What Are You Doing?

Yesterday our metaphysical enquiries took us to the question of who you are. Today we stay in that general area with a high level “What Are You Doing?”

This should be an easy question to answer, but I’m surprised by how often it isn’t. I encounter this a lot when I review funding proposals: often they fall into something akin to the underpants trap.

Groups are often highly effective at describing a problem in their society that they hope to address ((often in way more detail than needed as if people are going to disagree that the highlighted issue is a Bad Thing)), but then they jump right into explaining the functionality of the website they’re going to build, skipping completely over the crucial middle step of how that’s going to help.

I used to think that it must just be self-evident to the groups how the site they’re describing will solve the problem, and that I’m just being incredibly dense by not be able to discern that part, but I’ve seen this enough times now, and had enough follow-up “clarifying” conversations to realise that a lot of times, groups simply have no idea what they want their site to actually do. They (usually) know what they want the end result to be in society, but not how their project will help get them there. In fact they often seem to not even realise that these are two different things — their goal is no more nuanced than “Solve this problem”. And thus we end up with lots of sites with nothing but a vague approach of “raising awareness”, and no way for anyone to actually get involved or help move in the required direction ((other that like-ing, retweet-ing, +1-ing etc which might help raise more awareness, but won’t get you any closer to your goal unless all these people can actually do something)).

This sort of website is fundamentally no different to handing out leaflets in the street — it may be slightly more efficient or cheaper or easier to reach a wider audience, but it doesn’t take advantage of any of the disruptive abilities of the web. It’s like a bookstore spending millions of dollars on online advertising to promote its mall store, as it has no online shopping facilities. And even most old-skool activist groups figured out a long time ago that leaflets are much more effective if they try to get someone to do something, rather than just educating people about a problem.

Now, lest you misunderstand my point here: I’m not talking about adding a highfalutin “Theory of Change” section to your proposal. I certainly think having such an idea is valuable ((and Aaron Schwartz does a great job contrasting change-driven approaches from action-driven ones)), but I’m talking about something much simpler — being able to explain clearly what someone using your site will be able to do there.

To take a common example, let’s say your area of interest is Freedom of Information in your country. Most countries have at least one NGO working in this area, monitoring how well government establishments are responding to information requests etc., and producing regular reports, full of complex tables and pretty bar charts. Then they decide to build a website. The default approach seems to be little more than taking the quarterly reports and put them online, maybe with a whole new educational section on how you can make your own requests.

WhatDoTheyKnow.com, on the other hand, has been hugely successful, and hugely disruptive, because it took an entirely different direction. The vast majority of people don’t care about Freedom of Information statistics — and that’s not simply because of the sorts of quantitative vs qualitative things us FOI nerds like to argue about, but because to most people, the only thing that really matters is whether they can successfully obtain information when they need to.

And it turns out that catering to those people — removing as many barriers as possible (both technical and psychological) and making it as simple as possible for them to make a request, and layering on some extra transparency-driven-embarrassment incentives for government officials to actually provide the information, or for other users of the site to help when they don’t — not only makes them happy, but can very quickly snowball into something which has huge impact on the entire culture of access to information across your country in the process.

The trap of “Something must be done. This is something. Therefore we must do it” is seductive, and as easy for activists and NGOs to fall into as it is for governments. So make sure you take the time to understand what your something is, and then spend even longer trying to make it a better thing.