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.)

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.


Next Level Astroturfing

The for-profit appropriation of social movements is in full swing.

Obama’s election victories, the marriage equality victory, and the Net Neutrality victory have served as rapid incubators for internet-based activism. They’ve created an unprecedented level of talent, tools, and tactics that, so far, are pretty much undefeated. The allure of that record has caught the attention of the private sector.

The use of mission-driven rhetoric by Valley tech companies and start-ups – ‘But what we’re really trying to do is save the world.’ – is a truism at this point. It’s referenced in countless articles on how to recruit and retain millennial employees. It’s the central tenet in the cults of Jobs and Musk. (Though I’m an admitted fan of Musk.) And it’s the frequent object of ridicule.

But the for-profit appropriation of the tactics of social movements makes mission-driven tech rhetoric, greenwashing, and corporate social responsibility cause-related marketing seem harmless in comparison. It’s a real threat to those of us who wield those tools for good.

Overuse will blunt their impact. Misguided use will undermine public faith. And the private sector has more resources to throw at the innovation required to stay ahead of both these trends.

The Republican use of working class rhetoric to dismantle the labour movement demonstrates what can happen when organizing falls into the wrong hands.

Here’s hoping the Election Workers Class of ’16 stay true to their beliefs and resist the siren call of stock options.


Making the Orange Surge Permanent

[To start, an admission of bias. My political beliefs were imparted when Ed Broadbent stepped on me while I was playing in the aisle of an anti-nuke rally in the 80s.]

What I do for a living is help people understand new ideas and points-of-view in their own language, on their own terms. I’ve built relationships across every sector and between people of every political stripe. (Well, most of them.)

Partnership development is about stripping away preconceptions to expose shared values, then building to common cause. This experience has taught me a few things about how to encourage people to listen to and work with one another.

* If you dig down far enough, most people want the same things. Disagreements are generally limited to process. If this weren’t true we couldn’t all live next to each other.

* People are more likely to consider new ideas from people with whom they already agree.

* Nuance, tone, and appearance drive first impressions. And first impressions control access. You can’t build relationships if you can’t get in the door. Dress the part.

* Fear and uncertainty kill things before they start. Assuage and reassure. Everything is always personal.

* People reject what they don’t understand. And no one understands perfectly right away. Present things in pieces and build understanding over time.

Truisms, sure. But also key to getting things done.

Rightly or wrongly, the right and centre-right is scared of the NDP. Also rightly or wrongly, its reaction to an NDP government will be self-fulfilling. Economic growth – the main area where left wing competence is challenged – will stall under an NDP government because Bay Street will make decisions that cause it to stall. The Canadian dollar dipped on speculation of an NDP government.

This reaction is based on fear, uncertainty, lack of understanding, assumption of disparate interests, etc. The task for the NDP over the next four years is, not coincidentally, to strip away preconceptions, expose shared values, and build to common cause.

And, from the comfort and sheltered pulpit of my blog, my 3-point plan to make this happen.

1.) Frame Everything in Terms of Responsibility

Responsibility, when defined not as obligation but as aspiration, is a shared and unifying value. It’s a universal yet highly personal premise that can underpin bold ideas. Corporations want to honour their responsibility to their shareholders and clients. Individuals want to honour their responsibility to their families and each other. Governments want to honour their responsibility to citizens and the public trust.

As with all words, the meaning of ‘responsibility’ can be shaped and redefined over time. The NDP can build from the language of corporate social responsibility, individual effort, and effective stewardship to unite Canadians behind a shared perspective on what Canada can achieve under an NDP government. The mantle of responsibility will also add an element of gray hair and navy suits to a party currently defined (at least externally) by Birkenstocks, blue collars, and tattoos.

2.) Adopt the Language of Social Enterprise

Canadians believe in the value of enterprise. ‘Enterprise’ evokes hard work, skilled innovation, and earned reward. Values respected by hard-core capitalists and socialists alike. Every sector and political party – or at least those with even a chance of voting for the NDP – can rally behind ‘shared enterprise’.

The sector that wields this language the best is, unsurprisingly, social enterprise. Executives in charge of these organizations move seamlessly from boardrooms to policy tables to protest parades. They’ve mastered the art of expressing social, environmental, and economic objectives in terms that garner support in every context. It’s a near-perfect model for how to communicate across viewpoints and sectors. The NDP would do well to follow their lead.

3.) Recruit More Suits

The value of winning 102 seats and becoming the Official Opposition is huge. The NDP has moved from ideological watchdog to government-in-waiting. That running for the NDP presents an opportunity to wield legislative power means the party can attract new talent and leadership.

And they need to be people who wear suits to work (at least metaphorically). For no other reason than we don’t have any. The opportunity before the NDP is not to aggressively assert its platform. It would be divisive and ineffectual in face of a Conservative majority. The opportunity is to be reasonable, agreeable, and actually compromise. To display maturity and acumen. To use the new profile to recruit capacity from the middle. Then take over the wheel and slowly, over time, permanently turn it to the left.

There are, of course, lots of things that can undermine the recent electoral gains. Irrational, hair-trigger reactions to the colour orange, a very effective and well organized opposition party, a base that often values confrontation for its own sake, etc.

But the opportunity is ours for the taking.