long before that young senator from Illinois took the reins of power.

For years now, every nonprofit organization has had to have a “theory of change ” that it could whip out and explain. Every funding request, it seems, now requires a statement of the recipient’s “theory of change.”

All this “change” business has always made me feel out of step with my nonprofit friends, but I never quite was able to put my finger on why. Now I know. I’m not too interested in change. That’s not what drives me. I’m interested in helping people.

It seems to me, surveying the field, that the clamor for “change” has pushed out an important — and, I might argue, fundamental — aspect of philanthropy. This aspect is directly related to the root of the word: love of humanity. Organizations and individual people who just want to help others tend to get set aside as funders seek more and more impact for their donated dollars.

This effect is completely understandable and I don’t indict anyone for it. Funders really do need to stretch their donations further. There really are large problems to be tackled, problems that will take change more than charity. And, many individual people do need help due to broader forces that ought to change.

But there’s also a human scale and I fear that there are too few people speaking up for it. It’s the individual person helped to find a job, or a place to live. It’s the citizen who learns she or he has a voice and can use it.

After all, “change” can come about from individual improvement just as it can come about through systemic action. My personal bias, simply because this is where I feel most comfortable, is to know that people on an individual basis can live better lives because of something I might have done.

We need both change and charity.

So, how can we keep the human scale of philanthropy and not shove it aside, even as we try harder to do more with less?

(cc) Jake McKee

90-9-1 Principle for online communities

Among people who work in, study, and manage online communities, there’s something called the “90-9-1 Principle.” The idea is that in most online communities, 90 percent of the users are audience members, passively reading posts and comments. Nine percent of the users are “editors” editing posts (in wiki-style communities) or adding comments (in blog-style or forum-style communities).

Just 1 percent are “creators” — people who start threads and articles from scratch.

A corollary of this idea is that, for online community managers, one of the leverage points is the Creators. More Creators will multiply into more action by Editors.

In consulting and in business management, there are lots of similar theories and ideas that hinge on a catchy duo or trio of numbers. I always wonder if these numbers are accurate, what they are based on, and if there is any way to test them.

But the 90-9-1 idea seems intuitively true. I wonder how it would hold up in real life communities.

In a physical, place-based community like a neighborhood, the roles might go by different names.

Remember, in the online community the 90-9-1 rule does not take into account the people who are unaware of the community or only have glanced at once or twice. Similarly, in many neighborhoods, there is a large segment of the public that isn’t engaged and is unaware of some of the community issues. They go to work and go about their business, but aren’t connected in in any significant way.

Outside of that group, the in-person 90-9-1 rule might look like this:

  • The majority of “audience” might be called the attentive public. They attend community meetings, and keep up on events and news.
  • The next group (“editors”) might be called the active public. They stand up and comment in meetings. They write letters to the editor, and take substantive part of
  • Finally, there are the leaders. These are the people who step forward and take focal-point roles. They run for office, lead neighborhood groups, chair committees, serve on commissions.

These “leaders” are not just the officials in office. It’s lots of different kinds of people. Someone who is a leader in one context might be active in another and simply attentive in a third. But the key leverage point for increasingly community vibrancy is on getting more leaders.

For a number of years, there has been a new theory of community leadership building. The idea is that people emerge as leaders from communities — they aren’t anointed, appointed, or made.

This simple notion has driven new kinds of community leadership programs, ones which don’t focus so much on creating a Chamber of Commerce-style network, or even a policy school-type of cohort of highly knowledgeable lay people (even though both of these are important and necessary). These new kinds of leadership programs focus on cultivating leadership skills among people who might not otherwise see themselves as community leaders . As more of these people step forward, into the public square, more active and attentive people follow suit.

Growing the ranks of leadership is one key leverage point (not the only) in fostering a vibrant community life.

The White House’s Office Of Science And Technology Policy last week invited comments on a number of blog posts that summarized citizen recommendations to enhance participation and transparency. (This is part of the administration’s “Open Government Initiative.”)

One blog post was on “Enhancing Citizen Participation In Decision Making.”

People shared a lot of good ideas. I wish I could link directly to a particular comment, because my friend Peter Levine added what I thought was the most important intervention.

Peter suggests four principles to keep in mind about any mechanism for face-to-face public participation:

1. Some method to ensure reasonable levels of representativeness.

2. A neutral and responsible presentation of the issues.

3. A carefully through-out process that promotes learning and collaboration. That almost always requires trained moderators.

4. Some protection against deliberate manipulation by interest groups. In a completely open online discussion, it’s easy to email a huge number of supporters and ask them all to post comments. In a conventional public hearing, usually the main speakers represent specific interests. We need to draw a true cross section of people for an open-minded discussion. Random selection is one way to avoid manipulation, but there are other ways as well–always involving careful recruitment.

Any of these ideas is worth more exploration, but I am interested in the third.

Dialogue almost always requires trained moderators. Intuitively we know this is true. Dialogue, when it goes well, pushes us to examine our own assumptions about what motivates other people. When was the last time you did that, unprovoked? I didn’t think so.

Flipchart in the garden by Flickr user Sjors Provoost

"Flipchart in the garden" by Flickr user Sjors Provoost

In dialogue initiatives that I have been a part of, we often ask participants a variety of questions at the end, including whether people changed their mind about anything or whether they see others who disagree with them differently than before. Very few people admit to having their minds changed — but people often report that they see others in a different light.

That kind of mindset change cannot be self-generated but requires someone to push it.

Even more, when I look at different dialogue initiatives, and at the different group conversations that take place within them, I’ve found that one of the key leverage points is the quality of the leader. It is not rocket science to lead a dialogue on public issues, but it is a skill that takes a bit of mindfulness.

What makes a good dialogue leader? It’s not the same thing as being a “neutral facilitator” because it takes a little more moxie. I can think of five key traits:

  • Ability to think on your feet
  • Genuine interest in what other people have to say
  • Ability to track the conversation actively and bring in things that people said previously
  • Ability to set expert knowledge aside
  • Willingness to lead, humility to set ego aside

Lots of my readers are active in the public dialogue field. What are your key conversation leader traits?