Communities of Practice: They Keep Disappointing Us, but We Keep Building Them

How the Open Government Partnership is boosting COP effectiveness

Collective Action: A love-hate relationship

Collective action presents challenges that are widely recognized, yet people continually prefer to work together. Governance practitioners recognize that the issues we work to address are complex; as a result, we seek support from peers to achieve our shared goals. Building a “Community of Practice” (COP) is one demonstration of this attitude. The term, borrowed from cognitive anthropology, describes the productivity that happens when people gather regularly to discuss common work. Through offline convenings, online meetings, or in a blended approach, COPs aim to deliberately organize collective action.

In reality, however, many COPs fail to meet expectations and are difficult to sustain. The reasons are often no different than those fundamental to collective action problems, such as aligning varying perspectives and motivating operational management. COPs then, as a tempting solution to issues of collective action, will continue to be built but are also ineffective without a better understanding of why they are failing, and how we can improve the human interaction that occurs within them.

A Testing Ground for New Approaches

The Open Government Partnership (OGP) is offering alternatives to traditional approaches to COPs. Last year, the OGP engaged Reboot to expand on its peer learning mechanisms, and offer a user-centered approach to community building.

We leveraged our experience embedding in Mexico’s Office of the President to test a new facilitation approach to OGP gatherings. The critical element was an organizing principle that we had discovered would mobilize fruitful conversations amongst government reformers: coordination across their own agencies. We tested this as a design principle for two workshops with the OGP, first at the European region meeting in Tbilisi, Georgia in June, and later in Mexico City at the annual summit in October.

Our experience has led us to insights for increasing the effectiveness of COPs. We hope that by sharing them here, others can reflect on the peer learning that they foster, and gain inspiration to similarly experiment.

Communities for Lonely Reformers

Workshop participants in Tbilisi and Mexico City were Points of Contact (POC), the government actors who are responsible for implementing their nation’s open government commitments.

Of all the people working in government, OGP POCs may be most in need of community. They have a challenging mandate and few direct colleagues: They’re government employees, but they’re not quite aligned with “traditional” civil servants’ ways of working, nor with those of their counterparts in civil society. This “insider-outsider” status has advantages in terms of reform, but disadvantages in terms of peer learning.

Online, these reformers have access to a growing base of knowledge and connections. The Open Gov Guide, a directory of OGP process, is one valuable tool for POCs seeking guidance on action plan development. Further, The GovLab recently launched the Network of Innovators, an online skill-sharing network that provides valuable infrastructure for open government actors seeking to build relationships within and across sectors. Reboot’s own contribution is our user’s manual for government innovators: Implementing Innovation,which complements established OGP resources with practical lessons that lead program implementers through anticipated hurdles, and offers structured ways of thinking through paths to addressing them.

While these online resources serve their purposes, a thriving and fruitful COP requires in-person interaction. Recognizing this, the OGP is regularly bringing together members to share expertise, discuss working strategies and practice, and energize and inspire each other to fight shared battles.

Three Principles for Making Intentional Communities Effective

So how does the OGP get the most out of these in-person events? And what considerations should be made when participants are government actors? Our experience surfaced three principles to structure in-person interactions that resonate with participants, and plant the seeds for ongoing community building.

Principle #1: Every community needs a useful “organizing principle,” a way of slicing and dicing the group for increased interaction.

When the OGP facilitates peer learning and exchange through working groups and regional events, the groups coalesce around domains and geography, respectively; for example, there is a working group for “open data,” and a regional event for Africa. Both of these organizing principles are well-understood, and relevant to a wide and diverse audience.

In Tbilisi, the OGP and Reboot prototyped an alternative approach to organizing the community. We asked members to share their most pressing challenges, and in listening to their frustrations, we discovered that many are experiencing difficulties in coordinating across agencies. In response, we designed the workshop around this challenge. We observed that focusing on an issue of concern that they themselves raised helped to motivate shared problem-solving in a real and observable way. The synthesized workshop results are five dominant pain points that POCs are hungry to address through peer support: 1) Lack of time; 2) Lack of political will; 3) Lack of financial resources; 4) Staff turnover; 5) Lack of understanding “open government.”

Principle #2: Treat the workshop conversations as data, and use it to drive your programming going forward.

Building on the prototype workshop in Tbilisi, for example, Reboot designed and tested another workshop for the OGP Annual Summit in Mexico City. There, participants built off of the existing five challenge areas, but had the freedom to modify. For example, they noted that number four, “Staff turnover,” is often a symptom of the other challenges. They also added a sixth challenge area, “Rapidly changing institutional environments.” Those conversations are the seeds of the vibrant community; making sure they feed into programming and structure of the COP going forward will help make sure that community thrives.

Principle #3: Break community members out of established roles and mindsets to encourage innovative thinking and noteworthy engagement.

We’ve written before about participatory workshop design; here, it’s important to note that these practices remain applicable when working with civil servants and policymakers.

We sometimes see skepticism towards workshop activities that seem like too much “fun” or that don’t appear to have immediate, productive objectives. But encouraging flexibility and creativity is necessary for every successful workshop. Prompts and exercises designed to make individuals think or act in unfamiliar ways helps to motivate the unexpected and atypical interactions that generate the most valuable conversations.

For example, in our pre-engagement to the workshops with POCs, we heard many express a sense of loneliness in their work, and a common worry that they were facing unique challenges. By designing activities that asked these participants to “role play”—imagine that they are in a position that is currently not their own—resulted in greater interaction, with many contributing with reflections on their own experience and offerings that pushed traditional limits.

Transforming COPs through Smart Community Building

Reboot is often asked to share our expertise in design and facilitation. Our secret: We do not just design and facilitate workshops. Principles, including those shared here, apply long before the three-day window when a community is all in the same place and ready to form, and are vital long after. In the long-term work of managing a community, the most valuable workshop design starts at the earliest vision and fits into a much broader design.

We are using these principles to go beyond the workshop and build worthwhile collective action within the OGP. This year we will be working shoulder-to-shoulder with several subnational OGP pilots as they create their action plans. We’ll be experimenting with what works, and what doesn’t, in co-creation with government and civil society at the state, county, and city levels.  Stay tuned for more updates on this work and how our lessons on building effective communities of practice evolve.


This article was originally published on the Open Government Partnership Blog on June 7, 2016.


Futher reading.