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Information and Empowerment in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas

Sharif loves using his mukhabera. “I use it daily, mostly at night time, because signals are clear at that time,” he says. “I am in touch with most of my friends this way.”

Mukhabera means walkie-talkie in Pashto. For Sharif, this tool is what a mobile phone might be to other young men around the world: a cheap, reliable way to keep in touch with friends and family, so long as they are within an 18-mile range. Every week, he spends about 100 rupees, just over one U.S. dollar, on batteries. In the evenings, his group of friends all tune in to “hang out” on the same frequency.

Sharif likes to stay connected, and not only for fun. His life depends on it. Sharif, 28 years old and unemployed, lives in Datta Khel, a town located on the border with Afghanistan in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

FATA is one of the most underdeveloped regions of Pakistan. Decades of crisis, underpinned by poor governance and regional conflict, has kept the region in a perpetual state of instability, poverty, and isolation. Sixty-six percent of FATA’s residents live below the poverty line. Unemployment is estimated at 60 to 80 percent.

Datta Khel is also a dangerous place. Since 2008, U.S. intelligence operations have launched over 40 separate drone strikes in Datta Khel, killing more than 240 people. One particularly lethal attack in March 2011 killed approximately 40 people and sparked anti-American protests across Pakistan.

“Everyone in my village is schizophrenic,” says Zahir, a 24-year-old man from North Waziristan. “You hear screams in the middle of the night from people having bad dreams about the drones. Everyone is always angry or suspicious of everyone else.”

In the face of enduring insecurity, FATA’s residents use mukhabera as lifelines for gathering and sharing information about the threats around them. When they learn of a drone strike or other attack nearby, they immediately contact friends in search of anyone with first-hand knowledge of what happened. Often they speak in code.

“I hear today’s match was thrilling,” one person might say, implying that clashes in the area were intense. “Did the players hit any balls into the crowd?” someone on the other end of the line will ask, which means did mortars or rockets hit houses in the village.

The downside to mukhabera, essentially a two-way radio, is that FATA’s residents never know who else is listening. Talking in code helps evade informers for militant groups who might be on the same radio frequency.

Residents regularly discuss and analyze the information they gather with those closest to them, fact-checking for veracity. They often only trust friends and family. Other credible sources are in short supply.

Across FATA, residents face severe constraints accessing reliable information on the issues and events that most affect their lives. At less than 5 percent, internet connectivity is far from widespread. While 64 percent residents have access to a mobile phone, signals are intermittent at best. Satellite dishes remain a luxury that is out of reach for many, given that FATA’s $250 annual per capita income is half the national average.

The media that penetrates the region most widely, namely Radio Pakistan and Pakistan Television, are state-owned and heavily censored, focusing overwhelmingly on conflict reporting. A 2012 study found that over half of the journalists surveyed in FATA admitted that 75 percent or more of their stories are about terrorism or conflict.

“All the time, we have to select [news] topics which have the potential to be linked with terrorism,” explains Farooq, a radio producer in North Waziristan. “For example, the simple and general problem of inflation can be linked with the economic depression and destruction caused by terrorism.”

While the conflict narrative in FATA’s news media is a reflection of its people’s most pressing concerns, reporting often lacks relevance to their daily lives. News stories tend to cover incidents rather than patterns and challenges rather than solutions, offering little in the way of useful knowledge for personal security or community development.

In the absence of alternatives, FATA’s residents turn to each other, relying on the breadth of their social networks to secure the information they need to navigate an environment of ongoing existential threats and longstanding underdevelopment.

This communal nature of information-gathering can be limiting. Information passed from person to person introduces error and bias, keeping residents even further from reliable sources. But the premium placed on finding eyewitness accounts and credible media is also empowering a subtle shift in the social fabric of FATA.

Traditionally influential sources of information, such as tribal elders and religious leaders, are increasingly unable to answer for their communities’ most pressing challenges––militant activity, drone strikes, and persistent poverty. In some cases, they are even distrusted. Many feel the rise of mullahs in politics over the last 15 years has undermined their authority as trusted spiritual leaders, making them one less source of credible information and one more source of possible misinformation.

Abdul, a researcher in North Waziristan, claims, “[P]eople have realized that they are being used by the mullahs and other religious leaders… People have become mature now and they know that they have been used in the name of Islam.”

Disappointment with traditional leaders is, however, matched with a rise in the social status of those with access to information from a variety of sources.

Barbers, for example, are seen as well-informed about local news because they converse with a wide range of people daily. Despite the mobility constraints in many parts of the region, all men—rich and poor, educated and uneducated—still go to the barbershop. Sultan, a barber in Khyber, thinks of himself as “a computer where people feed and receive information.”

Similarly, diaspora populations are increasingly important providers of information to FATA’s residents. Living outside of the region, migrants often learn about local events before their families and call home when they do. In the past, when his phone rang at 4 a.m., Atif from Orakzai would think, “What has happened to someone that I love?” Now he worries, “What might be happening to me?”

As technology increasingly––albeit slowly––penetrates the region and opens new channels for information access, the influence of the literate and technology-savvy is also growing among FATA’s communities. Young people, especially those with higher education, are the strongest example of a demographic becoming the “eyes and ears” of their communities as a result.

In decades past, “youth were not allowed to sit on chairs or charpoys [traditional bed] in front of the elders even,” explains Subidah, a teacher in neighboring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, “but now the technology is changing this whole social structure.”

The nature of the shifts occurring in FATA today points to a potentially more encouraging future where access to information both within and about the region is more widely available. Despite the U.S. government’s “targeted killings” of militants narrative, many ordinary people in FATA live in fear that they could be caught in the crossfire of the conflict engulfing the region. A more nuanced picture of FATA’s residents can inform an honest accounting of the policies that affect their lives.

An Ethnographic Approach to Impact Evaluation: Stop Measuring Outputs, Start Understanding Experiences

Is open government working?

I asked the question in a previous post. Folks much better informed—Jerry Brito, Tiago Peixoto, and Nathaniel Heller, to name a few—have been asking the question for some time. The answers are not forthcoming.

Too often, assessing the impact of open government initiatives amounts to measuring outputs: how many developers flocked to a civic tech hackathon; the amount of procurement records feeding corruption hawks and socially-minded graphic designers; or the number of tweets or media mentions about a particular initiative, regardless of whether they are from the same industry blogs and actors covering open government.

Quantitative metrics have their place. They may be useful for gauging the popularity of an initiative. They are almost always used to justify funding for an initiative. But, ultimately, these studies say very little about open government’s actual impact on people.

For every FOIA request fulfilled, are we improving livelihoods? For every civic app downloaded, are we changing how public institutions function? For every new country that joins the Open Government Partnership, are we making progress in the realization of government accountability? The answer is: we simply don’t know.

We need to rethink how we evaluate these initiatives. The promise of open government to deliver more just and accountable public institutions demands active participation from citizens. But cultivating greater civic engagement is not simply a question of who and how many showed up. We must understand why they came in the first place, what happened when they got there, and would they do it again—motivations and outcomes matter.

We need to move beyond measuring outputs and toward understanding experiences.

Ethnography for Evaluation

Applied ethnography holds great potential for understanding how individuals experience open government initiatives. Ethnography—“a portrait of people”—is the study of people within their social and cultural contexts.[1] It embraces context, examining how results can be explained by human factors and situational interactions. Ethnography allows us to understand the meaning of participation for different individuals—who is affected or not, and why.

Take, for example, this ethnographic study of a participatory budgeting initiative in Rome. The study found that through engagement with the participatory budgeting process, some participants “discovered a passion for politics,” leading them to join neighborhood associations and local political parties. Other participants, however, left the budgeting process feeling more cynical about and disengaged from participatory democracy.

Why such different outcomes?

Probing the broader context of the participatory budgeting initiative, the study discovered that discussions at the budget meetings were not always as important as the conversations that occurred outside of the formal gatherings—in the hallways, at the bar, or on the street. Those that embraced the informal social dynamic became more engaged; those that failed to follow the unspoken rules were sanctioned and became disengaged.

“Instead of including as many residents as possible,” the study writes, “[participatory budgeting] very often excluded those who could not speak immediately the language of the institution.”

Another ethnographic study on a land rights initiative in India also surfaced the negative, unintended consequences of open government. The project developed an open data portal for land titles, assuming that information transparency would increase citizens’ bargaining powers vis-à-vis the state. In fact, the opposite happened. The portal was used by public officials and corporate actors to shape urban policies and development in their interests. Instead of empowering poor citizens, the initiative further marginalized them.

Exploring individuals’ experiences of open government endeavors, therefore, yields a rich understanding of their real-world impact. We know who became engaged and why. We understand motivations and outcomes. And most importantly, in the two cases cited, we gain valuable insight into the specific pain points that ultimately made these initiatives fairly private affairs. Were we to implement such programs again, we know what challenges to address.

Ethnographic evaluations are important for all initiatives, but they are especially critical for the burgeoning field of open government. Social change is, at its core, about human systems. Attempts to change political behavior or spur communal action depend on the choices and actions of individuals. Those choices and actions are highly context-specific, influenced by communal norms and personal preferences. Counting outputs doesn’t provide the necessary level of nuance. Only an understanding of those individual experiences will.

Evaluation As Program Design

Evaluation rooted in understanding experiences takes us beyond the binary of “program design” and “impact evaluation”. These terms become one and the same, intertwined and supporting each other. The design world calls this the prototype-testing-iteration loop. The public policy world has been talking about problem-driven iterative adaptation.

At Reboot, we focus heavily on understanding how individual experiences will shape a program’s success. Our hunch is that a well-designed user experience is truly built-to-fit, tailored to the needs of different stakeholders.

For example, a recent open government program we worked on in Nigeria paired community associations with a local government office and required reasons for engagement on both sides to be effective. Citizens were displeased with some of the public services provided by the government office. In collaboration with communities, we developed a text message-based mobile feedback tool that allowed citizens to provide feedback on their frustrations.

That much was straightforward. But what incentive did the local government office have to respond?

According to an initial assessment: not much. The office was already overworked and understaffed. Probing deeper into the context and constraints of the office through applied ethnography, however, revealed more. We learned that officials were deeply frustrated. Although they were hardworking and committed, program beneficiaries often complained of perceived government misconduct. Citizens believed that they were not receiving the benefits owed to them, but as we found out, beneficiaries had an inaccurate understanding of what the program entitlements actually were.

Taking these frustrations into account, we built in a much-needed opportunity, from the officials’ perspective, to set the record straight. Instead of just asking the underappreciated officials to respond to citizen feedback in the name of “open government”, we also provided these officials a mechanism to explain program benefits to citizens providing feedback—and, in the process, clearing their own names. By tailoring the program to the specific needs of both citizens and government officials, we were able to address their respective barriers to participation and enable constructive engagement for both..

Too Difficult? Too Costly?

Naysayers might argue that seeking to understand the human experiences within open government initiatives is too difficult. Implementing organizations might claim that they can create open government platforms or campaigns, but they have no control over whether these initiatives will change how people or institutions behave. Donors might say that measuring outputs is much less expensive than the in-depth research needed to assess motivations and outcomes. And everyone will maintain that attribution is tough, as is developing a credible counterfactual—how to gauge what would have happened without this initiative?

But too “difficult” and “expensive” are lousy excuses. Each open government initiative should be treated as a unique opportunity to learn and develop a more substantive understanding of what is working and what is not through an exploration of individual experiences, among citizens and within institutions.

We can begin by recognizing that organizations should not do their own evaluations. Success bias is well documented (and no surprise), particularly if future funding is at stake. Anonymizing names of programs and participants, and protecting the identities of projects—as we do for respondents—is also a simple, smart idea. This strips ego and allows practitioners more freedom to be honest and self-critical in their work.

We’re excited to see ongoing discussions on this topic and some of these ideas becoming institutionalized. We’re heartened that the medical profession—whose scientific methods have been transposed to public policy in the form of randomized control trials—is embracing applied ethnography to take a more human experience-centric approach to research. Whether under the guise of “impact evaluation” or otherwise, understanding the experiences of patients through explorations of cultures, beliefs, and needs can enable the design of more effective treatment programs.

Our hope is that through more nuanced evaluations rooted in understanding individual experiences, we can untangle the putative causes and build toward a more robust knowledge of how citizens participate in civic life and how governments meet their demands.

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I’d be keen to connect with other practitioners that are taking ethnographic (or similar) approaches to impact evaluation, whether in the open government sphere or elsewhere. Please email me at panthea AT theReboot DOT org.


[1] Ethnographic research is often mistakenly equated with “interview studies” or other types of qualitative research. An immersive research approach, it uses techniques such as participant observation, unstructured interviews, and artifact collection to attempt a holistic analysis of human behaviours, interactions, and perceptions over time.

For Innovative Legislation on the Front End, States Need Reliable People and Processes on the Backend

Well, folks, the TurboVote and Reboot local elections research roadshow has come to close.

We’ve got gobs and gobs of data, which we’ll look forward to parsing through over the coming week to develop clarity around our findings (more on that soon!). But for now, we’d like to our musings from our final research stop: the City and County of Denver Elections Division in Colorado.

In the “Centennial State,” (named so for its admission into the nation 100 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence), 72 percent of the voting population statewide votes by mail. If things go as expected, new legislation will make Colorado an all mail-ballot state, in time for next year’s midterm elections.

For those of you unfamiliar with voting by mail, this means that voters in Colorado can request a ballot be sent to them via the post, to be completed in the convenience of their own home. If you like to track your mail, you can sign up for Ballot TRACE in Denver, which uses intelligent mail barcodes to inform you where your ballot is in the postal delivery chain. Once marked, the ballot can be returned by mail, or dropped off at Voter Service Centers, the local clerk’s office, or at secure drop-off boxes distributed throughout the county.

If you’re thinking “Hmm, that sounds about as easy as the drive-through window at McDonalds,” you wouldn’t be far off the mark.

If the new Colorado bill is signed into law by the Governor, Colorado voters will receive a mail ballot by default. Vote Service and Polling Centers will still be available for those who prefer the in-person voting experience though. Additionally, voters will be allowed to register and vote on Election Day, known as “same-day registration”.

Eleven other states have passed same-day registration, so Colorado is not a pioneer in this respect. Still, these are pretty big steps toward a more convenient voting experience.

Some opponents fear that voter fraud could become more prevalent under the new system, or that people who should be ineligible to vote might slip onto the rolls on Election Day. The Colorado County Clerks Association, which had a strong hand in drafting the bill, is in full support of its implementation. The counties are expected to see somewhere between $10-15 million of cost savings, and the state will incur a one-time fee of approximately $1.5 million to implement the switch.

In our conversations with state-level representatives this week, we were curious to learn how legislation that makes voting easier for citizens affects the backend administrative processes.

In a place where so many votes are already cast by mail, the state is not so concerned about its ability to absorb additional vote-by-mail ballots. In order to do same-day registration for those individuals who choose to vote in person on Election Day, however, the state will need to enhance its technical processes for registering and signing in voters.

One example of how this will play out concerns staffing at poll sites. While individual counties will require fewer poll workers (a general election in Denver is now likely to require about 750 workers, instead of the previous 2,000, if the bill is signed into law), those workers will need to be selected based on slightly different capabilities. The counties and the  state will need people who feel comfortable using new technology and can troubleshoot without fear of the machinery. The counties will have to train them using new materials and for a different set of tasks, and they will have to provide day-of internal support to these workers that also takes into account the new technical processes.

This week’s visit provided some interesting insights not only into the process of state-level innovations in elections, but also into the implications of those legislative changes. When new laws are passed, new systems must be developed. For voting, that means coordinating the backend technical and human processes that the voter never sees.

As we rounded out our research tour, we were reminded of how deeply our democracy depends on the public servants who manage all of these behind-the-scenes challenges. As so many of our research respondents have said over the course of the past few weeks, elections work is always changing, with every election offering an opportunity to test something new or different. These elections teams operate within an ever-adaptive environment. Although the media only reports when things go off-track, the reality is that most elections benefit from the care and attention that these officials pay to solid process implementation.

We look forward to seeing what happens in Colorado, as the state moves into a new chapter of the voter experience!

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If you’re eager to hear in greater detail about our findings, be sure to register for Personal Democracy Forum 2013, happening on June 6th and 7th in New York City. Katy Peters, co-founder of TurboVote, and Kate Krontiris of Reboot will be presenting our conjectures about the future of elections in America, based on what we learned by speaking with some of the 8,000 people who deliver the voter experience in this country.

In the Land of Snowbirds, Reaching Out to the Youngest Voters

Each year, about 60 million people travel to the state of Florida, including one very special subset of visitors: “snowbirds.”

Florida-bound snowbirds are typically retirees from the northeast of the US who spend their winters in search of sunshine and warm weather. With no state income tax requirements, Florida also makes an attractive destination for formal residency, which means snowbirds can vote.

And vote they do.

Similar to older generations in most American states, Florida’s snowbirds are consistent and engaged voters. Turnout for the 2012 presidential election in Martin County, Florida–where Reboot’s elections research team traveled last week–was 78 percent.  Snowbirds like their ballots as much as they do their beaches, apparently.

But for all the influence snowbirds have on local elections here, the most interesting tidbit we learned from the Martin County Supervisor of Elections had nothing to do with snowbirds at all–and everything to do with young voters.

In Florida, 16 year-olds can “pre-register” to vote when they apply for a driver’s license.  Once they turn 18, they are automatically registered to vote with no further paperwork required.  They are also eligible to become poll workers during the interim period, even if they are not yet able to cast a vote. Martin County’s Supervisor Vicki Davis, and her team of elections administrators, takes advantage of this nicely designed quasi-“nudge” in state law.  After a week with her team, we learned just how much this office has invested in future generations of citizens.

Alongside a voter registration drive for those students who were eligible to vote in the 2012 general elections–which resulted in 800 new voters–the elections team launched a “Pledge to Vote” competition among the county’s high schools. The idea came from the office’s Student Advisory Board, which realized it could use the increased awareness of the elections to encourage underage youth to make a “pledge” that they would vote upon becoming eligible.  Schools that generated the most commitments to vote won trophies from the office.

According to Kherri Anderson, the Deputy Supervisor of Elections Outreach, the students observed that, “you can’t make anybody register to vote; but if we pledge, that says we’ll get involved when we are old enough.”

Both young Democrat and young Republican groups at the schools were invited to share their party platforms with their peers, to simulate the political decision-making environment.  Students who volunteered their cell phone numbers received text messages from the elections office with reminders about registration.  On graduation day, inside their diploma covers, the graduates found a voter registration form and an absentee ballot–a not-so-subtle invitation from the Supervisor herself to become civically engaged.

Students were also invited to become pollworkers, which thrilled the crew of regulars, whose average age is 71.  Anderson received phone calls from her (yes, snowbird) pollworkers after the election day, raving about how the young people could set up polling sites much more quickly, and seemed nonplussed by the technological aspects of the voting equipment.  One local professor even offered all of his students a full test grade and 15 points on the final if they agreed to work the polls.

Our takeaway from Martin County this week was a strong reminder of how deep the connection is between the future of American elections and the future of youth civic engagement.  Even though the county experiences among the highest voter turnout rates in the country–thanks largely to the commitment of the snowbirds–Martin County Supervisor of Elections demonstrates a restless dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Vicki and her team say that their legacy in office is to “keep democracy going for the future.” They back up these words with investments in engaging the county’s young people.

Over the past few weeks, our research has revealed just how local our democratic processes are, different in substantial and important ways in each place we have visited.  What emerged anew this week seems refreshingly applicable across state lines: local government, no matter where it is, might find advantage in dislodging just a bit from the needs and habits of today’s more active voting demographics, and act more directly to ignite the civic spirit within tomorrow’s.

*    *    *

Say hello to us this week @theReboot in Denver, Colorado, if you live there!  We’re looking forward to spending some time with the City and County of Denver Elections Division for this, our final week research into the administration of elections in America!

A Day in the Life of Reboot Nigeria

It’s 8:00am, and we’re up and running. Reboot Nigeria rises early.

We have a big day ahead of us. We’re working out of our office in Benin City in the Niger Delta. This week, we’re examining public works projects, working on an education-focused radio program we helped launch, training government officials on design research, and prototyping improvements to an elections monitoring platform. It’s a sizeable plate.

But first on the agenda this morning is research. Our focus: roads.

Specifically, we’re trying to understand the process through which public works projects go from inception to execution, and we’re doing so through the prism of road construction. Edo, one of the states we’re working in, has undergone a transformation in the recent years—the current Governor has made road building a key priority. Though only 10 to 15 percent of Nigerian roads are paved, the present administration has made visible gains in their delivery of new and improved roads. We meet many Edolites returning from abroad for the first time in many years who are happily surprised at the changes they see.

Drawing from this, our key question: What happened, and what can we learn from this experience? What does it take to get a road built; which stakeholders are involved; how does the process work; and, ultimately, what does all this mean for public service delivery?


8:00am and Joel meets with the research team.

I’m helping manage the research team, which has now grown to 11 including: three colleagues from the Niger Delta Citizens Budget Platform, Osione, Panthea, Zack, Dave, Angela, Nonso, yours truly, and Joel, the most recent addition to our team.

I’ve prepared a sticky note for each researcher with a list of respondents. Using these lists as a guide, we strategize our plans for the day. We’ll be talking to a range of individuals today, from government officials to private sector actors to community members. We divide into pairs to practice interviewing each other so we’re well prepared when we do speak with them.

Joel chooses to practice for his interview with a traditional community head, who he’ll meet later in the day. Joel knows that the expansion of one road project caused demolitions in this community. He’s eager to hear the community’s perspective about this experience, but knows he’ll have to introduce himself first to the community head to gain permission to speak with other community members.

9:00am the team hails a few okadas, or motorcycle taxis, to get to the research sites.

After an hour of prep, the team heads out to the designated sites, which are scattered around Benin City. The omnipresent motorcycle taxis, referred to locally as okadas, are a logical choice for getting around.


Angela is studying a road project on the outskirts of the city. Angela is keen to hear about the community’s perspectives and involvement in the project. After speaking with several community members, Angela learns that the road prioritized by the community was not the road that was built. Apparently, a local leader overruled the committee and convinced the contractors to build the road in front of his house instead.


Elsewhere in Benin City, Panthea is running a training workshop for government officials. She’s teaching the use of design research to understand community needs and design tailored strategies for outreach and redressal of complaints. This is part of our collaboration with the World Bank and several states to support positive relationships between citizens and sub-national governments. Providing government offices with the tools to better understand community needs and aspirations is one way we hope to help them achieve their public commitments.


Later in the afternoon, the team trickles back to home base to document their research findings. Osione spent the day working with government stakeholders and is recording his thoughts. Angela is jotting down the different perspectives she heard from the community she visited. It’s a full house this afternoon. Zack has just returned from a few days in Port Harcourt, where he’s been working with our partners—a radio station and two civil society organizations—on a public interest radio program. Though it just launched a few weeks ago, the program has already had a few successful episodes, and Zack fills us in on the behind-the-scenes programming activities.


By 4:00pm, the full team is back and our daily synthesis session is underway.

Today’s session proves especially interesting. Angela’s findings echo those of other team members, confirming some observations of how communities are able to lobby for their needs. This involves understanding the role of traditional leaders, community organizations and other influencers such as the head of a powerful local church. Additionally, Sebastian (front left above) from the Niger Delta Citizens Budget Platform explains the path that some individuals take in gaining political power.


It’s getting late.

Synthesis was supposed to finish by 6:00pm, but the whole team wants to continue, even though we’re now sitting in the dark. Power is spotty in Benin—ironic for us, as we’re living just off a street the locals refer to as Power Line Road.

The discussion is moving toward ideas for improvement. Dave, Reboot’s new Director of Programs, has only just arrived in Nigeria, but is no less ready to dive in. He offers a fresh perspective to the analysis and interpretation of the data. He also raises new questions about the dynamics between local and state governments—all this and he’s operating on little sleep after 50+ hours in transit.

Once synthesis finally finishes, a group of us head out for a well-deserved drinks to wrap a long day. At 9:00pm, the core Reboot team returns for a quick meeting to plan the next day before we all call it a night. I take the time before bed to work on my non-Nigeria projects. I also prepare the research plan for the next day before lights out, so that when Reboot Nigeria rises early again we’ll be up and running.

In Travis County, Texas, “Each Election is an Opportunity to Test Something New”

This past week our research team traveled to Austin, Texas where we got a first-hand look at how Travis County runs its elections.

We spent time with the Travis County Tax Assessor’s Office, which oversees voter registration and districting activities. We also met with the Clerk’s Office, which is responsible for the implementation of elections. This quirky bureaucratic distinction is a relic of the days when Texas had a poll tax.

We arrived at an opportune time, coinciding with the announcement that Austin is soon to be the proud owner of high-speed internet, compliments of Google Fiber. The press was abuzz discussing the effects Google’s new technology will have on life and economy in this Texan city known largely for the annual SXSW conference.

We too got excited about Austin’s tech upgrade and its potential to impact local elections. But we were most excited about the human systems and processes we found in Travis County’s election administration. Travis County, we learned, is home to numerous organizational innovations in governance—and four in particular stood out to us.


First, we found a strong organizational emphasis on staff training and exposure to elections work at the national level. Many county elections officials had crystal plaques on their desks, indicating that they had been trained, sometimes out-of-state, as certified elections/registration administrators through the National Association of Election Officials. A few managers even hold leadership positions within national associations, and use this birds-eye positioning to stay informed on relevant elections developments. The result is that staff members throughout the hierarchy know what is happening outside their county and are aware of how their work affects the bigger picture.

Second, we noted an impressive level of professional specialization. The county offices have succeeded in bringing in-house functions that other jurisdictions only dream about: a dedicated web designer who can maintain electronic engagement activities and develop new engagement tools; public information and legislative tracking capacity that offers situational awareness to the office on politics and the media in real-time; and business analysis capacity that exists to anticipate and implement a good blend of technological and human processes in the office.

Third, we saw a clear resourcefulness in staffing. Because of its large size (602,000 registered voters), Travis County relies heavily on temporary workers. These workers help to register new voters close to the deadline, prepare and test elections equipment ahead of voting day, and who support a variety of other critical functions during peak activity periods.

Instead of viewing temporary workers as a secondary inputs to the process, the county offices invest in their pool of temporaries. Most of these individuals have worked numerous election cycles. Many of the offices’ permanent employees started as temporary workers, indicating a talent pipeline that is carefully built and tapped effectively when new positions become available.

Finally, the Travis County Clerk convenes “study groups” from across academia, business, government, and civil society when the county seeks to innovate its own technology or processes. Consulting friends and foes alike, this allows the Clerk’s Office to source opinions and insights from a variety of perspectives and provides legitimacy for the eventual decisions. Based on a review of its needs and a survey of existing options, the Clerk’s Office has developed a prototype for a voting product it would like to see built, effectively guiding the market from the driver’s seat.

This kind of organizational innovation is the foundation for an effective use of resources, including technology. As Michael Winn, Director of Elections at the Clerk’s Office, aptly summed up for our team, “each election is an opportunity to test something new.” We are eager to track what happens in Travis County, especially as Google Fiber spreads from street to street.

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We are taking a breather this week to process our findings to date. But we’ll be back on the road next week.  Looking forward to spending some time with the Martin County elections team in Florida soon!

Launching Reboot Nigeria

For the last 6 months I have watched my growing family of colleagues pen their passions, thoughts, and experiences about Reboot’s work toward building a 21st century social contract.

But, I have not been able to share myself, as I have been head down and hard at work. Today, I am extraordinarily pleased to tell you why.

Reboot Nigeria is now officially open.

We’ve established our first country office and laid the groundwork for growing into the next stage of Reboot’s vision.

Though our office is newly established, our experience in Nigeria is not. Since early 2012, we have been increasingly growing our portfolio here working with members of the international community, major private sector actors, and various parts of the Nigerian government. We have partnered with organizations large and small—from the World Bank and PriceWaterhouseCoopers to the local NGOs Stakeholder Democracy Network and the Niger Delta Citizens and Budget Platform.

Our focus has been a consistent reflection of Reboot’s overall mission: supporting new and improved relationships between citizens and their government to create more justice, accountability, and opportunity for Nigerians.

This has been both humbling and highly rewarding work.

I’ve had the chance to laugh, sweat and cry alongside great colleagues. These include the members of our first country team, comprised of some of the smartest and most talented people I’ve ever had the privilege of working with. We have benefitted from one another’s experience and perspective as we wrestle with the hard questions behind achieving accountable governance.

And we’ve learned plenty too!

I can only dream of the time and space to step back and adequately capture all of the lessons gleaned from this experience. But for the eager reader keen to try and bootstrap a theory of change into ground reality, here are a handy few takeaways:

1. Plan, Adapt, Plan, Adapt….

That implementing a ‘people’ driven approach to development and governance would require significant adaptation is unsurprising. The number of partners, stakeholders, and communities involved in our work in Nigeria makes this truism ring only louder. The volume of feedback on our plans is extraordinary!

The best plans help give us direction, but every stage of implementation requires structural revision to our approach. In Nigeria, we are iterating constantly with plans involving many people and complex strategies. The adaptive process impacts financial planning, team morale, and how we manage progress among our partners.

2. Choose Partners Wisely

Our work in Nigeria relies on great partners, who bring valuable expertise, capacity, networks, and knowledge. Our partners define the caliber of our success. We’ve learned to put even more effort than anticipated into identifying the organizations we collaborate with. This requires doing extensive upfront work on tight timelines to ensure our partners share enough of our philosophy and professional standards for a happy marriage over time.

3. Embrace Politics

Trying to change a big problem at scale and over time means diving into local politics, whether you want to or not. Maintaining the right relationships, getting invited to the right events and knowing when to gracefully leave the show are all factors that define success. This took some adjustment given our organizational culture which preferences meeting people’s needs over wading into the political processes that can make that possible. We’ve had to replace our determined refusal to engage in politics with a willingness to leverage political dynamics for our programmatic goals.

4. Financial Planning for Operational Success

Expenses come hard and fast, and often well before the receivables to support them arrive. Partners can’t work on sweat equity, offices must be rented and capital investments made. This has forced a level of financial planning and security that has improved many parts of our enterprise. And we’re eager for help! In the next week we’ll be listing a job description for a new Manager of Finance and Administration. If you’re the bees knees when it comes to managing the financial operations of a rapidly growing social enterprise, we want to hear from you.

*    *    *

I am extremely grateful for the colleagues, partners and institutional supporters that have made this progress possible. Our vision for the future is one where new models of collective action will improve governments, institutions and communities. It is these collaborations that help us make our contributions towards translating that vision into reality.

Onwards, upwards.


Discovering Town Meeting (and Sugaring) in Vermont

In Vermont, March is the season for sugaring—it is when the days are warm and nights are cold that the maple sap starts flowing. In addition to sampling one of state’s better-known food products, our research team got a taste of some pure democracy last week, straight from the tap of “town meeting.

Only seven states administer elections at the town level, and Vermont is one of them. The other 43 states administer by county. Town meeting—which takes the form of representative democracy in Brattleboro, Vermont—is when local officials are elected, annual budgets are approved, and other affairs are settled. We spent this past week with Brattleboro Town Clerk Annette Cappy, and her small but mighty team in the Clerk’s Office, learning how this approach structures local decision-making.


Town Clerk Annette Cappy, left, and her staff in the Brattleboro Clerk’s office.


Brattleboro is unique among Vermont’s towns for holding Representative Town Meeting on the third Saturday of March. Unlike Vermont’s other town meetings, which are an exercise in direct democracy, Brattleboro elects about 140 “town meeting members” as representatives. They vote on the town budget, school budget, and articles of consideration.

Prior to the 1960s, all of Brattleboro’s residents could attend and vote at town meeting. When the number of attendees began to exceed the available space for holding meetings, the town opted for a representative model. Any resident can still express an opinion at the meeting, but only town meeting members can vote.

In order to become a town meeting member, all one needs is 10 signatures on a petition and confirmation that s/he is registered to vote. Select board members—a central organizing group with an additional layer of responsibility—must secure 30 signatures to be elected. The meeting is facilitated by an elected “town moderator”—an individual who must possess an uncommon patience and sense of fairness in deliberation—who executes the guidelines of the town charter.

In recent years, growing income diversity in Brattleboro has contributed to a greater variety of opinions and perspectives among town meeting members. The result is a more prolonged democratic decision-making process.

According to residents, this year’s meeting was the most contentious in recent memory. From 8:30am to 10:30pm, members debated an increase in the school budget and the future of a prominent downtown building, among other issues. And as one resident observed, “you have to be there to know what it’s like, you really do.”

Still, residents are proud of their town meeting process, which they described as the purest form of democracy. Many we spoke with preferred the deliberative nature of town meeting to the “Australian Ballot,” also known as secret ballot, where all voters mark their choices on paper in privacy.

Although Clerk Cappy reminded us that Vermont’s one electoral college vote will never qualify it for swing-state status in the United States; the residents still want their say in global affairs. One of the more famous recent advisory articles in the town, put forward by a local citizen, aimed to indict Former President George W. Bush and Former Vice President Dick Cheney for war crimes, should they ever set foot in Brattleboro.

Despite this history of civic deliberation, Brattleboro is facing a recent challenge of motivating residents to run for town meeting member. In the past, the position bore a sought-after status.

Some cited apathy as the reason for this diminished willingness to participate. A gentleman who has had a long history of public service in the town postulated that “the essence of democracy is about compromise; but Americans, we love a winner, so it’s hard to get impassioned about something when you have to make large sacrifices.”

A young town meeting member offered a different perspective, suggesting that voters did not have enough information about the candidates or the issues in advance of the election to translate why the act of voting should be meaningful to them.


Long-time Select Board member Ken Schneck, who has been at the forefront of Brattleboro’s
voter outreach and election modernization efforts.


This week raised an interesting question in our ongoing exploration of the future of American elections: what does it mean for our civic future if even the most carefully cultivated of democratic processes, built upon strong bonds between neighbors, struggles for fresh inputs?

Deliberative democracy is arguably more robust in this small corner of Vermont than in the cosmopolitan areas of the nation that receive the most media coverage. But are they not both subject to the necessity of engaging the newest members of our polity to participate as civic actors?

For this challenge, our nation’s towns and counties alike may need to ask new questions about how to reach younger residents, on whom they will by necessity rely to keep activities like town meeting thriving into the next era of our democracy.


Up this week: Austin, Texas!

We are looking forward to spending some time with the Travis County elections team, moving from a small blue state to a big red one.  Tweet @theReboot with any good barbecue or music recommendations!

Crowdfunding for Development

In recent years, crowdfunding models have offered disruptive examples of collective action problem-solving.

Crowdfunded micro-lending initiatives like Kiva are enabling people all over the world to support entrepreneurs in emerging contexts. In only two years, the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter has helped hundreds of thousands of creators secure the capital they need to bring new ideas, products, services, and stories to the world.

And there are many more mission-driven crowdfunding platforms—Global Giving, Crowdrise, Donors Choose, Raise 5, and Catapult, to name a few.

How could development organizations leverage the emergence of these new models to collectively finance and advance human development outcomes worldwide?

This is a question a cross-divisional team at the World Bank raised among staff as part of this year’s annual Sustainable Development Forum. With Reboot’s support, this team convened a “Crowdfunding for Development” brainstorming workshop to help identify answers to this question. Together, we identified several dimensions through which crowdfunding can integrate with and inform World Bank initiatives worldwide.

For starters, crowdfunding projects often make use of similar financing models that are commonly used by the Bank. These include:

Grant and Reward-Based
The original crowdfunding model was designed around individuals pitching their project or product offering a compelling story to secure funding. In some cases, the person providing the grant was offered a non-monetized return. The rewards could come in the form of a signed fan-picture, a “thank you” in the end of an independent film, or similar.

Recoverable Grantmaking / Debt-free Lending
Crowdfunding enables impact investing by marrying interest in social change with specific financial needs. This can be done without a profit motive through investments that do not return a financial gain, but are instead coupled with the accrual of social capital or other non-monetary reward.

Investment / Debt Lending
Similar to traditional private market lending, crowdfinancing can be used by lenders to offer capital with an expectation of receiving some monetary gain on their principal.

Crowdfunding also has the potential to support the success of World Bank operations and programs through a variety of practical applications. Some of these include:

Expanding Entrepreneurs’ Access to Capital
Crowdfunding reduces the cost of accessing capital by aggregating potential lenders. It can also increase the lending capacity of capital by linking crowdlenders with an institutional credit facility. For example, institutional credit worth USD 5 million could provide the base capital to attract crowdlenders who significantly expand the pool of available financing for a given sector.

Aggregating Demand and Filtering Supply
Crowdfunding specifically and the potential for accessing capital more generally both act as incentives to aggregate demand and filter supply. In crowdfunding, producers gain increased benefit from the aggregated demand for a given good, product, or service. Mechanics on many crowdfunding platforms allow funders to work collectively to determine which supply option has the highest collective demand.

Enabling Organizational Innovation and Efficiency
Organizations often face scenarios where they have unused capital. Crowdfunding can be applied in these instances to encourage internal groups to propose projects worthy of funding. Participants from the entire organization (the “crowd” in this case) can then select their common priorities as “winners” of the available financing.

Capitalizing New Markets
Certain markets may have enough demand to be sustainable, but lack the necessary startup capital to properly mobilize. Crowdfunding can help overcome these barriers by aggregating a long-tail of relatively small demand, and sharing risk across a large group. This is a particularly interesting model for ‘pro-social’ markets that enjoy demand based on their social benefits, but do not necessarily offer a competitive financial return in the near-term.

Crowdfunding is not without its limitations, not the least of which is scale. Successfully crowdfunded initiatives tend to be very straightforward and small. Complex projects that require explanation beyond a 90-second visual pitch generally don’t fare well on the crowdfunding circuit. Securing capital for large, potentially game-changing initiatives through crowdfunding, therefore, can be exceedingly difficult.

But this didn’t stop the workshop participants from hatching some great ideas of their own. One team saw crowdfunding as an excellent means of keeping communities invested in projects. Potential projects could be pitched to the community. Those that the community is able to raise money for, the Bank would then provide extra backing to scale. Another team saw crowdfunding as a useful mechanism internally, through which Team Task Leaders could use end of the year funds to support colleagues’ projects. Finally, a third team identified opportunities to match Bank financing with crowdfunding to grow small and medium-sized enterprise credits. 

Crowdfunding platforms and crowdfunding initiatives hold great promise for the future. We’re excited by the emergence of these new models and their potential for supporting the World Bank’s programming worldwide, and governance and development efforts in general. Indeed, crowdfunding for development raises many questions, but it is space that merits further exploration.

It’s “Bipartisan Everything” in Jefferson County, Kentucky

From the seemingly unending stream of political brinksmanship emanating from Washington these days, you’d think the country has fallen into a state of partisan warfare. Refreshingly, our visit to Jefferson County’s Election Center this past week provided an encouraging outlook to the contrary.

In this office, dedicated Republicans and Democrats go to work, not to argue with each other, but to get the job done.

Jefferson County—home to the Louisville Cardinals, recently of Final Four fame—is the largest of Kentucky’s 120 counties, with a population of about 747,000 people. Roughly 67 percent of this population is registered to vote.

We were visiting at the invitation of County Clerk Bobbie Holsclaw.


Bobbie’s responsibilities cover the usual fare, as far as  local election officials go. She is charged with running elections, in addition to a host of other important administrative activities, including overseeing motor vehicles, county deeds, and marriage licenses. Her office is a revenue generator for the county; Kentucky law mandates that she is personally accountable for the fiscal health of the office.

Bobbie is a Republican, elected in a jurisdiction that runs about two-thirds Democratic. Jefferson County is a rare Democratic jurisdiction in a mostly Republican state. Kentucky has voted for Republican candidates in seven of the last ten presidential elections. In the 2012 election cycle, five out of Kentucky’s six congressional seats went to Republicans.

And yet, none of this seems to matter much in Bobbie’s office. “That stuff stays outside the job,” staff members told us repeatedly.

In all of our conversations with Election Center staffers–from the voter registration clerks, to the information services team, to the Center leadership—the emphasis was overwhelmingly on bipartisanship. “Bipartisan everything” the staffers called it.

When we sat down to watch how a clerk processes an absentee ballot, she made sure to wait until her counterpart of the opposite party was present. When visiting the “warehouse,” which houses voting equipment, elections materials, and the entirety of voter registration cards that have ever existed in Jefferson County,  guess who led the tour? Two kind co-managers: one Democrat and one Republican.


While the Election Center’s staff made clear that party affiliation has nothing to do with the substance of their work, their shared value for party-equality in every last operational detail was noteworthy. On more than one occasion, staffers informed us that this cultural emphasis came from Bobbie herself.

A balanced approach was central to the way they thought about doing their work—and it gave us pause for thought.


Beyond election offices, what other spaces exist in our country for explicit and regular bipartisan collaboration between everyday Americans?  How often do members of opposing political parties work intentionally on the gears of democracy, keeping their professional responsibilities above the fray of party allegiances?

Whether Jefferson County is the exception that proves the rule of partisan divide in the United States or indicative of a more bipartisan balance among local election offices remains an open question to us. But we can say with certainty that County Clerk Bobbie Holsclaw has set an example worth emulating, especially in Washington.

Is Open Government Working?

“Open government” is supposed to be transformative. The typical narrative tell us that citizens with more information about how their governments function can better mobilize to hold public institutions to account.

An appealing narrative, yes, but do the tenets hold true?

Do open government initiatives make citizens more informed and engaged, and make governments more accountable to their people? In a nutshell: for all our visualizinghacking, and democratically-minded merrymaking, what impact have open government initiatives had so far?

It’s a difficult question to answer. Too often, defining and evaluating progress in open government confuses the means with the ends. Practitioners seem to focus more on the “open” (how many datasets have been released?) and less on the “government” (what impact has all this had on our processes of governance?).

Part of the problem is the woolly, shifting definition of “open government,” which now seems to encompass any ‘innovative’ use of technology by the public sector. We need greater precision in our use of language. Are we trying to make public agencies more efficient, hold elected officials to account, tackle corruption, influence policy, or achieve any number of other objectives that fall under the open government umbrella?

The greater challenge is the inadequacy of evaluation frameworks to measure open government successes and explain failures. The broad aims of open government—citizen mobilization and institutional change—involve complex and interconnected causal chains. Traditional impact evaluations, however, are designed to assess linear, cause-and-effect processes.

Electoral participation or number of petitions tweeted may provide an indication of civic engagement, but hardly tell the whole story. Civic hackathons hosted or FOIA requests received may give some indication of intent, but are poor metrics for government accountability. Number of users, growth in users, and media mentions may provide a snapshot of popularity for an open government initiative, but do not explain long-term impact.

Suffice to say, mapping the knotty path toward the open government vision onto standard evaluation frameworks is difficult. Four questions might be worth considering for those working to measure and achieve impact in this space:

1. Who gains from open government?

Open government initiatives offer new, often technologically enabled avenues for civic participation. But which populations have the access and motivation to use these channels? Frequently, programs and platforms privilege certain groups over others.

An ethnographic study of participatory budgeting in Rome found that participation skewed towards those who were already active in civic affairs and in relative positions of power. Sixty-three percent of participants were activists. White-collar workers and those over 50 were also over-represented.

In New York City, by contrast, a recent study found that participatory budgeting engaged communities that had traditionally been uninspired by politics. Hispanic populations, for example, represented 39 percent of voters in district elections, but 50 percent of participatory budgeting voters. Twenty-two percent of participatory budgeting voters had a household income of less than $10,000, compared to 4 percent of voters in district elections.

Why did participatory budgeting in Rome reinforce elite or special interests, while in New York City it provided an avenue to address marginalization? What about the two contexts, the program designs, and their implementations led to these results?

2. How do we reach “the other side”?

There are two sides to the open government coin: citizens and governments. The goal is to facilitate constructive dialogue between the two, but many projects seem to focus on one side or the other.

Embedded in many demand-side open government initiatives is the assumption that governments newly motivated by citizens’ demands will have the incentive and the capacity to respond. Embedded in many supply-side projects is the assumption that newly energized citizens will have the means and the desire to demand accountability from their government.

This is a government 2.0 fairytale. How then can open government initiatives realistically engage both citizens and governments to work toward better outcomes?

3. Can we do better than equating scale with success?

Replication and scale are not always appropriate indicators of success. The effectiveness of most open government initiatives will be context dependent. Replication requires programs to standardize as many elements of its models and activities as possible. There is a natural tension here.

Scale also does not say much about an initiative’s impact. At nearly 13,000 deployments in four years, crowdmapping platformUshahidi has indeed scaled. But 94 percent of crowdmaps had only one user and 93 percent had fewer than 10 reports.

How can practitioners use more nuanced metrics for impact and become as diligent about assessing risks and addressing unintended consequences as they are about looking for success stories?

4. How do open government processes change people?

Open government initiatives seek to mobilize citizens and to motivate governments to respond. But what are the processes through which change occurs?

At the citizen level, what are the psychosocial changes that stem from open government processes? That is, how do citizens view their relationship to government after participating in an open government program, and how do they express this change? What aspects of the experience influence this change in perception? Beyond the specific open government initiative, do people become more civically engaged, whether through voting, donating, volunteering, or otherwise acting for change?

Answering these questions may be a step toward developing a stronger sense of how to design effective open government initiatives and evaluate their impact.  Understanding the motivations that can sustain citizen interest in democratic participation and the incentives that can push institutions toward greater accountability are crucial to realizing the transformative potential of open government.

Peering into the Back-End of Voting in the “Show Me” State

If you are looking to tackle an information management and system dynamics challenge, become an elections administrator.

As we discovered last week in Boone County, Missouri, these individuals manage a series of paper and digital processes that track who is voting, where they vote, what ballots they need, whether their districts have changed, whether elections regulations have been updated, and hundreds of other pieces of information – sensitive and not – about our voting population.  They also schedule elections, recruit and train poll workers, establish polling locations, and update districting lines.  They do this at least once a year, and often multiple times per year.

Elections officials like Boone County Clerk Wendy Noren, are beholden to a variety of actors – voters, of course, but also Secretaries of State, and federal and state legislators.  Voters demand their services, Secretaries of State provide policy guidance on elections regulation, and legislators change elections laws that often mandate a rejiggering of process and procedure. Often elected officials themselves, our implementers of democracy, also engage with good governance groups, campaigns, student associations, journalists, vendors, and communities of peer clerks across the nation.

Last week, we had in-depth conversations with about ten of the individuals who work at the Boone County Clerk’s office, and a host of other civically engaged individuals who took us into the inner workings of elections management.

Alongside our friends from TurboVote, we watched them register new voters and process absentee ballots.  We scrolled through the iPad software they use as “ePollbooks” and sat in on the trainings they conduct for the poll workers who will use this technology to ensure voter compliance at the polls – even though many of them were born several years before the advent of computers.  We received a guided tour of the database the County Clerk has personally modified and expanded from a core first built in the 1980s to maintain the highest degree of accuracy possible over the voter roll in Boone County.  We examined the box of pagers that were repeatedly proclaimed “the best investment we ever made,” and witnessed their retiring, as the office moves to mobile devices.

Over coffee at local establishments, we heard campaign war stories from political hacks, and built an understanding of what elections regulations are likely to move forward in the Missouri legislature this year.  In the evenings, we spent hours synthesizing what we learned and mapping the processes, step-by-step, that allow residents of the county to vote.

These conversations represent only the beginning of our investigation into the human and technical processes that animate the voter experience in the United States, but they were rich.  Up next: Louisville, Kentucky!

Field Note: Shakespeare’s Pizza, in Columbia, Missouri, makes a mean veggie and anchovy pie.  The researchers appreciated the sustenance!


Gao Li Dai: An Economy of Last Resort

Hu Gaoyan, a farmer in Anshun village in Guangxi province, is thrilled that his daughter has found a husband. But he is also anxious about her wedding expenses. With limited savings and no access to bank credit, Hu turned to the only lender he knows: Shen Xiaoyang, the village veterinarian.

In Anshun, the vet makes a natural choice for those seeking a gao li dai, or high interest loan. Shen offers access; earning more money than many of his neighbors, who are predominantly farmers and small shop owners, he can afford to make loans. He also offers convenience; in this corner of Guangxi, the community is dispersed across mountainous terrain. Shen makes house calls, traveling by motorbike to care for villagers’ livestock—and, if needed, bringing money to loan.

Most importantly, Shen offers trust. Like most residents in Anshun, his family has been in the village for six generations. Shen can also trust his borrowers. As the professional who takes care of their livestock, he knows his clients will ensure timely repayments. No villager would dare risk the health of their prized assets.

Providers of gao li dai exist across China, and are especially prevalent in rural areas like Anshun, where access to financial services is limited. In recent years, China’s “Big Four” banks have closed a combined 30,000 branches in poor and rural regions, a result of market pressures and an increasing focus on high-margin, low-risk populations. On average, rural residents have access to 0.36 banking outlets per 10,000 people, far below the national average of 1.34. The People’s Bank of China has estimated that 64 percent of the country’s rural population is unbanked.

Informal service providers like Shen Xiaoyang help fill the gaps left by formal financial institutions by offering gao li dai. In the absence of formal credit ratings, gao li daidepend on the borrower’s reputation, almost always forming along the lines of existing relationships. Family relationships are at the heart of the strongest networks. Second-order connections through an individual’s hometown are almost as strong. In these locally-based trust networks, community members have a good sense of the trustworthiness and social capital of others, allowing them to enter into service relationships like gao li dai with fairly predictable outcomes.

Unlike formal bank loans, which are generally given only when a borrower can offer collateral, gao li dai are typically unsecured, driving interest rates as high as 40 percent. By comparison,  the People’s Bank of China benchmark interest rate is 6 percent.

But borrowers like Hu Gaoyan have little choice. High interest loans are part of an informal economy that has grown out of a lack of viable alternatives. Market forces to encourage cost-savings, efficiency, and honesty are lacking. This is an economy of last resort, indicating a significant unmet need among China’s rural population, which numbers over 650 million.

Financial access is a key leverage point for individual economic mobility the world over. Safe, secure and inexpensive financial services allow individuals to plan for the future and lead more productive lives. At a time when even the Chinese government is calling the urban-rural wealth gap “relatively large” and stressing the urgency of resolving income inequality, the environment is ripe for the creation of new, more inclusive financial services.

The China Banking Regulatory Commission is making strides toward this end, encouraging the development of rural financial institutions to meet the credit needs of individuals like Hu Gaoyan. The opportunities are enormous. but so too are the challenges in design and deployment.

Service providers tend to create new offerings with a narrow focus on feature set, cost, or market opportunity. While these factors are important, the most critical—and often neglected—consideration is that adoption may require people to change how they protect, send, and save their hard-earned money. For inclusive financial services to become successful, they must take current practices, and the motivations behind them, into careful consideration.

Here, the lessons of gao li dai are instructive. High interest buyer-lender relationships are foremost rooted in trust, born of mutual reliance, and built on powerful and long-standing social connections. New service providers could tap into these connections by co-opting individuals like Shen Xiaoyang as agents. By building on existing relationships, new service providers can offer market competitive loans with the same promise to their customers as Shen: access, convenience, and, most importantly, trust.

This post is an adapted excerpt from Reboot’s new publication Embracing Informality: Designing Financial Services for China’s Marginalized. The names of the individuals in this article have been changed to protect their identity.

Looking for Laoban: How China’s Migrant Workers Are Tied to their Managers

Two years ago, Xu Hanping and Gao Jianjun arrived in Shijiazhuang with the clothes on their back and a mission: find a laoban.

They had heard from a friend that a laoban from their same small village in Sichuan Province was working there. They needed to find him. For migrant workers like Xu Hanping and Gao Jianjun a laoban meant a connection to coveted construction jobs, and their only sure shot out of a livelihood of subsistence farming.

Laobans are managers and middlemen. They arrange contracts with employers and then take responsibility for recruiting and overseeing hundreds of temporary workers. Laobans are often connected to their workers by only a few degrees of separation, even hailing from the same village, as in the case of the laoban Xu Hanping and Gao Jianjun were seeking.

The foundation of most migrant workers’ sustenance is their relationship to a laoban.

Xu Hanping and Gao Jianjun were already too late by the time they arrived in Shijiazhuang. Their prospective laoban had already moved on to a new construction project in Beijing. With no money to travel further, they remained in Shijiazhuang falling into one of the most tenuous community structures in urban China: migrant workers with no laoban.

This a community beyond the bottom of the economic pyramid, forced to seek employment day-by-day with no guarantees.

For these migrant workers, jobs are scarce. They congregate at pick-up sites along stretches of road at large intersections outside the city center. With them are the tools of their trade, which they carry as advertisements: a construction worker holding his hammer, a cook wearing a chef’s hat. They wait for the the boxy, well-worn Mitsubishi Delica vans to arrive and jockey to jump inside, as brusque bosses pop their heads out shouting day rates. Most of the workers remain, disappointed, anxious, and uncertain about their ability to earn a wage that day.

Xu Hanping and Gao Jianjun spent four weeks in Shijiazhuang chasing day-to-day work until they had saved enough to purchase the 72 RMB (12 USD) train ticket and continue their search in Beijing.

Over 1,000 miles from their village, they found their laoban.

But they didn’t feel far from home. The laoban had recreated a little slice of Sichuan at their worksite in Beijing. Xu Hanping and Gao Jianjun shared a dormitory room with eight other men from their province, the group spoke exclusively in their local dialect, and the regional specialties cooked up by the workers’ wives were full of spice.

Their laoban was a crucial bridge between home and employment in another important way: he held their wages for safekeeping and sent money back to their families.

Mass migration has strained—but not severed—the traditional family structure in China. While migrant workers like Xu Hanping and Gao Jianjun travel hundreds, even thousands, of miles in search of work, their earnings constantly flow back to their villages of origin. Workers’ families depend on these domestic remittances, which are significantly greater than the income potential in most rural economies.

Often, migrant workers lack the means to move money safely, securely, and inexpensively around the country. In recent years, China’s “Big Four” banks have closed a combined 30,000 branches in poor and rural regions where their families reside. A result of market pressures and an increasing focus on high-margin, low-risk populations, an estimated 64 percent of China’s rural population is “unbanked.”

Informal service providers like laobans fill the gaps left by formal financial institutions.

This reduces the risk of theft for migrants, especially for those like Xu Hanping and Gao Jianjun living in communal dormitories, and adds collateral to the working relationship for the laoban. The arrangement is mutually beneficial, but also lopsided. The worker is perpetually indebted to his laoban and risks exploitation. When issues arise, the worker has no reliable channel for redress.

Xu Hanping and Gao Jianjun don’t have these concerns. Informal money transfer through their laoban fulfills a significant and unmet market need. And they trust him. He provides them steady work, creates a sense of home away from home, and ensures their wages reach their families. They’re sticking with him, come rain or shine.

They know that when the project in Beijing finishes, he will move on. Wherever he goes matters little to Xu Hanping and Gao Jianjun. As long as he provides them steady work, they are ready to follow.

This post is an adapted excerpt from Reboot’s new publication Embracing Informality: Designing Financial Services for China’s Marginalized. The names of the individuals in this article have been changed to protect their identity.

Reaching Those Beyond Big Data

We’ve made great strides in data-driven policymaking, open government, and civic technology—many of the folks in this room have made significant contributions in these domains. But, as we know, many people, even here in New York City, still live “off the grid”—and the issues of access go beyond “digital divide”.

As a designer working on governance and development issues—fields where economists regularly eat anthropologists for lunch—this is something I think a lot about.

In the era of Big Data, as we become increasingly reliant on capital-d Data, I wonder what might exist in the negative space? Who are we not capturing in our datasets? And how might we reach them?

A few months ago, I met a young woman from Benin who I will call Fatou (not her real name). Fatou had been adopted by an American preacher on mission in Benin, and brought to the United States. She and her family were overjoyed at her good fortune.

Fatou was pleased, she felt taken care of with her new “mother” and “father” in Queens. They started her on English lessons to help her adjust to the US and to allow her to enroll in school, a longtime dream.

But even from the outset, some things seemed strange to her.

Whenever they left the house, “to keep her safe”, her mother always held her by the wrist, keeping a firm grip. She wasn’t allowed any possessions beyond clothing. Her belongings were regularly searched for any material she kept, particularly information (pamphlets, papers). If found, they were confiscated. She worked long hours at a school the family owned. She was never herself enrolled in school, as promised, and when she inquired about her education, she was told to stop being ungrateful.

At first, Fatou thought these were just US customs. But then things got worse.

The preacher started doing “bad things” to her at night, acts she still struggles to talk about today. Fatou’s passport was taken from her “for safekeeping”. Once her visa expired, the preacher refused to apply for another, making her an undocumented alien. A class of person, she was told, the US government doesn’t look kindly upon.

Fatou was a victim of human trafficking. And she’s not alone: there are an estimated 300,000 to one million trafficked persons in the US. New York City itself is a trafficking hub.

Throughout her trafficking ordeal, Fatou tried to “get out” several times, but she was stuck, she was scared. She lacked the information she needed about what her rights were, whether this was common practice in the US, and, as an undocumented person, who could she turn to for help. After her trust had been betrayed, could she trust someone again?

So the question for our organization, working with an incredible victims’ assistance agency in New York City, was: how do we reach people like Fatou?

The answers are not always so clear. The same tools we use to make our world smaller and keep those dear to us closer at all times can actually make life harder for people like Fatou.

We use services like HopStop or Google Maps to navigate, travel, and show up at meetings on time. Fatou’s traffickers used them to make sure she was home from work at exactly the time she was supposed to be. In Fatou’s case, rather than enabling, these tools entrapped.


We’re accustomed to cheap communication around the world, connecting with loved ones has never been easier. For Fatou, they were a source of stress. Her family in Benin wondered why she was so reluctant to call. “It’s not expensive,” they’d say. “We want to see you!” But Fatou knew her family would be beside themselves if they knew what had happened to their daughter. Thus, she made excuses and talked to them infrequently. Despite the ease of connection in the modern day, she wanted instead to disconnect.

And while many of us work to enhance and streamline civic service delivery—standardizing data formats and making sure they are accessible across platforms—the thought of linked data was terrifying to Fatou. Every interaction with a formal institution was a risk. As an undocumented person, Fatou was terrified that one look at her papers, any of her papers, would mean jail or another unknown fate. Thus, whether it was not seeing a doctor when she got sick, or crossing the street when she saw a police officer, Fatou was constantly trying to escape from the open, connected, efficient world many of us are trying to build.

To reach victims like Fatou, we needed a different approach. We needed something  accessible, trusted, attractive, and intuitive.

The solution: check cashing shops.


Why check cashing shops? The story and process of how we arrived at this solution is long—we prototyped and tested many options—but for people like Fatou, the reasons are straightforward.

They are accessible. Check cashing shops are one of the very few places we found that trafficked persons are allowed to go on their own, even those with tightly controlled movements. Traffickers recognize they must let their victims send money home to their families or to pay their debts.

They are trusted. Many check cashing shops are community hubs for those they serve. People gather there, they hang out. These are people formal financial institutions rarely give much thought about, and sometimes, rude bank tellers make that clear. At check cashing shops, they receive a warm reception and friendly service.

So that was the platform, but what about the tool?

It needed to be appropriate. Many outreach materials for trafficked persons contain unhelpful imagery of chains and battered women. As one woman told us: “My life is sad enough, I don’t want sad images. I want words. Tell me the facts.”


It also need to be relevant. We found that many trafficked persons often don’t know what the term “trafficking” means. Even if they do, many don’t relate to it—trafficking is something that happens to other people,  “stupid people”.


In spending more time with them and testing concepts and language, often in Mad Libs style, we figured out what would register: passports. Most trafficked persons had had their passports confiscated, as a means of control. Here was something they wanted back, more than “getting out of trafficking”.


As humans, we are biased toward looking for information in places where information is quick to find and easy to work with—these days, that largely means digital and online. Or we tend to get information from familiar sources and people. But, I’d ask us to consider who we miss in the process.

Many of us are working hard to build a more open, connected, and efficient world, but I hope we don’t lose sight of those like Fatou who will never be captured in our datasets.

Six American Cities, Six Weeks: Understanding Elections Offices on our Home Turf

Last week, Reboot kicked off a fantastic new collaboration with our friends at TurboVote.

Three years ago, TurboVote set out to make the voting process as easy as ordering a DVD on Netflix. Their team developed the technology to enable voters to register to vote right from the comfort of their homes – and amassed an impressively detailed knowledge bank about the landscape of United States elections regulations. If you sign up for TurboVote, you also receive free SMS and email reminders about upcoming elections.

The goal was to remove as many barriers to civic engagement as possible, through the strategic use of everyday technology. Leading up to this last election, TurboVote registered just shy of 200,000 voters – mostly through a dazzling array of partnerships with colleges, universities, and get-out-the-vote groups that had an interest in registering large numbers of voters.

A non-profit and non-partisan organization, TurboVote has started 2013 by reflecting on its original ambitions for impact, realizing that in order to truly revolutionize the way voting happens in the United States, it must engage more directly with institutions of governance.

This is where Reboot comes in. Over the next few months, Reboot will be travelling to elections offices in six different locations across the country. We will be meeting with a sample of the 8,000 local agencies that determine how elections are run, seeking to understand the technological and human processes that underpin the US voter experience. We will gather this information by mapping the voter registration and vote-by-mail service journeys, by conducting institutional ethnography with elections clerks, and by identifying system pain points that make the voter experience burdensome. We also expect to surface – and share! – some bright spots in the voter experience, learning from local offices that genuinely embody a strong user-oriented approach to citizen engagement.

Coming out of this investigation, we hope to pinpoint opportunities to match TurboVote‘s existing technology to the needs of elections offices. In the long term, it is our hope that these small-scale process improvements will lead to large-scale changes in the way that everyday voters like us experience democracy.

We will be kicking off in Boone County, Missouri in mid-March and expect to be sharing what we learn along the way.  We hope you’ll join us on the ride!

Day Laborers: Going it Alone

Millions of China’s most vulnerable lack even the most basic means to save for their children’s education, make purchases on credit, protect their homes through insurance, and send and receive money. Financial exclusion prevents many of them from realizing their potential and improving their livelihoods.

In the run-up to the February 11 launch of our latest publication, Embracing Informality: Designing Financial Services for China’s Marginalized , we’d like to feature some of their stories.


The drivers don’t even need to honk.

As the boxy, well-worn Mitsubishi Delica vans arrive, the workers we’ve been interviewing hightail it to the curb of the sprawling, six-lane highway outside the Guiyang labor market. Doors slide open and brusque bosses pop their heads out, shouting day rates and specific jobs as men jockey to get in their vans.

A minute later, the vans are gone. Most of the workers remain, disappointed. They continue to mill about, but as the clock ticks, they grow increasingly worried about their ability to earn a wage that day.

Nearby, a labor headhunter sits beside a placard of jobs listings, offering to refer any worker to a paying job—for a small fee. One man tells us he’s been burned too many times by shady laobans to trust agents like this. He describes being driven out to a far-off work site, working a full day without food, and then being sent away without pay.

With no official labor agreement, he had no recourse.

Another man tells us the labor agent is just as bad as the laobans, claiming that he charges to provide a phone number that is a lead to a job, but that when the buyer of the number calls, all the jobs are always taken.

Yet another chimes in, saying that he’s been duped by the agents in the past. He’s called the numbers given and been directed to a job site, only to arrive and find no one there and the number he paid for since disconnected.

Resources for these men are scant. Some say the time they spend looking for work and hounding managers for the pay that they are owed, outweigh that which they spend actually working and earning wages.

Even legitimate companies can be risky.

“We don’t like working for construction companies because it is very difficult to receive your wages from them. Either the accountant is not available or the manager is nowhere to be found. And you can’t put up too much of a fight—you never know what kind of black society [gangs] they have backing them up.”

Editor’s Note: This profile is a composite of real people who shared their stories with us. Though the profile takes pieces from different individuals’ lives, the goal was to develop individual stories that are representative of a broader group.

Bayarmaa: Facing a Changing Culture

Millions of China’s most vulnerable lack even the most basic means to save for their children’s education, make purchases on credit, protect their homes through insurance, and send and receive money. Financial exclusion prevents many of them from realizing their potential and improving their livelihoods.

In the run-up to the February 11 launch of our latest publication, Embracing Informality: Designing Financial Services for China’s Marginalized, we’d like to feature some of their stories.


Bayarmaa, a former herder from Inner Mongolia, fears she is losing her culture.

She recalls the Nadamu Festival, an annual Mongol tradition of community celebration. The festival was like Christmas in the West, with a large banquet for the community along with Mongolian traditional activities: dancing, horse-racing, and wrestling.

The festival was also an important part of the community identity. It served as a valuable opportunity to share practices and tips on farming or raising cattle with Mongols from nearby communities who would come to partake in the celebrations.

In recent years, Bayarmaa feels much of that has been lost. The government has taken over throwing these festivals, giving cash prizes for the winners of various games and competitions. First prize is worth as much as RMB 100,000 (USD 16,000).

Bayarmaa has mixed feelings about the “updated” festival.

She likes the idea of winning money, but longs for her traditional way of life. Beijing has made raising livestock difficult, claiming a desire to protect the grasslands to encourage tourism. The tourism has barely materialized though.

Bayarmaa’s husband takes tourists on horseback riding trips and can make as much as RMB 300 (USD 48) during the high season. Most of the year, business is slow. The government gives them RMB 6,600 (USD 1,055) a year as compensation for taking away their livelihoods. The sum is barely enough to make ends meet.

Food is expensive in Inner Mongolia, since the harsh climate means that food can’t be grown close by. Bayarmaa also spends RMB 400 (USD 64) per year on mobile credit, which she uses to call her daughters on a basic Nokia phone. With no jobs in the area, most of the young people have moved away, which has deepened Bayarmaa’s sense that her culture is slipping away.

Editor’s Note: This profile is a composite of real people who shared their stories with us. Though the profile takes pieces from different individuals’ lives, the goal was to develop individual stories that are representative of a broader group.

Design Diary: Mischief Managed

Design comes in many shapes and sizes, and spans many mediums. Yet in visual/graphic design, there is a tendency for much of the creative process to be bound to sketchbooks or computer screens. When there is literally another dimension available for creative exploration, why not use it when you can?

As part of a fun exercise, last week, a few of our team members snuck out of the office and into an East Village apartment to do some top secret, offline design work in the form of one-foot cardboard letters.

We documented the whole process by setting up a camera to take a photograph every 30 seconds, and after seven hours, 954 photos, eight Mod Podge covered hands, and one pizza, we had ourselves a three-dimensional cardboard logo and a stop motion video.

The video and letters were revealed to the rest of the Reboot team as an extra special Valentine’s Day surprise. As you can see, these letters are opening up a LOT of opportunity for some nontraditional team photo sessions.

China’s $132 Billion Missed Opportunity

In the jostle for tickets at the Beijing Railway Station, Zhang Qi never felt the knife that slit his jacket open. In a flash, a thick wad of cash had been lifted from his pocket. It was more than RMB 5,000 ($800)—his entire years’ savings.

Zhang Qi is a migrant worker. He is among a floating population of 250 million strong with no legal status that has been the backbone of China’s incredible growth story. Migrants like him have flooded booming Chinese metropolises in a search of economic opportunity, transforming a country of isolated cities into one of tethered, transient networks.

But access to financial services has not kept pace with this increasingly transient population. Many migrant workers lack even the most basic means to save for their children’s education, make purchases on credit, protect their homes through insurance, and send and receive money. Theirs is an almost entirely cash-based economy, with savings kept, quite literally, under the mattress.

The domestic remittances migrants carry home, typically once per annum during the Lunar New Year, are the lifeblood of their families’ economic security. When the cash is stolen, so too are their livelihoods.

Zhang Qi had been working to save RMB 150,000 ($24,000), so that his two sons, who are still in primary school, could build homes one day. On his current earnings, he will need approximately 30 years to save enough. Now, he is one year behind.

The issue of financial exclusion has come to the fore only recently in China. Over the last five years, China’s “Big Four” banks have closed a combined 30,000 branches in poor and rural regions, as a result of market pressures and an increasing focus on high-margin, low-risk populations. On average, rural residents have 0.36 banking outlets per 10,000 people, far below the national average of 1.34.

Even in urban areas where bank branches are numerous, service offerings are designed for middle- and upper-middle class markets, providing limited utility to migrant workers at best and stigmatizing them at worst.

Zhang Qi actually had a bank account and had heard bank transfers were possible. When he went to the branch near his worksite to inquire about how the fees worked, he was brushed off by the staff. His out-of-province accent and ragged clothes made him an unwanted customer. He decided to carry his money by hand—at great risk—rather than face further humiliation at the bank.

More commonly, migrant workers leverage existing community connections to store and move money. The near absence of formal financial institutions in the economic life of this population has led to a proliferation of informal service providers. These may include family and friends, rotating savings and credit associations (hehui), money houses (qian zhuang), loan sharks (gao li dai), and, perhaps most significantly, laobans.

Laobans are managers and middlemen. They arrange contracts with employers and then take responsibility for recruiting and overseeing hundreds of temporary workers. Laobans are often connected to their workers by only a few degrees of separation, even hailing from the same village. The foundation of most migrant workers’ sustenance is their relationship to a laoban. 

It’s no surprise then that many migrant workers rely on their laobans to keep their wages safe and send money to their families. This reduces the risk of theft for migrants, especially for those living in communal dormitories, and adds collateral to the working relationship for the laoban. The arrangement is mutually beneficial, but also lopsided. The worker is perpetually indebted to his laoban and risks exploitation. When issues arise, the worker has no reliable channel for redress.

On a macro level, these informal service relationships present another challenge. China’s 250 million migrant workers send an estimated $132 billion across the country each year. While total remittances were last measured in 2005 when they stood at $65.4, the migrant worker population has more than doubled since that time. This is a lot of money to move outside the formal economy.

Financial services are a key leverage point for individual economic mobility the world over. Safe, secure and inexpensive financial services allow individuals to plan for the future and lead more productive lives.  At a time when even the Chinese government is calling the wealth gap “relatively large” and stressing the urgency of resolving income inequality, financial exclusion has meant 132 billion missed opportunities for migrant workers like Zhang Qi to improve their livelihoods.

The status quo benefits no one. Everyone has something to gain from inclusive financial services. They would deliver trusted alternatives to migrant workers, balanced economic development to the government, and new market opportunities to a forward-thinking service provider.

Globally, new technology has created promising second-generation banking services like oft-cited mobile payment platforms in KenyaParaguay, and the Philippines. High mobile penetration rates, extensive agent networks, and an intensive reliance on remittance payments in rural areas suggests China is similarly primed for the deployment of a national, mobile-based remittance system.

But to be effective in China, this type of financial service must embrace informality. Too often service providers create new offerings with a narrow focus on feature set, cost, or market opportunity, without consideration of how to adequately address the needs of the populations they seek to serve. Current practices and the motivations behind them should also be given careful consideration.

Here, the lessons of China’s informal service relationships, like those between workers and their laobans, are instructive. These services are foremost rooted in trust, born of mutual reliance, and built on powerful and long standing social connections. New services should complement—not compete with—these informal alternatives.

Laobans can be incentivized to promote initial adoption and new customer acquisition. Small “mom and pop” stores in rural areas, which garner the confidence of local communities, could serve as agents and key links to services beyond the village. The goal should be to provide the same trust, convenience, and ease of use that make informal services so useful to migrant workers.

After the incident, Zhang Qi was devastated and blamed himself. He realized that he had been touching his pocket repeatedly and nervously, which must have alerted the thieves. With no help from the police and his money gone, Zhang Qi traveled back to his village in Anhui Province to face the shame of arriving penniless for the Lunar New Year.

He vows to find a new solution next year.