How about a little democracy for your virtual organization




What follows is the text from an unfunded NSF proposal in 2008

We had offered to assemble a knowledge resource for NSF-funded virtual organizations to create governance systems that were “open, trustworthy, generative, and courageous” (taking the lead here from Maddie Grant and Jamie Nodder’s book: Humanize). The idea was to raise the level of knowledge and awareness of NSF program managers and funded PIs to the challenges and rewards of creating actual democratic governance when they build a community-led, volunteer-run virtual science organization. The operant word above is: “unfunded.” From recent events it looks like the NSF still could use a broader purview of the role of governance in its funded networks.

New Knowledge is Essential to guide Governance Plan Decisions for future CI Projects

Building the cyber-social-structure that supports cyberinfrastructure projects is equally important as building the information technologies. While critical-path project management might be sufficient to get the code done, it takes community engagement to get that code used. Every project that uses “community-based” research or promises to “serve a user community” needs to consider the issue of project governance outside of critical-path task management. However, a search for the term “governance plan” on the NSF website (January 5, 2008) shows that only five program RPFs (ITEST, PFC, MSP, CREST, and RDE) have ever asked for a plan for project governance. Even in these cases, governance was associated with task management, rather than community engagement/building. Other large scale NSF CI projects such as the DLESE digital library effort, which were/are centered on community-based content development, have had no requirement (nor guidance) on matters of community-based governance. The simple fact is this: the knowledge that would enable the NSF to give guidance to CI/VO projects about community governance planning and execution does not today exist.

Today, there is no place where NSF Program Managers or project PIs can go to gather the knowledge required to make an informed decision on a community based/led governance plan for a proposed project. The literature on VO project/task management and communication has grown considerably of late (See: Jarvenpaa and Leidner (1999), Monge and Desanctis (1998)). However, the role of community participation in decision making for VOs is mostly undertheorized and poorly understood. The Virtual Democracy Project will produce useable knowledge that the NSF and project PIs can use to make concrete decisions on the issue of community-based governance.

Dialogic Democracy in the Virtual Public Sphere

The Virtual Democracy Project centers its work on a novel extension of the theory and practice of “dialogic democracy,” as this occurs within virtual organizations (VO). This term was coined by Anthony Giddens, who wrote in 1994, “…it is the aspect of being open to deliberation, rather than where it occurs, which is most important. This is why I speak of democratization as the (actual and potential) extension of dialogic democracy—a situation where there is developed autonomy of communication, and where such communication forms a dialogue by means of which policies and activities are shaped.” The notion owes much to Habermas’s (1992) notion of the role of conversation in the public sphere (see also: Calhoun 1992).

Large-scale VOs (such as digital libraries and national collaboratories) are created outside of single institutions. They serve as bridges between communities and organizations. In order to be truly interdisciplinary (and/or inter-organizational, inter-agency, or international), they require an external position to their constituent groups. They become, in fact, “virtual public spheres” where discussions concerning the needs and goals of the VO must avoid collapsing into competing voices from within the various communities to which the members also belong (academic disciplines, universities, etc.). A VO of any scale engages this virtual public sphere whenever it proposes to use “community-based (or -led)” research or outreach.

Just as the Public Sphere opens up the space for dialogic democracy in the modern nation-state (Calhoun 1992), the virtual public sphere inside the VO opens up the dialogic space necessary for authentic community-based governance. How is this virtual public sphere created and sustained? How are practices within it enabled to shape policies and activities of the VO? How does this governance effort interact with the project management effort? These are questions that many VOs must face or ignore at their own risk.

Which form of governance is right for your CI effort?

A funded project’s policies and activities can be shaped and decisions made in many ways. When these are made through open communication among peers, a form of democracy is achievable. Conversations, commentaries, discussions, multiple opportunities for feedback into the decision process: practices such as these mark the emergence of a dialogic democracy within a VO. Fortunately for researchers, dialogic democracy is not a subtle, hidden practice. The implementation of community-led governance is a visible, recordable, completely reflexive event. This means that it’s absence is also markedly noticeable. Ask any member of a VO who makes the decisions for the project, and the answer will reveal the presence or absence, the strength or weakness, of dialogic democracy in that organization. Examples of strong and weak community governance in VOs are available for study.

Take, for example, two large, currently active VOs that have chosen completely different governance structures. The Federation of Earth Science Information Partners (ESIPFED) uses dialogic democracy as the basis of all of its workings. Its members spent three years creating the organization’s Constitution and Bylaws (ESIP Federation 2000). By contrast, the National Science Digital Library (NSDL), early in its founding period, chose not to embrace community-led governance, even though this was prominent in early discussions (NSDL 2001). How important is/was dialogic democracy to the work and the sustainability of VOs such as the ESIPFED and the NSDL? How much will this have an impact on future CI-funded VOs? How does the NSF manage funding when this also needs to be managed through community-based governance structures? As a part of the Virtual Democracy Project, PIs (past and present) from the ESIPFED and the NSDL will be surveyed about the role of dialogic democracy in these organizations.  The Virtual Democracy Project will be the first NSF funded effort to look at the value of and evaluate the practices and the return on investment of dialogic democracy practices (or their absence) in existing VOs.

Software/services with built-in democracy features

While many social networking and peer feedback software services appear to offer functionalities that can be used as-is within community-led governance efforts, democracy places its own requirements on the channels and administration of communication resources. In addition the need for active communication among peers there is a new need for appropriate monitoring of these channels to ensure that their use is transparent and sufficient to support minority voices and sustain a record for review and for possible redress.

The Virtual Democracy Project (VDP) provides paradigm-shifting research for both social-science and computer-science research approaches. The application of the public-sphere based dialogic democracy model to “virtual public spheres” within VOs represents a novel research perspective for CI governance issues. The software services that constitute the vehicles for peer interaction need to also be democratically available for members of VOs, just as the files and folders, the rooms and chambers: the venues that inform the councils of government need to be available for citizens.

Computer scientists on the VDP team will be evaluating available social networking and peer-evaluation services to devise ways for software/services to be open to community inspection. Other software issues include maintaining the privacy of online voting records while allowing for independent validation of results, and maintaining logs of more public member contributions for proper attribution and rewards.

Geography offers a particularly useful domain for VOs that include unstructured crowd-sourcing (such as Yahoo Maps, Wikimapia, and geo-tagging on Flickr). Thousands of strangers every day add nodes and layers to Internet maps that are openly shared. The role of community -building/-governance practices that would promote reliable management of these voluntary community contributions for scientific research offers a window into the very front end of Web 2.0 development.

New IT services are generally built according to the emerging needs of users. Through the proposed research, new user needs for IT in support of dialogic communication will certainly emerge. Because of the dual requirements of privacy and attribution, one can predict that these software services will require novel thinking about database structures and security. The need for non-technical persons to have confidence that information assembled by the VO to inform its decisions is accurate and reflects the contributions of its members requires the construction of new diagnostic tools that can monitor software services to look for evidence of tampering or rigging. A whole new set of questions and concerns will inform the next generation of IT based social networking services that will need to meet new standards for use within VO governance structures.

Meeting concerns for the future of an inclusive cyberinfrastructure

This research effort will have immediate benefits for the remainder of the CI effort, as its outcomes will lead to practical guidance about which forms of governance might best be applied to any proposed CI program/project. Where the proposed effort embraces community participation, the activity of governance for community-building can be better budgeted for time and labor and also timing. Democracy also takes time. A three-year project that starts community-building in year three will probably fail in this task. The larger question of how much should a government agency spend on community-building efforts for any project also needs to be addressed. Planners and program directors will be able to turn to the site for decision support.

Where issues of community participation and dialogic democracy really come to the fore is in practices designed to improve and reward the efforts of underrepresented communities and individuals within VO decision making. Assuming the goal is actual inclusion of a diverse range of voices and interests in the decision process, authentic (and authenticatable) democratic processes are an obvious need and solution. The Virtual Democracy Project will explore the use of dialogic democratic practices as a feature of building a more inclusive cyberinfrastructure.

A final note, however, is that democratic practices also can inform and potentially improve communication by building community (and so, trust and identification with project goals) within the core group of PIs and Co-PIs (Wiesenfeld, et al 1999). There are potential benefits to the core task management effort that need to be considered in any cost-benefit decision.

Photo Credit: Backbone Campaign (CC general 2.o)

Delivering the Goods of Democracy for your VO


One of the first conversations I have with people who have been tasked to build or manage a virtual organization centers on the cost/benefit issues of democratic governance. Given the usual shortage of funding and time, they have real concerns about the effort required to build a community-based governance system. These concerns are usually layered on top of the more general concern that the community (or rather, certain activists within the community) may use the governance system to push the organization’s goals toward their own interests.

Certainly, democratic governance increases the overhead (in terms of time and effort) spent on governance. Top-down decision making can be quite efficient up to the point where it tends to fail rather abruptly. Democratic governance is also more prone to being gamed by people with time and interest to do so. This is where the community comes in to play. When you build in enough democracy to give the community the opportunity to really govern, it will tend to resist the efforts of certain individuals to subvert this opportunity. This is one of the goods that democracy delivers to your VO. Continue reading “Delivering the Goods of Democracy for your VO”

Beware of Zombie Democracy in your VO


Some digital organizations want your enthusiasm, and will suck this dry with offers of representation and feedback. How do you know your interests are being represented when the social network (SN) or virtual organization (VO) sets up a feedback system? What if they create some kind of users committee? What if they ask you to vote? All of these look like democratic practices. But the real test comes when decisions are made. Remember that democracy is a form of governance. If your feedback form, vote, representative delegate has no authority within the governance system, it’s just a zombie practice. It looks vaguely like democracy from a distance.
Most VOs and SNs are RUN BY SOMEONE… someone with their own interests. Someone being paid to do so. And that someone is probably not you. If they conjure up some kind of democratic shell game, demand to know how decisions are being made and where the money goes. If they are honest and tell you they want your feedback because it’s valuable to them and it might help them serve you better–you know where you stand.

Photo Credit: Ateo Fiel on Flickr. used with CC atribution license

Virtual: Community, Democracy, Public Sphere


Building community is the central task for any virtual organization [VO] that a) needs to rely on an expert community to develop/deploy technology, or b) is looking to spread new technology among the wider (and thus more diverse) population. the cybersocialstructure effort is designed to bring together best theories and practices to help cyberinfrastructure [CI] projects know when, how, how much, and what kind of community building to pursue. Community is often the “undesignated” group that shows up in the proposal (or the RFP) as the larger target  developer or user cohort. But turning a cohort into a community, and a weak community into a strong community (when this is necessary) needs time, effort, budget, and skill.
There is no reason to build community for community’s sake. What your VO gets along with community is commitment, leadership, and communication. Volunteers can identify with the goals of the community and the other members of the group. Those with initiative can step up in the organization. Communication is member-to-member, peer-to-peer: with implied obligations to respond in timely fashion. Criticism is enabled and so is praise. Other management efforts become more effective and cost less (in effort and time).  This is fortunate because running the community is neither easy or inexpensive. At the end the total cost is likely to be the same, but the impact and broader outreach of a sustainable community of volunteers becomes another deliverable for the project.

Governing a virtual organization is  no less problematic than governing any large, non-virtual volunteer-led group. Subtending all of the project management tasks of any large VO is the need to build sufficient social networking and identity resources to feed  the amount of non-paid work (volunteer efforts) required to a) complete the actual project and b) sustain the community. Democracy, as this can be applied within virtual organizations, is one way a VO can create real communication among peers and real ownership by the community over the outcomes of the VO.
While community building is a more subtle social practice that happens as well (or better) in cafes and bars during meeting breaks than it does in plenary sessions, democracy is a noisy, visible practice that everyone in the organization does (to some extent) intentionally and explicitly. Democracy in a VO announces itself through public practices that involve all the members or their delegates. In part, democracy in a VO might resemble what you find in your nation-state: meetings, voting, constitutions and by-laws, and protests. The ability to voice disagreement is perhaps the most precious outcome of democracy in a VO: this is what will save the organization more often than any other management practice.
Democracy in a VO offers unique challenges and opportunities. Since the interactions are normally mediated and the records digital, democracy can become embedded into the digital communication services to where this becomes ubiquitous. By activating the voices of all of the community members, the VO energizes its community and can legitimately harvest real value from them in return.

Public Sphere:
With community as its destination, the virtual organization uses democracy as its vehicle and the virtual “public sphere” as its pathway to sustainability. The virtual public sphere (VPS) is made from the cyberarchitectural structures (the services and netware) that connect the peers, enable democratic participation, and assemble the means to build community.  The feedback forms on the website, an electronic voting service, chat, email, and WIKIs: all of these and more serve to connect volunteers into a peer network.
In any VO working in, through, or toward cyberinfrastructure (CI), a part of that infrastructure will be dedicated to the communication needs of the CI team effort. When these communication infrastructure services and nodes are also made available to support democratic community building, then they form the basis for a VPS.
In a democratic nation-state, the public sphere is the precious arena within which the discussions of its citizens are meant to inform public policy. The Public Sphere (capital “P”) is a space (discursively and mostly physically) distinct from that of religion, home, or the workplace. And the Public Sphere is the ongoing conversation that happens in this space. The strength or weakness of the space or the conversation in the space impacts the qualities of the available democracy in the nation-state.
In a democratic virtual organization, the public sphere is the space created by the cyberinfrastructure and the conversations enabled by the governance of the VO. Examining the “cyberarchitecture” allows us to predict how much democracy is available within the VO.

PHoto Credit: Timothy Vollmer

Community, Democracy, and IT work


ANOTHER FAMILIAR SCENARIO: Those of you from the IT world recognize this room: PPT up the old wazoo. But then it’s over and the work plans that have been listed on slide 17-23 (if not 117-123) are slated to become deliverables. The listserves get busy, the telecons are scheduled. Perhaps your IT group tracks tasks on BaseCamp and pings you whenever someone else has completed something. But if your not in the critical path, you might not know what others are doing and what your next step is. You might be able to volunteer a couple hours this week, but how do you know where these are best spent?

There might be a couple hundred people like you in the virtual organization (VO) that surrounds this particular project. Some were brought in to advise, others because of a current interest. At the core, decisions are being made and money spent. But the whole idea was that this was more than a distributed project among a small group of  paid Co-PIs. Most of the room was excited about helping move this forward, looking at the outcome as their payback. The workshop cost the government agency $100k to put on, and spent up three person-years in a week.  It had the carbon footprint of a small town.

The feeling of engagement that many participants experienced at the meeting lasted a few days. The funded Co-PIs went back to work. The larger VO languished as everyone else’s calendar’s filled up. Opportunities to pull in the talent and skills of the larger community passed by and dried up.

This doesn’t have to happen.

What is the answer?

One answer is, of course, cash. Spread the funding around and more people pay attention. But that is rarely possible. Another answer is community: grow it, use it, let it manage the work. And give it just enough funding to help people work together.

Be warned: when you let the VO community run the project you invite a range of voices into the room. You have to deal with competing interests and conflicting priorities. The good news is that these interests and priorities were there hidden (more or less) all the time in the VO, so dealing with them is something you can now do and move on. Otherwise you face these same issues when the project of over. To succeed, the VO community will need some form of internal governance. Since you are working with IT professionals, you’d better treat them like peers.

Your peer-based VO community will demand something that looks a lot like a democracy. Do not be afraid. You know that’s not how business gets done. At least you think you know that. In VO communities, democratic governance paves the way for volunteer participation, for leadership, for constructive criticism, and for active attention to the goals of the project. Try getting things done without it.

This is cyberSocialstructure: discussions about Virtual Democracy

Anti Iraq war demonstration
Anti Iraq war demonstration will be moving to a Drupal-based website later. In the meanwhile, the discussion about how much democracy is needing for your Virtual Organization (VO) can continue.

CyberSOCIALstructure is destined to be a space where many people add their voices to discussions about the role that social practices (and theories) play in creating and sustaining cyberinfrastructure and CI organizations.
CONTACT: Bruce Caron
New Media Research Institute, Santa Barbara, CA

CyberSOCIALstructure (CS) looks at the social issues implicit in cyberINFRAstructure (CI). This discussion reverses the usual conversation about the impacts of the Internet on global politics and eGovernment. Instead, CS looks at community and governance as necessary social aspects of building and sustaining VOs.