Introducing Design With: A Reboot Podcast Series

Last year, we hosted four incredible interviews with folks driving radical collaborations across the globe. Our world has transformed so much in the time since, but the wisdom of these great leaders sustains. Take a listen.

We are actively engaged in the dialogue and debates of our space: on issues of social justice, global development, and democratic innovation, and on the ethics and methodological evolution of design, mediation, and co-creation practice. More of our writing can be found at Medium.

Designing the 2016 WDR

Reboot applauds the launch of the World Bank’s 2016 World Development Report: Digital Dividends, for which we served as design partner. The report finds that despite the rapid spread of digital technology, broader benefits have not been equally distributed across the digital divide. Working alongside the World Bank’s editorial and production team, our designers developed the report’s cover and brand identity, as well as infographics and promotional materials.

Welcome Carrie Oppenheimer!

Reboot is excited to have Carrie Oppenheimer join our team as Program Manager. She brings a wealth of field experience from her time as a Foreign Service Office for the U.S. Department of State, working in the Democratic Republic of Congo and with the U.S. Mission to the European Union. At Reboot, Carrie looks forward to engaging communities as partners in research, design, and project implementation.

Conversations on Social Computing

Zack Brisson will join Microsoft Research FUSE Labs’ annual Social Computing Symposium on January 11th & 12th in New York City to discuss online harassment and trolling, post screen personas, and the future of entertainment.

Reboot team members discussing Reboot's principles

Fervent, Humble, Uncowed: The Hard Work of Putting Principles into Practice

For the past few years, I’ve had the privilege of lecturing at Hofstra’s Zarb School of Business. I always relish my time with these aspiring entrepreneurs, and I’m especially impressed by the way they balance realism and idealism.

Their sensitivity to this tension was on display during our most recent conversation, as they asked about how we maintain Reboot’s internal culture. It’s a topic near to my heart as we’ve always worked hard to be a principles-driven organization. A few years back, we articulated these in a list that is shared with every staff member during onboarding, and which guides our work and culture. The Hofstra students immediately saw how challenging this idealistic list might be to put into practice:

Reboot Principles

  • Empathy: Respect people, place, and custom.
  • Bespoke: Common ingredients, always unique.
  • Adaptive: Embrace failure, question yourself, watch your back.
  • Realist: Humanity is beautiful, humanity is cruel.
  • Fervent: The task is urgent, the moment is now.
  • Humble: I don’t know what I don’t know.
  • Intelligent: But I do know what I do know.
  • Inquiring: And I want to know what I don’t know.
  • Confident: When I don’t know, I’ll make a plan to try and know.
  • Moral: There is a right and wrong.
  • Judicious: Yet my vision is too weak to know it perfectly.
  • Uncowed: Truth to power and strength in the face of evil.

This list is both high-level and incomplete, and constantly evolving (in keeping with our commitment to being adaptive and inquiring). It captures the spirit of the values that we strive to keep front-and-center in everything we do.

But the Hofstra students were right: It’s incredibly challenging to follow through on these ideals. Their questions led to a rich discussion: How do you maintain fervency when dealing with problems, like poor education, that are decades or centuries in the making? What does it mean to be moral when you’re making choices between mutually unpleasant options? What are the consequences of being uncowed when speaking up can cost us future and larger opportunities to push for the change we believe in?

Inspired, I brought the conversation back to our team. I see these principles at work every day when I look at what my colleagues are producing, but I realized it had been a while since I had heard from them specifically about how they understand the process. So I did a quick survey, and asked a few individuals to chat a bit more. As it turns out, we could write a long book on this question, but here are just a few of the themes we surfaced on what these principles mean in practice:

They mean Reboot has to stay “right-sized.”

“I think Reboot’s small team enables us to be nimble and scrappy, free from excessive bureaucracy. It allows and encourages contextually-driven approaches to problem-solving.”
— Adam Parker, Communications Designer

In a very physical sense, the principles have shaped Reboot: Committing to these principles means growing slowly and cautiously. We have built our capacity and grown to meet new challenges, but we are always resisting the momentum that so many consulting firms fall into, where “feeding the beast” becomes more important than sticking to principles. Our size also helps us do adaptive, bespoke work.

They mean we value our staff as people.

“The work we do lends itself to our principles. Our team has to be really passionate about our work. I call it the ‘Reboot Recipe,’ for different projects—different people have different quantities of the values. We push each other to make the project what it needs to be.” —Nina Kiernan, Operations Manager

Everything we do is a product of collaboration; none of us could maintain these principles on our own. Different team members bring different strengths, and we constantly challenge each other to be better. Our size also encourages empathy and collaboration between team members; we have the space to know each other outside of work, and think about each other holistically as humans.

They mean we toggle between principles at different project phases.

“Being a realist is powerful because it helps you understand what is possible within all the constraints. But, sometimes seeing the world for what it is (rather than from a more optimistic or idealistic view) can feel constricting and overwhelming.” — Emily Herrick, Communications Designer

Being “adaptive” and “bespoke” is different at the beginning of a project than it is in the home stretch, although they still apply throughout. The emotional peaks and valleys of any project also call for modulated principles. There are times when maintaining fervency requires rose-colored glasses, and maybe putting realism aside for a minute.

They mean that sometimes, we ruffle feathers.

“To be uncowed is central to our existence. We are constantly challenging entrenched systems, but that is a difficult stance to pull off, especially in a world where interests often flourish by conforming.”
— Nonso Jideofor, Program Manager

We are working to change the power dynamics of a major international field, where structures have been shaped over decades and with the support of governments. That is especially true when we find ourselves at major conferences and convenings. We work in a unique corner of the market, with clients who are open to change and innovation, but we also engage with communities where the push for change is not always as strong. We are known for speaking up when we disagree.

They mean that sometimes we walk away from projects.

“The question of being ‘moral’ is hard, because we know ‘development’ itself is an imperfect enterprise. The larger system that we work within needs change and reform. We try to ‘do good’ in the face of seeing so many things that are wrong.” — Panthea Lee, Principal

Our principles are not just about idealism; they are central to the approach that we believe gets the best results. That means that on the rare occasion when a project runs counter to these values, we have to walk away, even if it’s a “great business opportunity.” In these moments, we are transparent and uncowed, explaining why we believe in our approach. But when a project has been stuck on a counterproductive track, we have ended contracts.

They mean that sometimes, we burn out.

“I recently watched two colleagues preparing for a workshop forgetting to fulfill basic personal human needs—such as eating and sleeping—as they were so focused on improving the experience of those around them.” — Adam Talsma, Senior Designer

Reboot attracts a certain kind of staff member: Someone who is driven by many of these same principles naturally. Fervency is one of the most common; we’re idealistic, passionate, and we work hard because of it. But we need to remember not to let our fervor come before our own human needs. Nearly everyone on staff had an example to share of seeing others work too hard. We are all committed to them and driven, but we are working harder to push each other to take breaks.

They mean that our work is always fresh to us.

“Everyone just has this attitude towards getting the job done, even when things don’t work out as expected. I’ve never seen a Reboot team member throw up their hands and say, ‘This isn’t what we signed up for, we’re out of here.’ Everyone wants to make a project work, even if it turns out be a totally different beast than what was initially discussed and planned for.” — Kerry Brennan, Associate Director of Programs

Projects regularly surprise us. In all of our proposals, we are clear about the fact that our process subordinates predictions and assumptions to actual research and engagement. We can’t know the best solution until we have done the research. This, as well as shifting client priorities and needs, mean that many of our projects end up in a different place than where they started.

Looking ahead

We make no claim that our principles are perfect. They can adapt and evolve, both in the way we put them into practice and the way we articulate them with each other and our partners. As the examples above show, we’re adapting them to suit our work every day. But what is vital is that we follow a set of shared principles, because what we believe shapes how we act. That’s the best advice I have to offer, both to business school students and our colleagues at large: Principle-driven work takes adaptation, empathy, and humility. Find colleagues and collaborators who share those characteristics, and I believe you’ll find an environment where a commitment to social progress can thrive.

I recently spoke about our principles, and the story behind them, at my Slush 2015 talk on building a social enterprise. Watch that video here.

gem tech

Celebrating Achievements in Women and Technology

On Monday, December 14th, Nicole Anand will share examples of Reboot’s work advancing the well-being of women and girls through tech at the Gender Equality and Mainstreaming in Technology (GEM-TECH) Awards’ Tech Showcase, hosted by UN Women and ITU.

Reboot staff brainstorm for a project

We Want to Learn, Now Let’s Talk About How

Like many organizations, Reboot works hard to learn from what we do. To us, this means continuously reflecting on our methods and processes. But I was inspired to pause and reflect more deeply about what “learning” means during a recent convening of actors who specialize in governance issues. This governance community is eager to understand its impact, and as a result, “learning” is a hot topic of conversation. However, the term is fast becoming a buzzword and runs the risk of turning into a fuzzword. Our strategy to mitigate this risk is to be precise about how we learn.

The convening, held in Rio de Janeiro, was for TALearn: a community of practitioners, researchers, and donors working together to improve learning in transparency, accountability, and participation efforts around the globe. (Read Brendan Halloran’s summary of the workshop here). Led by the Transparency and Accountability Initiative, this community unites around a shared understanding of what “learning” is, and what it is not. As a community, we believe “learning” has been sequestered in the “monitoring and evaluation” phase of international development projects, which traditionally rely on quantitative exercises, and are conducted either after the completion of interventions or at formal, often far-apart, milestones. Learning should instead be continuous and adaptive to relevant needs, contextual structures, and processes. For TALearners, it is a path away from rigid results-based frameworks that only measure outputs, and toward mechanisms that produce observable governance outcomes.

How TALearners Learn

During the four days in Rio, participants shared inspiring examples of how they learn. For example, one donor described a “pre-mortem” process for when they consider support for an organization. This exercise involves mapping possible red flags across the prospective project cycle. It gives the grantmaker an opportunity to troubleshoot challenges before committing formal support, and metrics that they can use long-term for assessing progress if they move forward.

Another example came from a representative of a non-profit in sub-Saharan Africa, who explained how some donors approach them with problem statements that do not resonate with community needs. To align on a more relevant starting point, the non-profit invites these donors into a co-creative problem definition process. This is an important but difficult action for a grant recipient, as it requires challenging a funder’s assumptions. Yet in their experience, this open dialogue creates vital space for both the nonprofit and the donors to learn, and sets the stage for effective long-term collaboration.

We saw several good practices of learning-in-action during a site visit to Meu Rio, a Brazilian grassroots advocacy organization. Meu Rio constantly tests new ways of mobilizing citizens through online and offline engagement. They run experimental sit-ins, rallies, and automated phone calls to policymakers. They also recruit new team members from the favelas where many of their citizen-driven campaigns arise, and analyze how this helps them successfully influence government to win those campaigns.

These examples motivated me to reflect on our own learning methods at Reboot. I am sharing them with the hopes that others will do the same. Some of our peers have already begun to offer their thoughts. Sam Polk and April Knox of Results for Development wrote an enlightening report on learning methods based on their organization’s experiences. Marine Perron and Janet Eng of Fundar offer their insightful learning around technology platforms in this post.

If we can collectively take stock of how we are operationalizing “learning” as a community, we can also leverage this information to transform how we assess the impact of transparency and accountability initiatives.

How Reboot Learns

One promising step toward being concrete about “learning” is an emerging dialogue that asks us to define, “learning for what and for whom.” Methods that are purpose-driven (e.g. learning for what) and user-centric (e.g. learning for whom and by whom) are critical to answering what and why we are learning. Alan Hudson, the Executive Director of Global Integrity, developed a framework, shared in this post, for his organization’s new learning strategy. It is a useful prompt for the transparency and accountability community to get specific about learning efforts.

I’m using a similar framework here to organize Reboot’s methods of organizational learning, with a focus on our internal “users.” This focus deserves one important caveat: Our client and partner counterparts are an equally critical element of our internal learning environment. However, since we do not direct their learning, I’m focusing here on the four levels of ‘users’ that we can most influence. They are:

  1. The individual
  2. Project teams
  3. Those responsible for learning across projects
  4. Organization-wide directors and strategists

At each of these levels, we operationalize our learning in different ways, depending on our priority “purposes.” For example, some efforts target inclusive, efficient, or effective collaboration. Others aim to improve project execution, such as through strengthening communications with partners. Finally, certain learning activities are developed just to contribute to core professional development.

Across the board, we aim to develop processes and systems to surface, share, and apply learning in everything we do—whether we are developing an SMS-based feedback system, guiding an organization’s strategy, recruiting colleagues, or communicating across our internal units. Here are just a few examples of our specific learning objectives and methods for the four internal user groups:


Icon of an individual User: Individual Rebooter
  • Using Slack, we share knowledge to grow knowledge. We endlessly share articles and reports through an online Slack channel, “Reboot Reads,” to identify and then discuss lessons from our field. Since Reboot works in multiple domains, this is especially useful for learning from sources curated by each other’s expertise.
Icon of a team User: Project teams
  • We develop inclusive processes to ensure all Rebooters are well-versed in ongoing work. Project managers facilitate an inception workshop at the start of every project. Everyone across our operations, design, and programs teams are invited to join these workshops to understand project basics and to offer their own feedback. Through continual process-focused debriefs and sessions to synthesize observations and formulate insights, we make time to intentionally reflect before, during, and after project cycles.
Icon of teams collaborating User: Strategy, Design and Communications teams
  • We continually refine our internal best practices for more efficient use. We developed a “library” of past and present projects, and core approaches. The library serves as a digital archive of much of our institutional knowledge, so that all team members have access to language and lessons learned as we consider how to tackle a new initiative.
Icons of operations at Reboot User: Operations and Programs teams
  • We trial new recruitment processes to best meet the evolving needs of our team and our applicants. Previously, we asked candidates to complete an exercise in the final stages of the interview process to understand their problem-solving approaches. We are currently testing an update to this process by asking candidates to complete part of the exercise earlier, and monitoring how it streamlines hiring.


Opportunities for Further Learning

Reflecting on how we learn at Reboot, I saw two opportunities for growth. One is learning across projects, or program learning. We have improved our ability to learn from individual projects, but we can be more intentional about “connecting the dots.” What do our engagements have in common? How do we tell the stories that tie various aspects of our project portfolio together? How can we use shared project insights to iterate on how we are operationalizing our theory of change? To help us answer these questions, in 2016 we will pilot a recurring organization-wide strategy workshop focused on sussing out common elements across our engagements.

We also have room for growth in individual learning. We are busy people, so we do not always take advantage of all the opportunities to learn. We are not likely to get less busy, but we can discover ways to encourage individual learning within existing constraints. To this end, I am planning a round of internal user research to better understand our own behaviors. Where and when do Rebooters gain knowledge— on a plane? On their daily walk during lunch? On a work-from-home day in the middle of the week? Based on these answers, we can design more appropriate spaces for individual reflection and innovation.

This is only a peek into how Reboot learns, and I hope it is a starting point to a larger conversation. If you have further examples, please share them with us on social media or in your own blog post. We are excited to develop a robust case for how we learn (and strive to learn) in the transparency and accountability community.

Enhancing Data Literacy in Nigeria

On December 11th and 12th, Adam Talsma and Nonso Jideofor  will join the Open Data Party, hosted by Connected Development [CODE], in Benin City, Nigeria. They will facilitate a “skillshare” and moderate a panel on open data and waste management.

Service Design of the Future

Nicole Anand will serve as a guest critic for an Emerging Services course at Parsons’ The New School on Wednesday, December 9th in New York City. The students will present projects inspired by the parameters they developed for how service design will evolve over the next 10 years.

Welcome Laura Summers and Marielle Welander!

Laura joins the Reboot team as a communications design intern. She’s a recent graduate of the Shillington School program in graphic design, and brings her experience in education, project design, and development as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines to creating effective visual communications. Marielle, a programs and communications intern, recently completed a Masters in Anthropology and Development at LSE. She has a background in communications, environmental peacebuilding, and project evaluation, and looks forward to bringing her passion for applied ethnography to Reboot’s team.

The Journey of an Impact Startup

On Wednesday November 10 at 4pm, Zack Brisson will share Reboot’s impact story as part of a Mission Driven Business presentation at the Slush tech conference in Helsinki, Finland. Zack and fellow speakers Aurora Chiste, Ela Madej, and Seth Bannon will reflect on their experiences growing startups with a social mission. Follow along with the livestream or on Twitter at #slush15.

Collaborating for Transparency and Accountability

Nicole Anand will participate in the Transparency and Accountability Initiative’s third annual TALEARN Workshop in Rio de Janeiro. From November 11th to 13th, funders, researchers, and practitioners will share challenges and new ideas on strengthening accountability systems and engaging citizens. The gathering will highlight emerging insights from research and practice in transparency and accountability, as well as encourage cross-discipline collaboration.

Scaling Ideas to Improve Children’s Lives

On November 9th, Zack Brisson will take part in a plenary session on “Doing Development Differently: What’s design got to do with it?” at the Global Innovations for Children and Youth Summit in Helsinki, Finland, hosted by UNICEF and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland, and in conjunction with the Slush tech conference. Participants will share knowledge on how to scale opportunities from the tech and private sector globally.

Introducing “Implementing Innovation: A User’s Manual for Open Government Programs”

We’re proud to launch “Implementing Innovation – A User’s Manual for Open Government Programs.” You can download the PDF here, visit the Implementing-Innovation.org microsite, or contact us for a hard copy.

This guide draws from our experience around the world helping government reformers achieve real change. It is a practical resource for anyone working to implement an open government initiative, whether they are inside government or outside supporters. This post tells the story of how this manual came together. We hope you will find the manual useful, and we welcome feedback at hello@reboot.org.

In 2012, two Mexican civil society leaders were on the cusp of a big decision: whether to take jobs in their federal government. They did not take the deliberation lightly. They had previously founded a non-profit focused on citizen participation in public policy, but had never served in government. They were wrapping up public policy-related graduate degrees. They believed in the ability of government to make a difference, but were more used to going against its bureaucracy than working with it.

But when asked to join an innovation unit within the Office of the President of Mexico, they decided to seize the opportunity to push their values into practice on a national scale.

Those familiar with open government or public sector reform initiatives will recognize the daunting questions they faced next. How would they make the complex, all-encompassing goals of “innovation” and “open government” meaningful and actionable? How would entrenched bureaucrats within the Mexican government respond to reform? How would they secure the specialized talent and funds they needed to realize their ambitions?

As the number of open government programs proliferates around the world, more innovators are finding themselves in similar situations. While guidelines for general and public sector program management abound, the implementation of open government policies and programs remains largely uncharted territory. Many who sign up to pursue innovation in government find themselves challenged to be innovative in their own program management. Case studies of these programs are common, but advice for the nitty-gritty work of execution is still sparse.

This manual was created in response to this widespread need. It benefits heavily from the experience of innovators within the Mexican government and draws on Reboot’s work with open government initiatives around the world. With an openness towards learning and, importantly, toward taking calculated risks, the leaders of the aforementioned innovation unit curated a team to design and launch a portfolio of programs that would advance public sector innovation. They collaborated across agencies and with civil society and the private sector, navigated unfamiliar processes, and pioneered new approaches where needed. They found ways to dig into the questions that initially sound overwhelming.

And you can too.

A growing community is creating new models for effective design and management of government innovation programs. Although too many practitioners are working in isolation, the field is rich with their collective experience and hard-earned wisdom. This guide is one small contribution to this community, as it increasingly comes together to share and exchange advice in the spirit of greater transparency, accountability, and civic participation worldwide.


Implementing Innovation (PDF 1.2MB)

Open Government Learning from Partnerships and Pilots

Nicole Anand, Kerry Brennan, and Panthea Lee will attend the Open Government Partnership Summit in Mexico City from October 27-29, where we’ll launch our new hands-on manual for civic innovators. Reboot will host a panel on learning from pilot programs on Wednesday. On Tuesday, Nicole and Kerry will facilitate a session on interdepartmental coordination, and Panthea will discuss user-centered design for open contracting. Follow us on Twitter to keep track of the team throughout the summit. #OGP15


Making Feedback Matter in Project Implementation

At Feedback Labs’ two-day event on closing feedback loops in aid and philanthropy in Washington DC, Zack Brisson will join a panel to discuss the role of feedback in monitoring and evaluation. Follow along October 15–16 with #FBLSummit.

One woman looking at the camera, one looks away.

Does This Picture Make You Feel Sad? Practical Questions for Ethical Photography

We explore the challenges of following our own photo policy

The international development community has come a long way since the “flies in their eyes” photography and “dollar a day” commercials of the 80s. We have since rejected portrayals that exploit communities’ circumstances and take away people’s dignity. But during a recent Twitter chat hosted by the Overseas Development Institute, many researchers, practitioners, communicators, and photographers trying to put these ethics into practice agreed that we are still falling short.

At Reboot, we take our photo policy seriously. A year ago, we shared our principles and responsibilities for a more empathetic approach to taking and using photos. Yet we’ve found it surprisingly hard to operationalize these guidelines consistently. Here are some of our tools for making it work, and hurdles we still need to overcome.

How We Take Photos

As a fundamental part of our approach, Reboot relies on imagery to capture the complexity and depth of human stories. As such, any member of our team is likely to find themselves behind the camera. We each have our own style and comfort level with photography. But whenever we take photos—whether in a rural village in Nigeria or a government office in Mexico—we try to be transparent, and make the research subject as comfortable as possible.

Introduce the camera, and the photographer, slowly and intentionally.

A camera is obtrusive. Before taking a single frame, Patrick Ainslie, one of our skilled photographers, gradually introduces it as a non-threatening object. He walks into an interview with the camera slung over his shoulder. As the trust and conversation builds, he progressively makes it more visible—first by putting it on a table, then holding it in his hands.

Photographers need to blend in quickly to help ease any tension or anxiety the person we’re interviewing may feel. Since our photographers are also experienced interviewers, joining the interview conversation can be very natural. They don’t just observe from the periphery. But while taking photos, they also try to keep an appropriate distance. They don’t intrude into a research subject’s personal space, but they do stay within his or her line of sight, especially when in someone’s home.

Ask for permission and ensure that each subject understands how his or her photo may be used.

Building trust with anyone we’re interviewing is one of our highest priorities. While photos are nice to have, they’re far less important than protecting this trust—and a person’s safety. At a minimum, we require verbal agreement from a research subject to take or use his or her photo. In instances such as workshops or events where we can easily address all participants at once, we ask for written consent forms. But this is not always possible.

We seek verbal consent by asking two questions:

  1. Do you mind if we take your picture?
  2. Can we use this photo to show the work we do?

The second question usually needs a bit more explanation. We make it clear how we might use a person’s photograph internally—for our eyes only—or externally. To show examples of possible external uses, our photographers carry the below set of laminated examples.

Printed cards showing examples of acceptable photos.

Our camera kit includes examples of our business cards, postcards, and website pages, to help subjects understand how we may use their images.

This photo kit only goes so far when we’re talking to someone who has never used or seen a website. On the other hand, in countries where smartphones are prevalent, people automatically assume that when they say yes to their photo being taken it may be shared publicly. Tailoring this conversation for each context can be tricky.

Asking for permission is probably the most crucial and awkward part of following an ethical photo policy. When we act as researchers, we balance dueling priorities to maintain the flow of the interview and capture it. We still struggle to find the best way to interrupt a conversation to ask for permission. Some of us insert it at the beginning, while others feel more comfortable asking at the end and deleting the photos if the person does not consent.

How We Use Photos

When researchers return to headquarters, they hand over their jpegs as well as the responsibility to our creative team. Those deciding where and how an image appears confront new challenges in portraying people honestly and reflecting our values.

Honor whether or not we’ve gained permission and the context.

It’s best if those who captured photos can sit with the creative team to share the context of the images. Transferring this knowledge is important to using the photos as accurate representations of the actors, the place, and the process.

Ideally, our project teams have already organized their photos into three categories: permission received, permission denied, or unknown. These explicit distinctions make it easy for our creative team to know which photos they can and can’t use. It’s frustrating to have a great photo from a workshop where one person pictured denied permission. But through workarounds, such as cropping that person out or blurring their face, we always honor people’s requests.

Use imagery consistent with our mandate, our mission, and our work.

Sometimes, we find ourselves breaking our own rules. Our photo policy helps us hold each other accountable. When working on a recent output, we were down to the wire on deadline and started to cut some corners in selecting an image to use. The work benefits children—so we picked an image of a happy child for the cover. When Adam Parker, our communications designer, began work on the final draft, he raised some questions: Yes, it is a beautiful photo, but are we portraying the context appropriately? Do we have consent from the child’s parents to use this photo in this way? The answers were “no” and “unknown,” so we chose another photo.

Of course we get excited about beautiful and captivating images of our work. And we all know the time pressure of impending deadlines. But we need these conversations to keep ourselves in line. That’s one reason our photo policy poses the following questions as a guide:

Flowchart depicting Reboot's photo policy


We also use the following principles as guidelines, but not strict rules, to evaluate the emotional tone of our imagery:


Reboot imagery should convey:

  • positivity, opportunity, engagement
  • empowerment
  • agency
  • humanity (people as people, not objects or still lifes)
  • individuality

Reboot imagery should not convey:

  • sadness, neediness, blight
  • stereotypes
  • generalizations
  • a sense of being staged
  • a sense of surprising the subject
  • objectification (people as objects)


Putting a face to the people we work with is a powerful way to show the human context of social problems. Because of this power, photography calls for discipline. Photographers and communications staff have immense control over what type of images they capture and how they present them. Our journalistic instincts may steer us toward an image that’s powerful, but that we don’t have permission to use, doesn’t respect the dignity of its subject, or just isn’t right for the context. We may not always get it completely right, but we use our photo policy as a compass to keep how we present our work aligned with our values.

Update: November 3, 2015
Responses to our original blog post sparked a productive internal and external discussion on the exclusion of imagery that portrays sadness, anxiety, or discomfort. As a result of this conversation, we’ve updated our policy, and this blog post, to reflect some additional nuance: The flowchart now directs you to “proceed with caution” if the subject’s body language communicates these emotions, instead of rejecting the photo. We’ve given relatively more weight to the question of whether or not the subject appears to have agency, moving it up in the decision chain. We also condensed the set of guidelines we use to define the emotional tone of Reboot imagery, clarifying that we do not use these as strict rules. Read more about the rationale behind these changes in our comments section.

Sweet Spot Cover Image

Seeking the Sweet Spot

The first rule of public sector programs is: Get political buy-in! Implementers need political support at both the strategic and operational levels to get approvals and resources.

For open government innovators—people pushing boundaries and challenging conventional attitudes about how government works—this advice is even more important. Open government initiatives are often designed and implemented by people who are new to government and working within specialized innovation units. This, combined with the essentially collaborative and cross-sectoral nature of such efforts, means that they need counterparts within other government agencies to carry out the projects that make up any open government program. Thus, the selection and development of projects and partners is essential to programmatic success: Without the sustained interest and commitment of the right people inside those agencies, the projects will wither away.

Reboot recently had the opportunity to closely accompany an open government program implemented by the Mexican government: Innovation Agents is a fellowship that pairs government insiders and outsiders to spur innovative approaches to problem solving. In the first generation, five teams developed technology-based solutions to pressing policy problems for five government agencies.

Sweet Spot Diagram

One of the lessons we learned firsthand through our developmental evaluation of the program was that there is a “sweet spot” for the level of political buy-in. If implementers can’t align with the political priorities of their counterparts, they may never develop the institutional ties needed to make lasting change, or even get a project off the ground. Failure to gain enough political buy-in is, unfortunately, a familiar experience for program implementers. We saw one of the Innovation Agents projects struggle to attract the minimum political interest to secure institutional linkages with the right people inside their host agency, even though citizens reacted well to their product.

On the other hand, there can be such a thing as too much political buy-in, when high-level interest from too many meddling interested colleagues closes off the space needed to experiment and risk failure. To highlight this less-discussed risk, we share here a story of this less-common—but no less frustrating—possibility: one Innovation Agents project that attracted so much political importance that it temporarily faced “priority paralysis.”

This project had significant political support right from the start of the fellowship; in fact, it was almost totally integrated into the plans of a specific department. However, this tight interweaving of the department (and Ministry’s) strategic priorities with a pilot project that was intended to be nimble and experimental led to some paralysis. In an early conversation, the team members framed the project as something that was originally small, but that had become a priority:

“Now that there is this new focus on the project as well, there is more pressure for the pilot to deliver a good product. We don’t want to waste this opportunity, so it’s better to deliver it late, but to have a good product that demonstrates the right things.”

The pilot became so important that its leadership felt it needed to be almost perfect, and they hesitated to start prototyping. Months later, a desire to complete their commitment to the Innovation Agents program by delivering a finished product influenced a different take.

At that stage, Ministry-wide integration became a barrier to product development. When deadlines neared, the team decided to trade off the focus on institutional integration and instead deliver an independent project. While this shift helped them deliver a working product, its future is now in question because it was not integrated into the processes of the institution where it was originally meant to live.


So, how to find that sweet spot? There is no magic formula, as needed support depends on what a project seeks to achieve. In general, implementers are still more likely to suffer from too little high-level interest than too much. But in selecting a potential project for an experimental public sector innovation program—and working to build interest for one underway—here are some guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Look for projects that have political awareness and a supportive environment, but be wary of those that already have pre-developed (and inflexible) expectations.

  • Focus on the minimum information that counterparts need to feel included at key points, without stoking worries or overreactions to the inevitable ups and downs of innovation.

  • Tout the project’s impact potential, but emphasize that it is a proof of concept—consider how you might adapt the old adage, “under-promise, over-deliver,” as you sustain interest.

  • Develop a clear description of the steps you hope to take after the pilot is a success; describing these farther-down-the-road activities may help alleviate scrutiny and unrealistic expectations for your immediate work. (And, this might help you take a bit of pressure off yourself as well!)

Editor’s Note: In the coming months, Reboot will be releasing more “lessons learned,” like this one, from our collaboration with the Innovation Agents team. Please subscribe to our newsletter, and we’ll keep you updated on new releases.

Adapting Service Design for Big Social Impact

On October 2nd, Zack Brisson will share lessons on how service designers can adapt their methods to meet the unique challenges of the public sector at the Service Design Global Conference in New York City. With 600+ participants, #SDGC15 is the world’s largest gathering of service design professionals.

Storytelling for Better Governance

On October 3rd, Nicole Anand will present storytelling methods for transparency and accountability efforts at the Media Rise Festival in Washington DC. Register to join her and her fellow panelists at the forum with the promo code “RISEWITHME” to get 25% off admission.

Exchanging Insights on Data for Government Innovation

Nicole Anand will present ideas from a paper on “How the Governance Community Can Influence Decisions Using Data” at the Bloomberg Data for Good Exchange, on Monday, September 28th in New York City. The Data for Good Exchange promotes the use of data-driven problem solving for social good. Follow along with #d4gx.