Designing programming that encourages communication and cooperation between individuals and organizations that have experienced only occasional successes building bridges is a task that requires close attention to what does and does not work.  They say, “Nothing succeeds like success.”  One could also say, “Relationships encourage relationships.”  Noting what stops relationships from naturally occurring offers guidance on how to build a web application designed to make bonds that are relatively easy to achieve and maintain.

For about a year in 2005 and the beginning of 2006, I was part of a pilot program Moveon was experimenting with.  At the beginning of 2005, Moveon initiated a string of monthly actions.  Starting as a team leader of about 50 activists in central Evanston, I got promoted to volunteer regional coordinator and then volunteer national coordinator.  There were three of us national coordinators along with our Moveon staffer contact.  Geof worked out of Denver.  Mary worked from Pennsylvania.  Our Moveon contact was in Chicago.

The organizational structure changed every couple months as Moveon experimented with a system that was both efficient and affordable.  By winter, Geof, Mary and I were matched up against a hierarchy of paid regional coordinators and paid national coordinators managing a different selection of states.  Moveon proceeded to run monthly national actions with hundreds of local events tied to the actions while evaluating the relative effectiveness of the two coordinator systems.  Moveon wanted to know what gets the most people out, how fast can a new staffer be brought up to speed, how responsive volunteer coordinators are to different kinds of actions and what works best to create powerful actions that draw in citizen participation and compel the media to respond.

I was fascinated.  One of my favorite childhood memories was being six years old and sitting in the kitchen of a Henry’s Restaurant.  Henry’s was an early competitor to McDonalds, almost identical in menu and restaurant design.  This Henry’s was owned by my Mom’s Uncle Bill.  I got to watch the burgers being made while sitting on the counter by the fryer.  Pointing to the exact burger I wanted to eat, I had it handed to me by Uncle Bill.  I felt super lucky to be allowed into the kitchen.  I was even permitted to put a burger on the grill.  At the time, there were about a half dozen McDonald’s and a bunch of Henry’s.  Passionate about burgers, I felt like I was sitting in the hub of the known universe.

Watching closely what was working and where things seemed to go awry while I was working with Moveon felt like burger heaven.  I wanted to be closer to the heat.  Observing how and where problems were arising, I sought to share that information and to see how things could be even more efficient.  Surveying the effects of the changes that were being made, I saw ideas for complementary, alternative organizational systems.

Moveon at that time had seven hierarchical levels.  Information passed fairly efficiently up and down the hierarchy during action implementation until hitting level 5, where information stalled while moving up.  There was an impasse when seeking direct access to the central staff.  Information had other ways of reaching central.  There was polling, an online survey system and emails.  Moveon activists, team leaders, regional coordinators, national coordinators and the staff intermediary all responded to the decisions by the staff.  The central staff received little or no direct contact with activists, team leaders, regional or national coordinators.

The presence of multi-level hierarchy and a lack of transparency or access to information on the decision-making processes used by the central staff were not providing a feeling of empowerment to many activists involved with executing actions.  I kept asking myself, how best can individuals be offered the ability to create actions and watch them flourish?  What is the best way that those creating actions can be in direct contact with those executing the actions?  How can we eliminate hierarchical levels, enhance communication and empower the individual?  How can a local idea spread from state to state?

How, using the thousands of established peace, justice and environmental organizations, can a web application be developed that would offer the members of those organizations an experience of empowerment that comes with creating an action, and then watching change being made?

What’s the best way of opening up the kitchen and efficiently preparing fast, healthy food using unique recipes while responding to the weather of the day?  How do you turn Moveon into a moveable feast where anyone can play?


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