Funny thing about a group of volunteers who come and go week by week, with few requirements or expectations: it becomes very hard to maintain momentum, focus, and accountability. Yet for years, OpenOakland volunteers have shown up to develop dozens of online services and open data resources for the people of Oakland. In doing so, decisions get made and a trajectory is set. But aside from a broad vision and a lightweight governance structure that outlines a basic decision-making process, there isn’t much strategic direction and almost no baked-in accountability.
As a result, a lot of member feedback from recent years has sat in a sort of purgatory. People share ideas or opinions and concerns and it’s up to the collective group to figure out what to do with it. When the feedback is challenging or unearths larger issues, it becomes very easy to do nothing at all. Collective memory is short when volunteers come and go. Over the years, members have reported feeling shut out and ignored. In fact, several contributors left in 2020 in direct response to the way feedback was being handled across the brigade.
So how do we ensure that all members have a voice and those voices are not only heard but are able to shape decision-making? As a new co-lead in January of this year, I was desperate to find a way to transform existing feedback into action in a way that would build accountability into brigade activities. So I started gathering everything I could find and began identifying themes. OpenOakland’s Steering Committee then took this material and developed a set of brigade priority areas aimed at addressing these themes. We’ve been actively working on these areas since then.
Aiming for an intentional, inclusive process
On one level, we already knew what our core problems were. The pain had been felt by many of us for years and when critical contributors walk away as happened in 2020, it’s a little disingenuous to pretend we need some methodical analytical process for responding appropriately. But the reality of an irregular volunteer group that only convenes online in the age of COVID lockdowns means that people are exposed to information inconsistently and have lots of different kinds of interactions and experiences of group dynamics. Some folks didn’t even realize members had been hurt this way. In order to support a consensus alignment on priorities that would be truly embraced by the team, I felt we needed an intentional process that surfaced the breadth of feedback and distributed accountability for it to OpenOakland’s entire Steering Committee.
Gathering the voices
Feedback has come in over the years in many different forms. Member surveys have been conducted by past leadership teams—but results rarely make it beyond the walled garden of OpenOakland’s live hack nights or its Slack workspace. Some of those members who’ve left the brigade have shared detailed feedback in person and in writing on their way out. We have real gratitude for the willingness to do this kind of completely unnecessary but very generous labor. And every time our brigade gets together over Zoom or in Slack, people share their thoughts, opinions, and experiences with each other directly. How we process this information and how we act on it—or don’t—says a lot about how we respect and value each other’s experiences.
I started pulling together all the member feedback I could find:
- Member surveys conducted by past leadership teams
- Several slide decks reporting out on brigade activity
- Meeting notes
- An open letter from a former member
- Slack messages (anonymized)
I dumped everything into a digital whiteboard, moving quotes from their original sources into sticky notes. The idea was to have each sticky note represent a single, self-contained piece of feedback.
Processing the feedback as a group
I started identifying patterns among the sticky notes and grouping them into basic themes. Designerds like to call this cluster mapping or affinity mapping, or if you’re a student of human-computer interaction or just a history nerd, the KJ method. Some basic themes began to surface:
- Leadership and governance stuff
- Project support stuff
- Culture stuff
- Impact stuff
Cutting across all of these was another theme: equity and inclusion, which really threads itself through every aspect of an organization’s structure and culture.
I didn’t want to get too deep into analysis of the feedback without pulling the rest of the brigade in. I know from experience that when a team works together to make sense of qualitative data, it helps people wrap their heads around the material more quickly and thoroughly. At OpenOakland, bringing in fellow volunteers also serves as a check-and-balance so a single perspective isn’t driving all the decision making.
I shared the board with our Steering Committee, OpenOakland’s decision-making body made up of project leads and our three elected co-leads. It took longer than I would have liked to clear enough room on the monthly agenda but in May, we finally got the group together. We spent some time reviewing and refining the existing themes, then used basic dot voting to identify the specific challenges the group felt were most urgent to focus on. We also identified the feedback we felt was not critical to prioritize. This was helpful in identifying clear boundaries for where to direct our energy, otherwise we risked trying to do everything. On a volunteer team with limited time, that can easily distract us from doing anything.
Feedback often identified causes (eg “not enough power sharing with impact audiences”), in addition to outcomes (“we’ve lost members from underrepresented communities who’ve felt unheard”).
What surfaced was a pretty clear set of priorities to guide our next steps. To some extent, the synthesis process helped us tease out the symptoms of our brigade’s biggest challenges from their root causes. There’s more reflection and analysis to be done to dig deeper—in many ways (such as representation and equity), this work should never really end.
The beauty of the synthesis process has been that it’s surfaced a lot of potential approaches from the feedback itself. Prioritizing those, of course, is another process. Our group identified five core priority areas, in loose order of importance:
Each of these areas is directly related to the others. And there are important dependencies between them. More importantly, these priorities need to be tied to specific outcomes and actions.
Priority: Equity and representation
Member feedback reflected a strong desire that OpenOakland’s membership be more representative of the City’s diversity. This includes diversity in racial and ethnic identity, socioeconomic status and education, digital skill levels, physical and cognitive ability, and so on. There are real implications to this well beyond the scope of this post. For example, volunteerism assumes a certain degree of privilege. Not everyone can afford to give their time, which leads to a more homogenous team. Part of our challenge is to create non-technical ways for people to inform the work.
Volunteerism can also be a path to self-determination, though, ensuring those most impacted by an issue are actually stewarding the solutions. Just look at the deep history of mutual aid in Oakland going back at least decades, to the Black Panthers for example. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a new urgency and younger generations into this long tradition, with incredibly productive collectives and initiatives like the East Oakland Collective, Town Fridge, Mental Health First, and many others all coalescing around self-determinative action.
So it’s a question of who’s showing up (or who we’re attracting), and whether or not they’re able to successfully contribute. How do we create a space where the labor is both fairly distributed and self-determining? Diversity and representation isn’t enough if those voices in the room are dismissed when they speak up or unable to share decision-making power.
There’s also the reality that certain groups are grossly underrepresented in the tech industry. People of color—Black and Indigenous in particular—and LGBTQ+, etc. are simply not represented in the field proportionately to their representation in the general population. So if we want our civic tech brigade to be more representative, we’re going to have to advocate hard to make tech more representative, too. Yet as of 2019, the brigade was even less diverse than the tech industry, which says a lot about whether we’re really delivering on our mission.
Though slightly out of date, OpenOakland was even less diverse than the overall tech industry in 2019.
Putting it into action
There’s no single, simple solution to creating an equitable and inclusive culture. These priorities require dedicated and long-term commitment. And we need to ask ourselves some really hard questions about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. These approaches were surfaced through the member feedback process, as well as in discussions with various professional DEIA experts:
- Seek professional expertise to inform our efforts. It’s very clear we need greater insight and accountability than what we’ve been relying on internally.
- Create feedback loops that ensure underrepresented voices are actually involved in decision-making.
- Understand and share out prior equity work done within the brigade. OpenOakland has a long history and it would be neglectful to ignore the work that came before us, as well as understanding what hasn’t been effective.
- Define the outcomes we want to see and identify the measures of success, so we have a vision to work toward. Then actually measure and report on our current state and the progress toward those outcomes.
- Intentionally foster a culture shift by creating structured and intentional spaces to hold space for conversations about personal identity, power, and systemic racism and oppression.
- Build trusting, authentic relationships with underrepresented communities throughout Oakland.
- Foster a culture of nurturing accountability through efforts like impact measurement and more thoughtful project planning and resourcing. This is a key element of walking the equity talk, and is one of our biggest cross-priority dependencies.
- Advocate for more representation of historically marginalized groups in tech and local government.
Priority: Impact evaluation
The old adage “what gets measured gets managed” is no joke. If we’re serious about representation and inclusion being our first priority, we have to measure where we are, both at the brigade level and the project level. We need to know what our impact on people is now, what we want it to be (specifically), and whether we’re moving toward or away from those goals.
Lack of specific goal-setting, impact measurement, and reporting out hurts our volunteers, too. It’s frustrating to not be able to draw a direct (or even indirect) line between our labor and its outcomes in the real world. Perhaps most critically, it creates accountability. It allows all of us—brigade volunteers, partners, and the public at large—to know if our work is actually delivering on our mission and if we’re being good stewards of our resources.
It’s astonishing to me that in the several years I’ve been an OpenOakland member, projects have had no reporting requirements beyond participating in a monthly Demo Night. And until recently, projects actually had no requirements around goal-setting at all. This leads to projects forging ahead without ever really reflecting on the actual real-world impact of the work being done. We started to shift this expectation with the introduction of the Project Exploration Worksheet late last year. The worksheet is a hard requirement for all incoming (and existing, at the time) projects. It’s designed to help teams consider project outcomes and impacts from the very beginning, before anything has even been designed.
But then what? What about the rest of a project’s life cycle? How can we justify asking volunteers to contribute their labor if we can’t demonstrate the impact of their efforts? And how can we claim to be serving Oaklanders if we don’t have any evidence that we actually do so?
Putting it into action
It’s very easy to get caught up in a rabbit hole of metrics and end up spending more time measuring than actually doing. It’s also easy to measure the wrong things, focusing solely on distraction or vanity metrics. One approach to mitigate this risk is to use a results-based accountability approach. Oakland’s Department of Race & Equity trains city staff on this method as a way of tying program and policy to population-level outcomes. We start by defining outcomes and work backwards to identify the appropriate indicators of success and metrics.
- Define clear, measurable goals and outcomes for the brigade, and identify their specific indicators of success. This is directly tied to Strategy, so likely deserves extra weight.
- Develop realistic and focused measurement and reporting requirements for project teams, including the Steering Committee as a body.
- Provide tools and training to volunteers so they can measure success accurately and appropriately. This ties into the Operations priority area and probably should be elevated as well.
It’s easy to limit our understanding of operations to just the logistics of keeping the brigade running: weekly meetings, account management, volunteer recruiting and onboarding, etc. And that’s a lot, in and of itself. But there’s another side of operations: the structure and systems that shape a project team’s output. There seems to have been a prevailing sentiment among leadership over the years that too much structure and process for our project teams is stifling and exclusionary. And that can be true. But so can the corollary: too little structure and process means anything goes, which can lead to unintended consequences and little accountability for experiments that go sideways. When we talk about operations as a priority, therefore, I think we mean creating just enough process and infrastructure to keep project work aligned with the brigade’s mission and allow teams to be productive and effective in their work.
Putting it into action
- Capture institutional knowledge in one place so volunteers have the context, support, and frameworks they need to be successful.
- Define the project life cycle, including major phases and milestones, and required and recommended activities. This structure needs to balance flexibility and autonomy for volunteer teams with accountability to the public, and need to be accompanied by supportive resources that make the work both manageable and fun. We have an opportunity to help Oaklanders understand and define what equitable tech can look like in our city.
- Develop a set of off-the-shelf components that projects and teams can easily integrate into their work, so we’re not constantly reinventing the wheel.
One of the most challenging things I’ve faced as a co-lead is the lack of a long-term strategy for the brigade. This makes decision-making really difficult at almost every level. Lacking a strategy that outlines what we’re actually working toward and how we intend to do that work has resulted in decisions being made in a vacuum, without context or guidance or cohesion.
Putting some foundational strategy in place will help us know what we should—and shouldn’t be—working on. And it will encourage accountability by making our commitments more clear.
Putting it into action
- Define who we serve more specifically.
- Develop a project portfolio strategy or selection framework to help us focus our efforts.
- Continue the work to clarify OpenOakland’s theory of change, including defining who we serve, the kind of work we do, and what we don’t do.
Priority: Member cultivation and culture
This year has been hard on our membership numbers. But it seems (based on scattered data) that we’ve seen a steady decline in volunteers for years. Much of this is attributable to the many challenges found in the feedback described throughout this post. Without structure, intention and the accountability that leads to action, we cannot sustain a healthy community. And then there’s the pandemic. People are exhausted and burnt out on being online. As a brigade, we’ve all been so consumed by keeping up that it’s been tough to address all of these challenges creatively. They are, honestly, overwhelming.
Yet when asked why they keep coming back week after week, members consistently say it’s because of the people. So why don’t we take better care of each other and of ourselves? If we’re going to show up and take up space together, shouldn’t we make sure we’re making that space as welcoming and enjoyable as possible? Many of the action items listed here come from what members have said is missing.
Putting it into action
- Define what a member actually is, so people understand the expectations and know where they fit in. This also aids impact measurement.
- Surface our values and Code of Conduct in our day-to-day activities to encourage us to live up to them and pass them on.
- Provide clearer processes and actual skills training for managing conflicting points of view and problematic behavior. Create member learning, skill sharing, and relationship-building opportunities.
- Define and implement onboarding improvements to support skill matching and build more meaningful relationships.
- Redefine brigade roles into more manageable expectations. This could easily be listed under Strategy and Mission but it’s here under Member Cultivation as a way of calling out that the leadership structure directly impacts our ability (or inability) to cultivate a clear, accessible, and manageable path to leadership.
Getting it all done
These priority areas require more than just a commitment. They require culture change. And much of the work will require real structural change, too. This is a lot for a volunteer team to tackle effectively. I often wonder if it’s even feasible. The only way we’re going to be able to make any progress is to be strategic and deliberate about our approach:
- Prioritize the actions based on degree of impact and level of effort.
- Break down these priority actions into smaller pieces.
- Distribute the labor beyond just a small group of members.
But we also need to be realistic about what we can actually accomplish, and in what kind of timeframe. Honestly, we may not even need to accomplish it all. But if we’re thoughtful enough about it, we can rebuild OpenOakland in the image we believe in.
Tell us what you think
In an upcoming post, I’ll share more about the progress we’ve made in the different priority areas and the work yet to come.