An Autonomous Civic Network

network

The more I have engaged with supporter-driven organizations – political and nonprofit – the more I am convinced that the way they interact with their supporters is fundamentally wrong. So much of it comes from the sales and marketing world.

Each organization seeks to build its own base. The less sophisticated ones treat this base as a simple sales funnel, an audience to be solicited frequently with the goal of raising more dollars. The more sophisticated ones go beyond that and try to engender genuine concern in their bases about the issues the organizations are addressing. They often build some kind of ladder of engagement to get people to care, but that ladder too often represents a simple sales funnel: the only goal is for each piece of communication to get a user to level up or get out.

All of this is reflected both in the culture and tools of these organizations. Tools for nonprofits and tools offered for campaigns are essentially customizations of corporate CRM tools. But the problem of supporter engagement is fundamentally different than a sales funnel for a variety of reasons.

Many have written thoughtfully on this topic, notably Marshal Ganz, and may of my coworkers from Obama for America. In various places we implemented ideas of snowflake organizing – the notion of a semi-hierarchical structure that devolves down from headquarters through regional, state, and city levels to ultimately create action through neighborhood teams. Each neighborhood team is large enough to do meaningful work, but small enough to create accountability.

But one thing that each of these organizations have in common is that address the big, hairy issue in people’s lives. While there are multiple elected offices in the United States, none has the power to motivate people like the presidency. And while there are multiple community issues that need to be solved urgently, none are as holistic as people’s livelihoods. It is hard to get people to engage continuously around worthy but less all encompassing issues whether they are congressional elections or food banks.

This makes me question a fundamental idea of all supporter engagement. That it should be owned.

Let me pick that apart. One common thread in all of the supporter engagement approaches that I’ve seen is the idea that they roll up to an organization with an agenda and fixed leadership. Ultimately, that is a big constraint. What if, instead, the organization could be federated and self-governing, more like Bitcoin than like Salesforce.com?

As a thought experiment, consider how it might work.

First, you would form a legal entity. Fortunately, US law allows for a legal entity without ownership. It’s called a nonprofit. Since nonprofits don’t have owners, they are controlled by a board of directors. If the organization had bylaws allowing those directors to be directly elected by a constituency, we’d have a framework for a participant-managed organization where power could be transferred much as it is in government.

Second, the organization’s structure, bylaws, and voting could all be modeled in a software tool. Much like the snowflake model, their would be neighborhood teams and a hierarchy, but unlike the snowflake model, each layer of the hierarchy would be elected by the members of the layer below it. So the ten or so people on a team would elect a captain, the captains in a city would elect a city manager, the city managers would elect a county representative, the country representatives would elect state representatives, and the state representatives would elect the slate of directors (or might themselves be the directors) and a chief executive.

Broadly, the organization would engage in a few tasks: setting policy, directing action, and raising and distributing money.

Anyone on the network would be about to push ideas up vertically (so a team captain can send things to the city manager, the county manager, etc., hypothetically all the way up the chain) or down to everyone who is “below” them in the hierarchy (so a state representative could message everyone in the state). Broadly, this would apply not just to messaging, but to authority generally. Anything can be suggested up, anything can be decided and directed down.

This same structure would apply to policy making. It could be as simple as a wiki with cascading editorial rights. And it would certainly apply to information distribution and actions people could take. For example, the organization could decide to support a slate of candidates for office (not just a single one). Then the network would take action in support of those candidates even though individuals would be free to dissent.

On the issue side, the network could decide at each level of the hierarchy what issues matter to them and adopt organizations relevant to those actions. For example, the Chicago group might be most concerned about combatting violence while the Los Angeles group might be most concerned about immigrant right. These priorities could change, but they’d change democratically and people could have confidence that through their own involvement they could make the case for their own issues.

Smaller actions could work through such a network as well. Neighborhood watches, alley cleaning, even school board meetings could be coordinated.

One critical facet would be that teams could also connect regularly in the real world and they’d get some sort of credit for their level of engagement. It is simple enough to pick a spot in each neighborhood (the local Starbucks or McDonalds) and a time every week or few weeks for such meetings to occur.

If a network of this kind could gather momentum, it would ultimately become a highly democratic but autonomous civic network. Organizations and candidate could effectively put their cases to the participants and, if they prevail, get a meaningful level of support even though each person may not be able to contribute much individually. The organization could also take meaningful actions between elections and between fundraising cycles: town hall meetings, calls on policy issues, and so much more.

The key point is that the network isn’t owned. It isn’t locked into a single person, a single cause, or a single organization. It should be self-healing (unlike a campaign when a candidate leaves office), perpetual, and provide ways for people to make a difference. It could also be a binding layer for communities.

The software to support it is easy enough to build and maintain (I built a prototype while I was thinking through this that I might opensource.)
I curious about if people think such a network might work in reality?

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