It started as an experiment: thoughts from Digital Action’s departing deputy

By Nick Martlew

I was a naive prairie lawyer-character, asking questions, harbouring instincts, but uncertain. Very uncertain. I was venturing into unfamiliar territory, my only offering being the experience I had distilled in a handbook about how to convene civil society actors strategically and impactfully.

Thankfully, I had a fantastic partner: I was to be Liz Carolan’s right hand man as we set about to test an idea. There was a model of strategic convening that Crisis Action had pioneered in the space of protection of civilians from armed conflict, and that I’d written about in the Creative Coalitions handbook during my four years as UK Director there.

Could that model catalyse greater impact in a new issue area: where Big Tech companies,with staggering power and little accountability, are reshaping the way democracies work, creating an online democratic experience that is toxic and unreliable, inflaming divisions and intensifying inequalities?

Two and a half years later, as I leave Digital Action (to be 5Rights Foundation’s first executive director), I paused to write down my response to that question. And, having written down my thoughts about collaboration and conveners, I thought I’d share them.

When standing out trumps standing together

The problem that we were seeking to address is that impactful, inclusive collaboration isn’t a naturally-occurring phenomenon in civil society. In fact, incentives and habits often run counter to collaboration.

Crisis Action has helped to address this problem by being a behind-the-scenes strategic convenor, not pushing its own policy or profile. They have shown — and they continue to show — the value of this approach, unlocking collaborative, impactful campaigns that saved lives and protected the dignity of people in Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, Afghanistan, and beyond.

Learning from Crisis Action, Digital Action has convened with purpose, but without co-opting. What do I mean by that? Core to the idea is the fact that complex problems can’t be solved by organisations or individuals acting alone. Simply bringing people together, without purpose and forward direction, though, can lead to agreement to the lowest common denominator, which is not sufficient to achieve transformative change.

On the other hand, if we convene with the intent of having everyone agree to the idea we’ve already cooked up — that’s co-option, that’s damaging for trust, it weakens impact, and it is too common in civil society.

So to avoid co-opting or plunging to the lowest common denominator, we do what the great Nicola Reindorp coined at Crisis Action: we listen and lead.

We approach collective action knowing that we have to make the most of the talents we’re bringing together. Otherwise we let the cause down. We have to listen to potential collaborators and bring them together in such a way that they will not be co-opted but will be able to build something more powerful than they would without our support.

A snippet from the Creative Coalitions handbook

The Digital Action experiment

Could this model of a behind-the-scenes strategic convenor help civil society to hold Big Tech to account? The shorter answer is: yes, sort of.

It’s not been a smooth road: we’ve made missteps, and most of Digital Action’s existence so far has been through a pandemic that has (along with other, much more severe consequences) made convening and trust-building that much slower and harder.

But looking back, I’m confident that there is a strong role in the digital issue space for this kind of low profile strategic convenor. The team has demonstrated it with campaigns like Who Writes the Rules and 96percent. From my experience, the model has taken shape and shown value in work around the UK and EU’s digital agendas.

With the Digital Action team, I listened to partners, convened and connected them, and led and catalysed new collaborative actions — policy development, advocacy, media, online campaigns — between disparate organisations. Some of these groups were previously unconnected and they now form cohesive communities and campaigns, acting together without sacrificing ambition. On the European front, with some great allies (more on some particular superstars below), we built from a very limited number of trusting European connections to being the hub for the People vs Big Tech movement, now 100+ organisations strong and beginning to shape the narrative in Brussels.

The ifs and buts

So why ‘sort of’: what’s the caveat in the application of the Creative Coalitions model to the democracy and technology space? The model is a guide, not a blueprint, and we adapted it to the different issue area, which was itself still in flux.

In the space of protection of civilians, Crisis Action is a neutral convenor, working with national partners and a relatively well-established cohort of international campaigning organisations, including Oxfam, Save the Children, Amnesty, and Human Rights Watch, to ensure respect for established rules: international humanitarian and human rights law.

For Digital Action, the context is different: the rules for how Big Tech should (or should not) operate are still being formed, there are multiple moral principles at stake and they are often in tension, and the range of organisations seeking to shape those rules and trade-offs continues to change and grow, each with a different — or still-emerging — view on what the rules should be.

As a result, there is no ‘neutral’ in this fluid space, and so no neutral convenor. To coordinate is to pick one possible solution to the policy trade-offs over others. If there’s a perception of picking sides in a complex, shifting context, then we have to build trust in other ways than claiming ‘neutrality.’

Trust, transparency, and allies

My lesson from this is that new strategic convenors like Crisis- or Digital Action (or our cousin Climate Catalyst) can and should be created, but they should give particular attention to:

  • Communication: people understandably asked us, what is guiding your decisions, how do you work, what value are you adding? Initially, at least, we didn’t always know the answer, and when we did we weren’t great at communicating it. The more open we became, even about our uncertainty, the more trust we built, and so the more effective we became.
  • Context: the greater the fluidity in the normative framework and/or the membership of the ecosystem, the more flexible the convenor needs to be, not fixing a goal or approach from day one, but iterating, experimenting, learning.
  • Time: you can’t simply tell new partners that you won’t co-opt their work or that you’ll add value. Some people just didn’t believe us. We had to demonstrate it to earn trust. This takes time and — again — experimentation in action.
  • Allies: people who see your added value and are willing to work with you in the early stages when you’re still finding your feet, still finding or demonstrating your value. In our case, allies included people we’d worked with before, or who had worked with Crisis Action so new the model, or were simply natural collaborators who see the value of a strategic convenor.

On that point, I want to thank some of our early allies — people like Antonia Staats, Chloe Colliver, Eric Kind, Maeve Walsh, Ruth-Marie Henckes, and Tanya O’Carroll , and the past and present Crisis Action team. You made all Digital Action’s collaborations possible. And so made possible all the impactful collaborations that Digital Action, and its fantastic team, will go on to achieve.

Onwards!

Digital Action exists to strengthen democratic rights in a digital age, by building coalitions capable of revealing & addressing digital threats to democracy