December 15, 2017

Reboot Reflects

7 Years of Controlled Chaos, Careful Iteration, and a Whole Lot of Learning

Reboot was founded on storytelling. First are the human stories, gathered through ethnographic research, which drive all our strategy, design, and implementation work. Finding, synthesizing, and elevating the voices of people who are usually unheard is how we counter the typical top-down, design-by-numbers approach to policy. Equally important are the stories from our work—both lessons learned from challenges, and case studies of success. We share these stories with other idealists and reformers to show that there is no one “best practice” or magic bullet; our work is a series of thoughtful experiments in response to a changing world. The way we tell our stories is part of how we change the hearts, minds, and long-entrenched processes of powerful institutions.

During this seasonal time of reflection, I’m excited to take a look back at Reboot’s seven-year history—and share our story in a new way. I’ve gone back through our work over the years, and gathered photos from projects that embody something essential about our years of growth as an organization. I’ve pulled these together in this “Reboot Album,” as a different way of looking at the lessons we’ve learned.

In our first year, we learned to channel our anger.

We started Reboot because we were angry at the great injustices and vast inequality in the world. We saw these injustices as systemic, and we believed that change required tipping the scales of power, so that ordinary people—and marginalized voices in particular—have a meaningful say in the processes that impact their lives. Through Reboot, we set out to work with leading public institutions (where power concentrates) to design policies and deliver services that are accountable to the people they serve.

During the momentous shifts of 2011 in the Middle East and North Africa, we recognized that the narratives emerging from mainstream and social media did not necessarily reflect the voices of ordinary people. We also knew that these narratives would shape international policy and investments in the region for years to come. And so we booked tickets to Egypt—on our own, with no real mandate—and documented the work of labor groups, lawyers, youth activists, and others that had long been working for change. We then brought our findings to international policymakers (who lacked on-the-ground reporting on which to base decisions). The World Bank was impressed: They asked us to do similar work in Tunisia, to inform their future support for good governance in the country. These early projects set a standard for our work that has stayed with us ever since: Surfacing the needs of the marginalized and integrating those into institutions with the resources to act.

In our second year, we experimented rapidly.

We had a bold vision for the world we wanted, but we also knew our limitations: We needed to work within the realities of the public sector. In our second year, we tested those boundaries in all directions. We worked with a broad range of partners, from multilaterals and INGOs, to private sector and Fortune 500 corporate social responsibility initiatives, to academia, local non-profits, grassroots organizers, and hackathon buddies. We also tested a range of working models, including fee-for-service, receiving grants, making grants, and pro-bono engagements. This year set a tone for how we would work for years to come: Stay curious and nimble, continuously experiment with possible paths to impact, refine our model and tactics accordingly.

We started working in Nigeria in 2011 and opened a second office in Abuja in 2012; of the many programs we’ve since delivered in the country, the Niger Delta Social Accountability program (with the World Bank, funded by DFID) was memorable because it was the first time we brought together so many diverse stakeholders—communities, activists, civil society groups, private media, governments, and donors—to co-design innovative solutions to longstanding challenges of corruption. Co-design is often misinterpreted as “put all the stakeholders together, and ask them to figure it out.” Over this two-year program, we learned the how-to’s of good co-design: grounding all conversations in a robust understanding of the political economy, structuring and sequencing activities to address power imbalances and to build trust, and developing solutions based on windows of political opportunity. These practices have been central to our approach ever since.

In our third year, we hit our stride.

Suddenly, we knew we were doing something right. We were not only getting opportunities to do bigger projects with greater impact, we were being invited to share and spread our methods across major institutions. For example, we published a Design Research Guide for media development practitioners, as part of a collaboration with Internews to help the organization evolve how it designs programs, starting in Pakistan. Similarly, our fiscal ethnography work in Nigeria—which challenged traditional ways of addressing corruption—influenced World Bank practice, opening new ways to address the mismanagement of public funds. Reviewers at the World Bank called our work a “breath of fresh air” and “one of the most impressive studies in recent years.” Another, a lead public sector specialist, recommended this work be used in future staff trainings.

Our theory of change has always relied on spreading our approaches. After two years of executing projects ourselves, we had an opportunity to train others in design methods when Internews partnered with us to improve information access in Pakistan’s conflict-torn tribal regions. We recruited an entirely local team of researchers and trained them to conduct design research, then worked hand-in-hand with them to surface unexpected findings that would drastically alter how practitioners approached interventions in the region. While the security situation required this approach, it’s one we’ve continued to use ever since: find passionate and committed local partners, empower them to do thoughtful work, then make sure their work reaches the right decision-makers.

In our fourth year, we invested in our team.

After three years of hard work (and too many seven-day workweeks to count), we saw that we needed to step back. We had just led a 10-organization consortium to implement the world’s first mobile voter registration and elections management platform in post-revolution Libya, and aspects of the project had taken a toll on us. Our work was not sustainable at the pace we’d set, and so we took a close, hard look at everything we were doing and why we were doing it. This was hard: Learning to slow down, when the challenges facing us seem so pressing, was really difficult. But we knew we had to manage our growth and invest in ourselves.

This was the year we built the internal policies, structures, and norms we now rely on to support our incredible team. We moved into a new office, upgraded our benefits, and matured our internal policies. We found ways to encourage work-life balance among staff, many of whom struggled to “turn away” from their projects. We also codified lessons we’d learned in our early years. We reflected upon what makes a successful Rebooter, and updated our recruitment practices accordingly. We articulated the factors that enabled satisfying projects, then refined our tools for identifying and assessing new opportunities. This meant we started saying “no” more frequently, and became very picky about the work we accept, focusing on those with the right conditions and counterparts for values-aligned, impactful work. This ethos has served us well into the present day.

In our fifth year, we found a voice.

I started this post talking about storytelling; in year five, our ability to communicate grew exponentially. Over five years, we had made a strong case for why public institutions needed to better hear their constituents, and we had a compelling body of evidence of the impact possible when they did. Beyond the what and the why, we now also had the how: We had proven approaches and tools, including MyVoice, our award-winning tool for using citizen feedback to improve public services. And we saw that we needed to double down on our advocacy and communication efforts, to make bigger change across the field. Without advocacy, we could only drive change on the projects we worked on; with advocacy, we could create ripples in the pond.

Over the years, we did more and more trainings and talks, and published more about our work. We’ve trained thousands of researchers, civil servants, activists, and others in more than 30 countries. We’ve taught at Harvard, Columbia, NYU, Parsons, and SVA, and spoken to changemakers at Code for All, PopTech, and Singularity University. Our work and ideas have been featured by the Aspen Institute, The Atlantic, Al Jazeera, Fast Company, Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Times, and the Stanford Social Innovation Review. In year five, we released our guide to delivering more participatory and accountable governance, “Implementing Innovation.” In the years since, and in our travels around the world, we’ve been delighted to find “Implementing Innovation” already printed out and in-use on the desks of many new partners.

In our sixth year, we staked out our territory.

By year six, we had an ample body of work, and saw that we had an opportunity to specialize—honing in on domains that were extremely influential on the social contract, and where we already had deep experience. And, of course, since we first set off, the world had changed—citizens now had more ways to organize around their interests, digital data had made it easier for governments to share information about their work and for others to analyze it, and the information landscape had evolved—and we recognized that to have greater impact, we needed to seize these new opportunities.

This year, we launched our three programs: We help realize responsive, accountable government, through “Reboot Governance,” so that public agencies make commitments that reflect what their constituents want and need. We support independent journalism, “Reboot Media,” to foster and support nuanced, informed public dialogue about those commitments, which helps ensure they are fulfilled. Through “Reboot Institutions,” we continue our entryist work within organizations committed to the public good, to develop creative and practical solutions—and the practices to support them—to deliver on those commitments.

In our seventh year, we worked deeper, broader, and smarter.

As we expanded last year, we grew at two levels: the local and the systemic. At the local level, we invested more in our domestic work; we have always done projects in the U.S., but in the political climate of 2017, we’ve been called to invest more in our home of New York City and around the country. In an era of post-trust politics, we are partnering with organizers and governments to solve problems using data and facts. We are strengthening protections for vulnerable populations, especially those affected by the criminal justice system.

To have more systemic impact, we recognized the need to build alliances and movements around the values we hold dear. We’d helped stand up a global initiative for civil society strengthening, and were excited about the systemic and ongoing impact being realized. And so we are helping build and strengthen a coalition of investigative journalists in West Africa, supported the global open contracting movement in mapping its forward path, and helped the Wikimedia movement define its 15-year vision for the world’s leading open knowledge platform. And while multi-stakeholder strategy and movement-building exercises can often be messy and abstract, we developed structured processes that grounded each in the tangible: the concrete needs of those that will be affected.

Open data has the potential to transform citizen-government interactions and ensure more accountable public institutions. To realize this potential, initiatives must be framed with political sensitivity; be grounded in citizens’ real needs and civil servants’ real constraints; and balance solving specific, hyperlocal needs with establishing connected infrastructure for broader impact. This year, in New York, New York, and Madison, Wisconsin, we’ve worked closely with city stakeholders—residents, neighborhood associations, technologists, businesspeople, civil servants, and others—to deliver on the promise of open data.

In the future, we will continue to invest in our allies—and broaden the circle.  

The current global trend of growing tribalism is fundamentally opposed to Reboot’s values. We believe that all people are interconnected, and humans hurt each other when we don’t understand each other. So change begins with empathy and self-awareness: We must understand those that are different from us, and take responsibility for how our own actions (or inactions)—as countries, communities, or individuals—contribute to others’ well-being or suffering.

To develop such understanding, we will continue to tell stories and ensure those stories inform change. This work is hard and slow, but Reboot is lucky to have allies who share our values. In the past year, 60% of our work was with repeat partners, and another 30% came through referrals. In a time when the world seems to be splintering, we are grateful for long-term relationships with those who share our commitment to bottom-up approaches to designing our future.

In the coming year, we are looking to expand our channels for storytelling. To counter insularity and fear, we need broader, cultural change. And so we will be looking for new ways to tell the stories of those among us that suffer most—as well as our complicity in perpetuating suffering and our possible roles in alleviating it. And we want to find new ways of mobilizing others, beyond our current allies, to join us. We’re just starting to explore ways of doing so; if you have ideas for us, we’re all ears.

From our family at Reboot, thank you for everything you’ve done to help realize a more inclusive, more just social contract this year. We’re looking forward to a brighter, more open 2018.
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