From bootstrappers to bureaucrats (#LocalGovCamp – oh my!)

I haven’t dug deeply for other bits of the story, but you’ll get a feel for what this is all about looking at posts from Dave Briggs and Sarah Lay. I used a rude word on Twitter about it and raised the hackles of the pious. What can I say? I can rarely resist a cheap shot but I hope the following adds a bit more to the debate.

Organising stuff with other people is hard. The internet makes it easier, but creates its own problems. People just won’t do what they’re told or think what we want them to think. Everyone wants a say and sometimes the noisiest ones can’t or won’t contribute in any other way. They won’t listen to our carefully crafted messages and they read all sorts of darkness into what we’ve written which says more about them than us.

Welcome to being human! We (all of us) try our best, we get booed, we go home and cry, we get up and try again. I hate this, and I’m trying to get better at dealing with it, but I don’t think there are other ways. We also (all of us) see other people doing things we don’t like, throw out some comment and get on with our lives, unaware of the turmoil we’ve created in someone else. I hate this too and I’m trying to get better at it, but I don’t think there’s another way.

Here’s a pattern: a bunch of people get together to make something happen. No money changes hands, everything’s done as a favour because we all want it to happen. We call in favours – burn our social capital because we know that by doing so we’re creating more. Costs are ruthlessly minimised – we get a venue for free in return for the venue owner being teased mercilessly but gratefully as a “sponsor” and “corporate stooge”, someone who’s had a good run recently might pay for the coffee and biscuits, or else we break down the costs into tiny bits between loads of sponsors so that nobody feels like they’ve paid so much that they need to get their money’s worth. The event’s a great laugh – everyone turns up early to set things up, we all muck in with everything – if anything there are too many people chasing too few little jobs to do. We have some really interesting discussions, demonstrations, questions asked, a little bit of shouting and then we’re all tidying up, leaving the place better than how we found it, maintaining good relations with the folk who gave it for free. We’re all in it together, boundaries melt away. Viva la revolution!

It’s so good that everyone wants to do it again. Seriously, this is amazing – we are so starved of this kind of interaction, the conversation, the common cause, the burdens shared. So, who’s up for organising the next one? Everyone! Yay! Here we go again. And then the discussions start: “You know, last time was great, but I felt… XXXX so maybe this time we should YYYY”, and so on. Before long, we’ve got a list of things we want to do differently next time – one meeting later that has become a list of things we *have* to do differently next time. Still it all goes beautifully again, although some of the things on our list did push the costs up, we found sponsors who wanted to be associated with this cool thing we’re doing to be very happy to pay up. This venue even has its own cleaners, so we don’t need to clear up after ourselves, we can just get down the pub to carry on talking. Oh and we really need to keep doing this – it’s great.

Next time it’s starts to get even harder – some of the complications we introduced last time have become this time’s problems to be solved. Other complications are now hard and fast rules – “the way we do things around here”. We have more potential sponsors than we know what to do with. Since we’ve got the sponsorship money we ought to spend it. And if people are sponsoring, surely it’s fair that they get more out of it than being teased by whoever’s introducing the day. If everyone can and should pitch something, surely that goes for sponsors too, as long as they don’t get too salesman-y. Meanwhile tensions are arising: “We’re getting a bit clique-y, we’ve had some of the same people every time and I’ve seen them at other events. We need new blood to keep the conversations and thinking fresh.”, “All these freelancers keep coming and they get work out of it, have you seen some of their day-rates??”, “I’d love to take part in the organisation, but I can’t afford to – it’s OK for people with jobs who convince their managers that it’s a development opportunity for them – and have you seen some of their salaries and bonuses??”, “Last time, I couldn’t get away from people trying to sell me stuff.”, “Last time, I couldn’t get away from people trying to pick my brains for free.”

All valid, all actual things I’ve heard people say. I’m not saying that everything I’ve said applies to #localgovcamp just that the dynamics follow a pattern that I’ve observed in many self-organising groups. Over time the “organisers” tend to be people who’s time is paid for one way or another, most of those people in public services tend to be working in a corporatised environment and are steeped in the ways of doing things by management rather than participation. The bootstrappers drift away. Again, not pointing fingers, just noting a pattern.

So what do you do? How do we stop that happening? I don’t think we can stop it, but we can be ready for these issues to come up and deal with them as they arise. We need to let go of our bureaucratic sides and embrace the bootstrappers we started out as. Here are a few thoughts and suggestions:

  • Keep it simple. No… simpler than that. No, really, ask yourself if this extra thing you’re bolting onto “a bunch of people getting together to organise their own conference” is really, vitally needed or is just making things easier for you, today, two months before the event. Disruption’s great, but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

  • Don’t do anything that reduces diversity of thought. Diversity isn’t just the tick-box externalities kind – you might occasionally get diverse thinking from middle-aged white men (assuming they’re not snoozing) – but also invite more people from diverse backgrounds, encourage them to come along and if you notice that the same old white blokes are dominating in the room, deal with it there and then. I know that’s harder to implement than setting up a quota or making the people you think have money pay to come but I don’t think either of those is going to solve it.

  • Be especially careful when you’re taking on something that others have left fallow. Work harder than ever to include members of the original community and try to understand the many reasons why interest waned or else change the name and be clear that you’re doing something completely different.

  • Make decisions in public – use a wiki or some other collaboration tool to document the who, what, when and why of decision-making. Publicise the hell out of this, encourage participation in every stage of the process. And don’t let that mean that you wrap up everything in weasel words like most business or council minute-taking – use the tools we’ve got to get people involved.

  • Lighten up, baby! 🙂 Man! I’m definitely not worth getting your knickers in a twist about and neither are “they”.