Consumer Reports, Mozilla, Musings, Pitch Geek, Politics

Theory of Power

Ed. Note: I wrote this quickly just to get it all down. I’ll revisit this over time to clean it up, flesh it out. But you’ll get the point.


This article by Steven Teles and Mark Schmitt in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (the HBR of the non-profit world) does a great job summarizing some eternal truths in advocacy work.

  1. It’s nearly impossible to measure the success of your work;
  2. Because it’s nearly impossible to isolate and control for the impact of any one activity;
  3. And it doesn’t matter, anyway, because your opponent will adjust their tactics to make sure it won’t work again and everything depends on context.

The article is nearly a decade old, but it was just shared with me by a colleague. It reinforces my belief that advocacy programs should be thought of as machines that run, process, and adapt in real-time, rather than plans or strategies to be carried out. It also shares a lot of my ‘metrics are bullshit‘ rant, especially when it comes to betting on smart people vs. well-crafted plans. I also put a lot of this forward in a ‘funding open‘ presentation a number of years ago. Basically, it’s as though someone took everything I’ve learned and put it forward in an elegant and expanded treatise.

However, the main reason the article is resonating with me is because it highlights the critical distinction between a ‘theory of change’ and a ‘theory of power’, and the need for organizations to ground their work in the latter.

‘Theory of change’ has no set definition. So it’s likely that a lot of organizations already include a deep analysis of their power within that frame. (As an example, the opening summary of the Wikipedia article on Theories of Change nods to the role of power, but doesn’t mention the topic again, focusing, instead, on logic models of causality.) But I define them like this:

  • Theory of Change: How it’s going to work.
  • Theory of Power: Why it’s going to work.

Your theory of change should lay out what you’re going to do. Your theory of power should lay out why anyone will give a fuck. Too often, theories of change ignore the harsh realities and limitations of whether you are truly able to effect negative or positive consequences for your target. They focus on pressure points and levers vs. your capacity to actually apply the force required to win.

Combining these two things–the SSIR article on the fundamental interconnectedness of all things, and the intangible and unpredictable nature of advocacy work–you arrive at a theory of power that looks like this. (And like all good models, it’s alliterative.)

Comprehensive: There is no way, in advance, of knowing whether you should run a grassroots campaign, write the perfect op-ed, train people in new approaches, write a PhD thesis, get on television, draft the perfect policy whitepaper, convene the key decision-makers, etc. So you have to do all of it. Every part needs to be addressed:

  1. Thought Leadership: An eloquent and charismatic leader needs to ply their TED talk skills in front of the right audiences.
  2. Journalism: The press has to keep the issue in the zeitgeist, define the terms, and build understanding of the issue.
  3. Policy: People with deep expertise have to craft the solution: the structural changes you’re trying to achieve.
  4. Political: Elected representatives have to understand how much the electorate cares and start making it part of their platforms.
  5. Grassroots: Activists with pitchforks need to maintain pressure and keep your target in the crosshairs
  6. Backroom: Skilled diplomats need to split the business community in half, aligning powerful companies against other powerful companies, negating their money and power.
  7. Socialization: Mainstream publications and personalities need to convince the population that your solution is fundamentally aligned with their core values and how the world should work.

Leaving any of these areas unchecked creates an escape route for your target. It’s like the old adage in sports: Offensive players only need to win one exchange. Defenders have to win every time. Your opponent needs only one chink in the armour in order to escape.

Coordinated: The scope of work required is (usually) beyond the grasp of any one organization. So the way to get better and stronger is to ensure all of the seven areas are working in coordination with each other. Coordination creates an exponential multiplier on the total power you can wield.

Constricting: I’m forcing this a bit to make the alliteration work, but the core of this is that you have to ramp up the pressure on your target over time. It’s not a marathon or a sprint. It’s a jujitsu fight. You need to slowly, methodically, and constantly ramp up the pressure across all seven battlefronts, leaving your target exhausted and spent, with nowhere to go and no more options.

Like the SSIR article states, this is a lot of work and, afterward, you may realize that 90% of it wasn’t required. Turns out that all you needed was a well-timed phone call from one person to their friend with a powerful job title. But you have no way of knowing that in advance. And focusing on a single strategy turns a well-crafted comprehensive approach into nothing more than a bet. The efficiency derives from optimizing for the minimum time to a guaranteed result, not the minimum time to a possible result. If you do it all in parallel, you’ll get there a lot faster. (This could be a post in itself.)

Pitch Geek

Fight + Build = Power

When designing a campaign narrative, rallying cry, or case for support, the equation I always use is:

Fight + Build = Power

Fighting gives you urgency and consequence. Building gives you hope and endurance. You need both.

Fighting is an active frame full of individual agency, possibility, and passion. There is a villain to provide the urgency and the ‘other’ to help define the moment and the identity of the group of people pushing back. Fight narratives are like adrenaline shots. They do a massive amount of work in a very short time, but wear out really quickly.

The build narrative provides the aspiration. What you’re trying to achieve, rather than prevent. The hope and sense of shared creation. The build narrative tells you what’s possible, where you’re going, and why it matters. It’s also lasting: it’s what will keep someone engaged over years, rather than hours or weeks.

One doesn’t work without the other. Fight provides no aspiration. Build provides no urgency. “I have a dream.” vs. “The sky is falling.”

You can think of it as a sine wave, passing back and forth between those two poles. You want to spend about 70% of your time in ‘build’. But you want to bring out ‘fight’ for those adrenaline shots / catalytic moments.


I just discovered Tony Benn. The dude’s got anger, insight, and eloquence. Excited to find out that he has used this same frame throughout his career. (The whole speech is worth watching.)

Uncategorized

Remembrance Day

Both my grandfathers fought in WWII.

My paternal grandfather, Al, was a safety inspector and mechanic in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He stayed in the military through the 60s, stationed in Germany and other places. Then retired to a career as a long-haul truck driver. He could recite the service numbers of everyone he worked with over 25 years. On his 80th birthday, he went down to the Ministry of Transportation, passed the mandated old-age test to renew his trucker’s license, took one step out of the door, paused, then turned around and handed it back in voluntarily.

My maternal grandfather, Jack, was a Lieutenant in the armored core, training soldiers how to pilot tanks. He then studied at Khaki College while helping oversee the return of soldiers back to Canada. Led to a career in the early days of the airline industry, retiring as the VP, Travel for Ford Canada. He volunteered helping travelers at airports till the day he died.

Jack’s role overseeing the trip home for 1,000s of soldiers meant that the war played itself out again on the other side of his desk. He heard the story of each soldier’s personal, lived experience as they sat getting their paperwork together. The story that stayed with me was what happened to the men who literally kicked down the doors of the concentration camps, not knowing what was on the other side. Most of them returned home to asylums.

The thing I would ask them–if they were around today–is when did they know? When did they realize the rules of normal civility no longer applied? When did it become apparent they had to fight? These things don’t happen at once. They happen by inches, over years. At what point do you acknowledge it and change your response?

Much has been written about fascism in the last few days. I want to believe this country is stronger than that. But I’m having a very hard time knowing how to gauge my response. I wish I could ask them for guidance.

Neither of my grandfathers took pride in what they’d done. They didn’t see it as a service. They saw it as a necessity; a posture distinct from much of the rhetoric that will cross our screens today. One that I feel is more honourable–not to just to those who lived through it–but to the horrific reality of war.

That’s why my wife and I pause at 11am. Why we treat this day with reverence. Why we tell our daughters about their great-grandfathers and grandmothers on both sides. Not to celebrate, but to remind ourselves we can never let it happen again.

Musings, Politics

Facebook Live, BLM, and the Nature of Rights in Virtual Space

My first start-up was an MMO company. My role was to design the socioeconomic and governance structures for an online world. It was wonderfully geeky opportunity for a 20-year-old political theory major and gamer.

As Raph Koster has written, the advent of many-to-many live video (Facebook Live; Periscope) and augmented reality gaming (Pokemon Go) has brought new relevance to that work, highlighting the challenges of having vital communication controlled by private interests and the resulting importance of civic tech projects.

One of the big questions we grappled with was whether participants in mediated space (games, social media, chat rooms, etc.) could claim to have rights. (See this fun and earnest declaration.)

In political theory, rights — as in civil rights — have one of three points of origin that place them above government, laws, and other forms of human decision-making.

  • Natural: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident.’ You are human, you have rights.
  • Divine: They are granted and flow from a god.
  • Social: We grant them to each other.

The question was whether any of these premises could hold true in a mediated environment. It boiled down to whether participant(s) could use their rights to overrule the will of the the mediator — the game maker, social media company, etc. And, in each instance, they couldn’t.

  • Natural: The mediator invents and controls the laws of nature. “Right to free speech? You’re no longer able to talk.”
  • Divine: The mediator is, functionally, god. What they grant they can take away.
  • Social: This works as long as the mediator sees themselves as part of the community. But it’s a choice they can reverse at any time. (Today? Today I’m a god.)

Our concept of inalienable rights assumes the basis for those rights is inaccessible and immutable. Even (most) religious people assume their god isn’t going to show up and change their mind.

In a mediated environment, the mediator is an active participant, accessible to the participants, and most definitely mutable. They can change or pull the plug on the whole thing at any time, ending you, your world, and your rights.

Conclusion: Our concept of rights cannot apply in mediated, or virtual, space.

So, can you have rights in Facebook? Can they be obligated to broadcast your side of an interaction with the police?

Facebook exists as a private entity in meatspace. They are subject to the laws and regulations of government, which means they can’t be the origin point for rights. Further, nothing prevents Zuckerberg from shutting the whole thing down tomorrow, or simply removing live streaming as a feature.

So, no, you can’t have rights in Facebook. The best case scenario is where they choose to use their power to defend your rights. But they don’t have to. And this is a huge problem when Facebook (and other mediated technologies) are our central means of exposing and communicating injustice and the abuse of state power.

Consumer Reports

+20% Conversion: Our first AB test

The Consumer Reports engagement team is trending towards a 19.2% increase (!!!) in the conversion rate of our campaign pages. (In case it’s not clear: that’s a big deal.)

test results

The test has yet to resolve, but it’s exciting none-the-less. We’ve been ramping up our AB testing capacity. We’ve had robust testing frameworks in place around our e-mail program for a while. But we hadn’t brought that rigour across to our campaign page design.

We set up the first web AB test on our End Robocalls site. We chose to optimize for signing the action: completing the white form on the top right. Our guess was the original page design presented too many options to the user. So we built two variants, each of which removed menu options from the top of the site.

Original Variant (Blue)
Original Variant (Blue)
No Top Nav (Orange)
No Top Nav (Orange)
Simplified Black Nav (Green)
No Top Nav & Simplified Black Nav (Green)

As expected: reducing navigation options is resulting in higher conversion.

This was a safe thing to test. It’s fairly common knowledge that fewer exit points within a simplified user interface leads to higher conversion. The key thing, however, is that we now have the data to show the best practice also holds true for our community base. And it’s a great way to launch our testing program.

This is a finding we can take forward into the rest of our work. One that will have real impact. Building from this result will let us engage thousands more people in the actions we take to advance consumer rights.

Well done team!