How to start working in the open

Some weeks ago I wrote about the beauty of the back of the government. If the government works openly, it would make everything so much better. Wanting to do that is one thing, but how do you start?

After I wrote that article I received a message from three ladies of the Municipality of Amsterdam who wanted to work on a project openly, but did not know how to start. Together we came up with a number of steps you can take to “open up”. In this blog I list them.

Step 1: Who’s on the other side?

You are not open by yourself. You’re open so that others can see you and come to you. So others understand you and can work with you. The first step to take is to figure out who these others are. Who do you want to work with? This can be your target group, but also employees of other organizations or critical citizens and entrepreneurs.

For example, this summer I worked on the Dutch covid-app, CoronaMelder. We worked in the open to involve different kind of groups:

  • Code, designs and research were published on Github and discussed in an open Slack community. In this community there were mainly critical programmers and designers. Some of them had access to our Figma design files so they could contribute their ideas.
  • In this public Slack community, there were also interest groups (for example privacy watchers) and journalists. They followed the project as well.
  • Citizens who might potentially use the app later on were invited to test the app from their homes or at the usability lab in Amsterdam. We let them use the app in early stages of the project and tested every iteration. We invited all kinds of citizens, people above 60, people who speak Arabic, people with low-literacy, people who have a visual disability, young people, and more.
  • We involved employees of the Municipal Health Services (the GGD) on a weekly basis. We shadowed their work and shared the insights that we learned from them. Also at administrative level, advice was regularly asked and listened to.
  • In addition, we worked with a supervisory committee of behavioural scientists who had access to the same information as we did.

Working in the open is a conversation and you don’t have that conversation with yourself.

Step 2: Where do you open up?

Who you open up to also determines where you do that. Which platform do you choose and for whom should which information be accessible? Directors, programmers and users of your product all require a different language and place. I think you need a place for your information / documentation and a place for the conversation. Those places must be accessible to your target groups, but it’s okay if they’re inconvenient for those who are not your target group. For example, if you want to work with people who are not so skilled with technology, an app group is a better idea than Slack.

Choose the place that fits your target group.

At CoronaMelder we published all documentation on Github, where others could also commit changes. We used Slack to have the conversation about this. This had a small threshold. You had to sign up for both Slack and Github. For this you needed motivation but also a little substantive knowledge. Later, community members made a website to make it more accessible to contribute to the app. This threshold was important because an in-depth discussion on Twitter was sometimes impossible due to the grimness in tone and false information.

You need a safe space to experiment and to have an open conversation

I have been working on The Compassionate Civil Servant for the past two years in the open too. I used my research blog to share my progress. I used social media (Twitter and Linkedin) to organize the conversation. I did that because the social media algorithms made the reach wider than my own network, but also because I found it important that the theme of my research was discussed openly and honestly (and not in a semi-hidden group).

Step 3: Give context

You can only participate if you know what it is about. Don’t dump code on Github, but give context to the goal you want to achieve. At CoronaMelder, we therefore also share all research openly, both user research and insights about the work of the GGD. People need that context to understand and to be able to question design choices.

In blogs that I write, I always share context, for example in the introduction. When writing, I always ask myself: “Suppose someone is on my blog for the first time: what do they need to know to understand this blog post?”

Share your prior knowledge and give context so that you are on equal footing.

Step 4: Organize your documentation

Looks like step 3, but it is different. Turn your notebook into clear summaries that you can share openly. Not everyone automatically follows your thought trails or knows all the abbreviations of your organization. Working openly means explaining well what you do, what you learned and how you are planning to proceed.

Share every step and don’t make them too big.

  • A small step is easier to oversee and done faster.
  • Small steps do not immediately take the other person out of the game. You can only participate if you have access to information and when a decision has not yet been taken.
  • The final report writes itself because every step is already well documented.

If you followed my design research The Compassionate Civil Servant from the beginning on my research blog, my final publication will not be completely new to you. Many excerpts from the essays that I wrote, have previously appeared as a blog. Sometimes blogs later took on a new meaning when I gained new insights. Sometimes others sent a book tip or a talking tip after a blog with which I found a new puzzle piece.

Step 5: Facilitate the conversation

Nobody thinks on Tuesday afternoon “gosh, let’s see if the municipality has shared anything that I can think along with”. A conversation does not arise by itself.

Invite others actively to participate.

We did that at CoronaMelder, for example, through this post that I shared on Linkedin. I asked designers to sign up for our community. The post was widely shared and more than 42,000 people saw it. About 300 designers entered Slack. New people are still registering, or people are becoming less active. That’s okay!

A community manager is useful to ensure that this runs smoothly. At CoronaMelder, this is Edo Plantinga. He tirelessly involves everyone. He asks questions and opens up conversations. He pressingly tracks team members: “two days ago a question was asked by a community member that no one has responded to, who wants to do that ?!”

Assign the role of community manager in your open project

Edo regularly organized public video calls where everyone was invited to join. Every Friday we had a walk-in hour. Team members did AMA’s, a so-called Ask Me Anything-session. We informally discussed in these meetings all kinds of things about the app with community members.

Organize low-threshold contact moments

Edo doesn’t have to go it alone. Working in the open also means that team members conduct the conversations and enter into the discussion themselves. It is good if you can spar directly with the team member as a community member. Not everything has to go through community managers or spokespersons; it is much better for the result if it is directly between team member and community member or user.

Involve the whole team.

This is tensive because in the civil service we are used to working anonymously. Do you create an account on Github under your own name? But then all decisions can also be traced back to you personally. As a civil servant, you fall under ministerial responsibility. This means that civil servants do not have to take responsibility for what they do, the minister does.

This summer, the Council of State advised adjusting this ministerial responsibility. “Explaining what the government does and why is more important than ever. There is a need for a transparent and correct interaction between the House of Representatives, the Cabinet and the civil servants” and citizens, I would like to add myself *angelface*. I have already explained this subject extensively in my essays on, but I would like to mention it here as well, because this is one of the reasons why civil servants rarely come forward and therefore find it difficult to cooperate openly. We can change that!

Be yourself and join the conversation.

Step 6: Involve the spokesperson

Not just the spokesperson, but also the manager, the director, the minister or the mayor. Working openly creates a different dynamic. Ask yourself who is responsible and accountable in your organization. The open conversation that you want with your target groups also involves your organization. Make sure everyone who plays a role also knows that you want to work openly and how you will do it. And work together to do this well.

I mentioned earlier: there are also interest groups and journalists in the room. If project decisions and documentations are open, they can also read along and ask questions. This means that the conversation goes in all directions, instead of neatly through the minister who is responsible for informing the House first. Sometimes there are details already on Github, and thus in no time in the newspaper, which for example have not yet been discussed in the Chamber. Is that bad?

Involve others in your organization who are responsible and accountable for what you do.

And yes, everything will not always be able to be open. In June, the GGD wrote a letter to the Ministry of Health about the covid-app with all kinds of concerns. That letter only became public later when the NOS made a request for a MDR and published it. Could this letter have been public earlier? Maybe, maybe not. Working in the open does not mean that every communication and every consideration has to be public. We have to continuously discover, agree and adjust where the boundary lies.

Discuss the boundaries of openness with each other.

Working openly turns the classic ladder “organization — minister — chamber / journalist — citizen” into a two-way conversation. In the community, matters are discussed that lead to new insights and thus new design choices. That gradually emerges. At CoronaMelder, we made sure that the House was regularly informed about the open process and the current state of affairs. On I previously wrote about this reverse dynamic as the solution to break through ‘dark’ patterns in government.

Step 7: Have fun

It is a lot of fun to work openly. You get to know all kinds of new people and make something much better than if you had only done that with your own club. You see how your product is used in action and you certainly no longer have a boring office job.

Be open to the conversation. Dare to be vulnerable. You get feedback, which is fun, but also difficult. Usually the feedback is really helpful, sometimes it is unfounded (step 3 and 4 make the chance of this much smaller). Sometimes it is also just difficult to digest. You did your best, shared your work online late at night to wake up with “a big fail” on social media and you see your work with red stripes. That is also part of it. Don’t take it personally, and whatever you do…

Don’t go on Twitter before your morning coffee.

So much for my tips on how to start open work. If you want to help Ineke, Anouschka and Marieken from the Municipality of Amsterdam with their open project, start here.

How do you work openly? And how did you start?