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.

Welcome to Dave Algoso!

We are thrilled to welcome Dave Algoso to the family as Reboot’s new Director of Programs. Dave comes to Reboot from a distinguished career as an international development practitioner with Mercy Corps. At Reboot, he has the humble mission of bringing complex, multi-stakeholder governance and development programs into reality. We can’t wait for him to dive in!

Patrick Ainslie Interviewed by Moncole

Patrick Ainslie was featured on Monocle’s “Entrepreneurs” radio show today, where he discussed opportunities for inclusive financial services targeting China’s migrant workers.

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.

Ethan Wilkes in The Atlantic

We’re excited to see Ethan Wilkes‘s article on gao li dai, or informal high interest loans, in rural China picked up by The Atlantic!

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.

Panthea Lee Featured in Tech President

“Open government” is supposed to be transformative. But how will we know it when we see it? Panthea Lee explains in Tech President that understanding the impact of open gov initiatives will require a transformative approach to evaluation as well.

Ethan Wilkes in Tea Leaf Nation

In rural China, “high interest loans are part of an informal economy that has grown out of a lack of viable alternatives,” Ethan Wilkes writes in Tea Leaf NationThe article is an excerpt from Reboot’s recently released Embracing Informality: Designing Financial Services for China’s Marginalized

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!


Ethan Wilkes Attends Citizen Voices

Ethan Wilkes is attending the World Bank’s Citizen Voices conference today in Washington DC. The conference focuses on how citizen engagement can strengthen policy making and service delivery in development. Check out the event at World Bank Live or follow updates at #EngageVoices on Twitter.

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.

Kate Krontiris Hosts Panel at DML2013

Kate Krontiris will be speaking at the Digital Media and Learning Conference in Chicago tomorrow. DML2013 is organized around the theme “Democratic Futures: Mobilizing Voices, and Remixing Youth Participation.” Kate will be hosting one panel titled Tackling the Long Tail Problem of Youth Civic Engagement and participating on another called Government By and For Digital Natives.

Welcome to Dane Roth & Samantha Hammer!

We’re incredibly excited to welcome Samantha Hammer and Dane Roth to the Reboot family! As Research Manager, Sammantha will be Reboot’s research process guru, seeing our projects through from start to finish. Dane comes to Reboot on the heels of studying Chinese graffiti culture and will be supporting programmatic work across a range of domestic and international project as Programs Intern.

Patrick Ainslie in Huffington Post

“Two years ago, Xu Hanping and Gao Jianjun arrived in Shijiazhuang with the clothes on their back and a mission: find a laoban,Patrick Ainslie writes in The Huffington Post.

Patrick Ainslie Featured in Technode

Patrick Ainslie explains mobile money for China’s migrants in Technode. The article is an excerpt from Reboot’s recently released Embracing Informality: Designing Financial Services for China’s Marginalized

Kate Krontiris Talks at OpenGov Hub

Kate Krontiris will speaking at OpenGov Hub‘s brown bag lunch series tomorrow, March 13 – come say hi! OpenGov Hub is the day-to-day home to a range of people and organizations working on the open government agenda.

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.

Patrick Ainslie in Shanghaiist

“The foundation of most migrant workers’ sustenance is their relationship to a laoban,” Patrick Ainslie writes in Shanghaiist. The article is an excerpt from Reboot’s recently released Embracing Informality: Designing Financial Services for China’s Marginalized

Panthea Lee Featured in Ethnography Matters

In Ethnography Matters latest edition, Panthea Lee asks how to reach those living “off the grid”, such as victims of human trafficking, in the era of Big Data policy making.

Ethan Wilkes & Patrick Ainslie at NYU Wagner

Reboot’s Patrick Ainslie and Ethan Wilkes will be spending the afternoon at the 2013 Wagner Public Service Career Conference. We’re looking for exceptionally talented collaborators to help expand our team as we enter our next phase of growth. If you’ve got the right stuff, come say hi!