The Power of Organizing and Networks in a Crisis (and Everyday)

April 1, 2020 | By Cori Zarek

About two weeks ago, as the realization of what COVID-19 might mean started to sink in, many of us instinctively checked in on our networks of family and friends. “Are you ok?” “Are you prepared to stay home for awhile?” “How about a Zoom catch-up?” “Do you have enough toilet paper?” 

The same was true for the network of civic-minded technologists we’re part of at the Beeck Center, only the calls were a bit different. Apart from checking on each other’s well-being (and toilet paper supply), our questions were more like this: “Are you ok?” “How bad is this going to be on our government systems?” And, perhaps most important, “What can we do?”

Most technologists in our network are not healthcare experts, epidemiologists, or otherwise qualified to opine on what front-line healthcare workers or average citizens should do to respond to COVID-19, but we are well equipped to understand the systems, websites, and people who keep our governments running and what they’re up against in a crisis like this. Many of us have spent time in government, navigating crises that strained or even shut down our websites and systems. We know the questions to ask, the decisions that need to be made, and where we can (and can’t) add value.

That’s why a handful of us formed U.S. Digital Response two weeks ago to support governments as they respond to COVID-19, to help them keep their websites and systems up and running so they can provide uninterrupted services like unemployment benefits, small business loans, or food stamps to people relying on government day in and day out. In just two weeks, 3,000 data scientists, engineers, human-centered designers and other tech leaders across the country have raised their hands to pitch in. 

Drawing on a trusted, well-networked coalition of organizations and individuals can set you up for greater success at any time, not just during a crisis. Over the past year at the Beeck Center, we have approached the public interest tech field as a coordinator and convener, bringing together data and digital leaders working in and around governments to collaborate on solving shared problems and scaling solutions back into the network in a project called the Digital Service Collaborative launched with The Rockefeller Foundation. Public interest technology projects — like many projects — draw partners who run fast at problems and work toward rapid solutions and, once solved, quickly turn to the next. This approach is understandable given government structures and the need to keep critical services running, but can inadvertently lead to problem solving in silos and doesn’t incentivize collaboration and information sharing. It can sometimes leave behind more vulnerable communities as well. 

At the Beeck Center, we are working to fill that gap in collaboration, information sharing, and trust building through all of our work. From streamlining the foster family licensing process to providing easier enrollment in safety net programs to standing up new user-focused service delivery teams, the projects we select and the networks we build around them intentionally identify government partners — both subject-matter experts and more traditional tech leaders — and bring together the organizations, researchers, and even companies working to advance the public interest aspects of the work. With a dedicated, action-oriented network around each project, we document what steps these leaders are taking, distill it into recommendations for them and other stakeholders, and cycle those learnings back throughout our networks for continued application and improvement.

Having this established model for organized strategy around networks is powerful in an ordinary setting to test ideas, advance strategies, and compare follow-through. It’s downright crucial when we need to rapidly organize around what’s working so we can share and scale solutions as quickly as possible when lives and livelihood are on the line.

U.S. Digital Response launched quickly by drawing on networks created through the Beeck Center and the longstanding efforts by other leaders in this field including Code for America’s 10 years of networked civic technologists in more than 80 brigades all across the country. Because our networks are organized around areas of expertise, region, government size or structure, and more, we could quickly scan across them to see what early lessons could be distilled and shared back with one another. And for networks such as these to work well together, we rely on some — often unspoken — shared principles and norms.

Put people first: In every problem to solve or issue to advance, people should be at the center and should be directly asked what they want and need and how a particular solution might impact them. Talk to people; put them first.

Scout, then scale: If you’re working on an important problem, chances are someone else is also working on it — or has already solved it. Before starting anything, look around, ask around, and understand who else is already on it. When you find them, consider joining forces or lifting up their work and moving on to something else altogether — there’s plenty else to do.

Work in the open: Only when your work can be easily found and accessed can it be useful to others. Using APIs (application programming interfaces) and sharing resources like software code as open source and information as open data allows others to find your work, adapt it for their own purposes, and improve upon it. 

Come for the work, not for the credit: Working in the public interest is about helping people. It’s about doing the work, or, if you can’t, then getting out of the way and supporting those who can. It’s not about thought leadership, getting credit, or anything other than helping people in need.

The Beeck Center’s mission of impact at scale underpins our efforts with U.S. Digital Response. Government organizations at all levels are under strain and will continue to be tested in the weeks and months ahead — and the same is true for friends and neighbors. We will need people openly sharing what is working and actively helping others to keep both our networks of family and friends and our government systems online and running.

Cori Zarek is the Director of Data + Digital at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University. She is a former Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer and worked in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from 2013-2017. Follow at @corizarek.