An internship during Covid

Digital Action’s first intern Stuart Bridgett shares his experience, and thoughts on what Digital Action is, what it does, and how their inaugural intern filled their time over the last 7 months.

For most of this time I was working from my home because of Covid-19 restrictions (an interned intern), and so I’d highly recommend Digital Action to prospective applicants who might be concerned about the remote working aspect of the role.

Digital Action — what’s it like?

Digital Action is an organisation which brings together the people and ideas that will reform and rebuild our democracies for the digital age. Drawing heavily from the creative coalitions handbook, Digital Action builds power around bold ideas which cut to the heart of decision making. These taglines can seem abstract and removed from the day-to-day operation of any organisation, but Digital Action’s ambitious, impact-orientated, and collective pathway to change has gripped my attention and inspired me from the first day of my internship in March 2020.

The devotion of the team to this “leave your ego at the door and focus on making an impact” theory of change not only determines the direction of the organisation’s efforts, but is woven throughout the entire workplace culture. I can honestly say I’ve never worked with a more trusting and supportive team of people than the team at Digital Action. I’ve been enabled and encouraged to take the lead in contributing to the team’s efforts, not just responding to delegation, and to pursue activities that support my professional development.

So what did you actually do?

I’m lucky to have been involved in so many exciting projects at such a tumultuous time. Within two weeks of joining Digital Action, I joined a virtual convening of organisations to discuss the European Union’s upcoming Digital Services Act, co-convened by Digital Action and European Partnership for Democracy. With 20 participants representing a diverse range of civil society, I saw how enthusiastic participants and well organised, impact-driven convening could melt away the barriers to collaboration and unlock civil society’s ambition and potential. In true collaborative spirit, the lessons from hosting a virtual convening were shared publicly to help civil society adjust to the new ways of working under Covid-19. You can read these lessons here.

Taking the lessons from that early dive into Digital Action’s work, I’ve been involved in numerous coalitions and projects. These include a project relating to the privacy and human rights considerations of Covid-19 contact-tracing technology in Ireland and one relating to algorithm inspection and accountability legislation in the EU’s Digital Services Act. Throughout these and other projects, I found myself liaising with senior figures across civil society, academia and policy making, helping to facilitate a greater level of joint ambition.

Daily tasks vary, making it hard to get a solid grasp on the role at first. Without a set rulebook to follow you have to put your best foot forward and take a best effort approach, while honestly appraising and critiquing your own work. These tasks could be anything such as familiarising myself with partners’ position papers, following political developments relevant to our field, making introductions with new organisations, helping with organisational tasks like donor reporting and recruitment, and a lot of campaign strategizing. It’s important to remember that the team here has immense trust in each other’s capabilities and they genuinely want you to be creative and take lead of your responsibilities; not just follow a strict template.

The intersection of technology and democracy at which Digital Action operates is extremely topical and rapidly developing. Keeping on top of publications from civil society and researchers, developments within the technology sector, and political developments across the UK and EU is a core part of my role and a valuable contribution to the team. This part of the internship is absolutely fascinating and also valuable experience for a wide range of career choices.

Did anything stick?

Over nearly 7 months at Digital Action, I’ve learned so much about the precipitous health of our democracies and the nuances of the technologies which threaten them. For such a rapidly shifting field, I have to commend the incredible work of so many organisations and researchers who are digging right to the heart of the issues and doing their utmost to raise the alarm to policy makers and the public. My few months at Digital Action so far have given me the tools to understand the intersection of democracy and technology through so many lenses. My understanding of our societies and my personal relationship with democracy has permanently changed (for the better!). I’ve learned a tonne about who has power in our democracies, how change really happens, and how organisations like Digital Action can facilitate this change by lending power to some and borrowing it from others.

Professionally, I’ve learned far more than I could have expected in skillsets I didn’t realise existed. Gaining an understanding of coalition dynamics, convening, and impact-orientated campaign strategizing is invaluable. The confident application of these skills in any role would help one stand out from the crowd, particularly campaigning or advocacy roles. Getting into the nitty-gritty, intricate details of legislative processes and civil society across the UK and EU is also a skill and knowledge base that’ll stand to me for a long time. Luckily for interns, Digital Action is big on learning. I was really encouraged to dedicate time to participate in online training, attend webinars, read training manuals and guides, and generally pursue what I needed to to get the most from this role.

It’s hard to learn without being challenged, and the elephant in the room of challenge is the covid-19 pandemic. In the second week of my internship the lockdown here initiated and my role became a remote one. Due to an already geographically disperse team, Digital Action was well placed to handle this transition and senior management was generous in ensuring we had everything we needed to work remotely. Despite these advantages, transitioning to a “work-from-home” role for a junior position is difficult. It requires one to build personalised systems of accountability, prioritisation, and productivity that are implicitly present in an office environment. You need to be more proactive in your communication with the team, making it known you’re available for more responsibility, or that you need more explicit guidance on new tasks. It’s hard to chase more senior teammates on feedback or guidance, but in a remote role it needs to be done (and the truth is they’re happy to see you being proactive!). We’re all feeling the difficulty in not being able to quickly lean over a desk and raise these issues with colleagues; instead having to organise more deliberate and less personable Zoom calls. I’m grateful that when this challenge came I was in a team that was flexible, supportive, patient and explicitly proactive in helping us build these new ways of working.

What I didn’t expect is how strong an impression the creative coalition inspired model of change made on me. I’ve really been inspired by Digital Action, not just what is does but how it does it. I’m 100% certain I’ll carry these lessons for the rest of my career.

Would I recommend Digital Action?

If you care about democracy, then absolutely yes! Digital Action comes at technology in a democracy-first approach, and is a great way to step into the confusing and nebulous intersection of technology and society. Importantly, it’s an incredible team of amazingly accomplished people who could not be more generous with their time and expertise. This generosity, their kindness and their abundant humour ensured that even working remotely I felt like an intrinsic part of the team.

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