Working to hold to account some of the wealthiest private companies the world has ever known is a classic David and Goliath situation. No single civil society organisation — or policymaker — can succeed alone, so collective action around common goals is needed.
However, collaboration is not a naturally occurring phenomenon. There are a number of reasons for this. Many organisations have had experiences where collaboration has been cumbersome, inconsequential or ineffective. Truthfully, there exist incentives for organisations that can sometimes work against collective action. This blog will get into some of these barriers to collaboration, and how those working at the intersection of democracy and tech can lower them and unlock collective power.
My wonderful colleague Nick Martlew has thought about it in this way: we can think about the infrastructure required to sustain collaborative work in terms of ‘hard’ infrastructure and ‘soft infrastructure’. The former can mean coordination and representation structures that can provide capacity building and common resources; while strong in the US, this type of coordination is patchy in continental Europe. ‘Soft’ infrastructure means connection, trust, and a common language around shared problem definition.
Both sets of infrastructure are needed to enable a vibrant civil society to engage in collaboration and should be underpinned by incentives — incentives created by civil society leaders and the funding ecosystem.
Strengthening our collective efforts
In the last quarter of last year (the year that shall remain nameless), as a toddler organisation, we at Digital Action sought out feedback on our convening work as well as the state of the sector from those with whom we’ve been lucky to work over the last few months. Spoiler: we were so humbled by what we heard, and the sheer volume of colleagues and organisations in the tech and democracy community who sat down to share feedback was remarkable (a response rate of 41%).
Barriers to collaboration: what we heard from you
In evaluating the responses, we were struck by the clear willingness to work together — the sector does see value in collective action; however it takes effort to be strategic, inclusive, and organised, with the necessary allies and resources. Many organisations and actors are faced with barriers which render collaboration ineffficient, slow and futile. Or in some cases, the outputs of collaboration don’t match the return on investment of time and energies, and therefore the desire to work with others dissipates.
Time and capacity restraints
Unsurprisingly, time and/or capacity constraints were cited as the biggest hurdles when we asked about barriers to collaboration. Naturally, access, abundance and equitable distribution of funds — especially flexible funds that can be used to support collaborations — are stretched.
Lack of consensus on policy, strategy or ideology
The most exciting coalitions transcend silos to bring people together. However, tactical, strategic, or ideological tensions arise — especially in what is a relatively new civil society space at the intersection of multiple issues: the ‘soft’ infrastructure of a common problem definition is still emerging. This may result in circling debates, or diluting of the impact to ‘lowest common denominator’.
In this sector where funding is a scarcity, this can be a significant factor in holding back collaboration. A couple of respondents spoke of turf wars within the field. Others highlighted that in order to stand out or prove value in these circumstances, the funding environment incentivises having a piece of work for which you can get full credit.
We must also consider that barriers to collaboration are higher for communities that are already marginalised so to truly and equitably strengthen collaboration, civil society needs to take and actively apply an intersectional lens. Conversation on tech policy, digital rights and how they interact with democracy do not exist in a vacuum. Research has shown that communities who are on the margins of society are disproportionately impacted by harms, and face a higher risk of an impaired democratic experience online. Applying an intersectional lens to how we approach making the tech and democracy ecosystem more equitable is vital, as explained by Nani Jansen Reventlow at Digital Freedom Fund.
How can we overcome these barriers:
Achieving meaningful change to act as a counterweight to powerful adtech platforms is an ambitious goal, but necessary. This could be achieved in two ways:
a) seeking to shift power to leaders, groups or communities that are otherwise marginalised in the debate. The great folks at The Engine Room have put forward practical solutions to ensuring the tech and democracy funding ecosystem is sustainable and equitable, which you can read more about here
b) Embrace the value of lived experience alongside learned experience, seeking a language that bridges the two rather than excludes either. Many learnings can be drawn from this report by Joe Mitchell on building collaborative efforts in the democracy sector.
In terms of overcoming barriers to collaboration, there are some ways in which we can help. To grease the wheels of collaboration and set them in motion to secure systems change, we take inspiration from Crisis Action’s Creative Coalitions handbook. Central to unlocking effective collective action are the following commitments:
- Building dynamic, ‘opt-in’ coalitions designed to maximise impact not minimise dissent. Given so many debates are still in flux, we do not seek universal agreement but a sufficient mix of collaborators with a shared vision of change. This leads us to the next point..
- Serving the cause, not the coalition: driving change for impact does not always equate to finding consensus among civil society, or sustaining a coalition for its own sake, but setting ambitions on the strategy which will achieve highest impact. We, therefore, do not seek to build one fixed coalition, but to support the right kind of collective action tailored for the opportunity and moment
- Centring the experiences of those who are marginalised by the current status quo and shifting power to them
- Working behind the scenes: at the service of the network and the wider community, we focus not on profile but on impact.
We would also like to help strengthen this community. At the intersection of so many shifting issues, the solutions developed this year may not match the problem definition of next. Disagreement is inevitable, so trust is vital. We hope that by working with allies to convene and bridge communities, we can help build that trust, build a common language, and sense of shared purpose. Being able to lean on that ‘soft’ infrastructure will make us all stronger. In our first two operational years, we have had some successes and invariably some missteps, but our eagerness to learn and grow is what drives us. Holding Big Tech to account is a mammoth task; it will take collaboration.
We hope this blog has helped identify some of the ways to make collective action more fruitful. More importantly, we hope it sparks your ideas, too: if you have ideas of how collaboration could be improved, or any feedback on this, please reach out to us.
Layla Wade was the Community and Campaign Engagement Lead at Digital Action.