Sketches for a democracy network hub

Sketches for a thing that supports networking in the democracy space. From MVP to basic, better and best models. Plus pricing, hosting and governance.

Previously, on worrying-about-democracy:

  • Our democracy needs some work;
  • Perhaps the cheapest and quickest first step is to better connect everyone who’s already working on democracy, share info, coordinate and collaborate;
  • That seems to be popular — there are lots of ideas for how this could work and what people would want from such a network; and,
  • The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust are up for funding some of the effort needed to make this happen.

So what does that effort look like?

I’ve made a to-do list, based on the Networking for Democracy report and from further chats across the space over the last six months.

It’s a long to-do list — it seems unlikely that funding exists for something to do it all. So I’ve broken it up into stages that would build on each other.

  1. Minimum viable network-support: Democracy Handbook. An online document, co-created by the sector to form a living directory of organisations, funders, projects, events, comms channels and so on. Can form a platform for self-organising. Work on a handbook using a Google Docs-like platform, but with additional videocall functionality, has already started — more soon. The work here is to maintain, update, check user needs, facilitate meetings hosted on the platform, etc.
  2. Basic Network Hub. Manages the handbook, plus: runs an email discussion list; arranges, hosts and facilitates meetings and workshops; proactively makes connections; helps kick off sector-wide public comms work; and identifies and convenes the convenors.
  3. Better Network Hub. Does all the above, plus: allows some capacity for rapid response organising to new opportunities or threats; user research on fiscal sponsorship, incubation, coaching roles; advocacy towards funders shifting models to core/longer-term; research, workshops and one-to-ones towards development of sector-wide policy platform; liaises with political parties; connects organisations and assists with joint funding bids; trials action learning groups across sector.
  4. Best Network Hub. All of the above, plus organise and host a democracy festival; run sectoral audit of strengths, weaknesses and identify gaps; regular horizon-scanning, research and briefings; research, facilitate development of shared vision for sector and develop metrics and long term evaluation; develop and assist adoption of sector-wide comms framing; audit needs for and manage provision of shared legal, operations, press, public affairs resource; organise management and oversight of shared public research programme (focus groups, polling); audit needs for and options for shared events and work spaces.

The list of tasks is broken down more fully in this spreadsheet. Please feel free to copy the sheet, play around with the figures and come up with your own estimates.

What would those cost?

My estimates are below, assuming that staff will be the large majority of the spend. And assuming that a FTE member of staff costs £50k, including wages, pension, NI, office space, training, travel and so on.

Obviously these are sketches: there are plenty of in-between or pick-and-mix options.

This work needs to be seen as a multi-year project… running at least through 2024… and ideally well beyond. (Having had excellent conversations this week about the 2029 general election…)

How to fund the thing

There’s likely to be a startup phase (perhaps 1-3 years), which will need to be mostly grant-funded. It might be worth attempting a crowdfunder among the sector too. JRRT suggest they will fund one FTE-staff plus some project costs, so additional philanthropic funding is likely to be needed through this phase.

Following the startup phase, perhaps after three years, the sector may need to fund the thing itself, in the main. This might look like a membership due, or fees from consultancy or research. Ideally topped up with philanthropic funding.

Who will do the work?

The JRRT call for proposals suggests the work could be done by a freelancer, hosted by an organisation or via some ‘hybrid model’. I think the work could also be done by a new organisation. 

My instinct is that the best option is for an existing organisation to host the work, but one that has some speciality in networking, capacity-building and working across a sector. It’s also important that the organisation has the right ‘culture’ which the network hub can adopt — open, sharing, trusting, professional, diverse. I’d posit that these might include organisations like Koreo, Global Dialogue or the Social Change Agency. (Other suggestions welcome!)

How will it be governed?

Ultimately the effort needs to prove itself to the sector, and the sector should somehow oversee it — another reason to move to a membership model in the long run.

Some thoughts on boosting transparency and accountability:

  • Staff should work openly, aim to co-create work — the sector has to want to contribute too.
  • Staff should hold regular open show-and-tell sessions and office hours.
  • Staff should conduct regular reviews of sector needs and how they are being met via one-to-ones and surveys. 
  • Staff will need guidance and advice, perhaps via an advisory board of: 
    • People who’ve run hubs before
    • People from outside democracy sector
    • Randomly selected folks from within the sector
  • Annual independent evaluation.

What next?

Feedback on these thoughts very welcome via this Google Doc, or I’m hosting on call on Thursday 28 Jan at 4pm, get in touch for Zoom details. (Edit: you missed the call, but the conversations continue online — Google Group here)

Forward! 🚀

P.S. A note on language: I think it’s wrong to talk about ‘creating a democracy network’. Networks already exist in the space. What we want to do is create a thing that supports better networking. It’s humbler too — the network(s) should outlive the thing! Suggested names for ‘thing‘ welcome.

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash