Principles & Tools to Support a Healthy Network

The principles outlined below inform the tools & software we’re adopting as a Network Team to best support our work, including how we communicate, how we document our work, and how we track and share our learnings. I’ll follow with posts about the recommended tools. This is an endeavor that’s years in the making and informed through countless discussions with Brigade members, through my involvement as a Brigade leader, and through my experience as a CFA staff member.

Why now? As the Network expands and launches pilots of our National Action Teams and Communities of Practice, it’s apparent that we need more standardization and support for decentralized, open tools so that a greater number of volunteers can engage and self direct work in the Network. The hope in outlining these principles is that Network members can understand why we’re placing greater emphasis on specific tools and see the reasoning behind each choice. Some tool adoptions may require additional training and learning, beyond the proprietary tools we may all be used to working with. These principles also serve as sound reasoning for making the additional investment of time & training to adopting tools which are more sustainable, long-term.

Lastly, it’s important to emphasize that these principles are a starting point as we launch new program areas. I intend to create a pathway for Network members to adopt and own as many of this content as possible, including by exploring ways to open these principles for suggestions from the Network. Right now, the best way to share feedback on this is by commenting on this post.

Principles

Last updated: 2022-02-11T13:30:00Z
This is a working document & you are welcome to comment on this post

  1. There is no one tool & there never will be. Staff priority lies in clarifying the interactions and pathways between tools, not in identifying the perfect tool.
  2. Open & free > closed & proprietary. As a Network, we are leaders in the field of civic technology. Our hope is that our projects, principles & practices are replicated. Given our foundation of open source principles, this means that the tools selected here for long term investment are heavily biased toward tools that are either essential to open source work (like GitHub) or are open source themselves (Discourse) because our hope is that these practices can be replicated. We do not want to force our community into “vendor lock” when CFA as an org gives our partners the opposite advice.
  3. Accessibility & ease of use. We strive to adopt tools which make our work more accessible to a greater number of people. This also means that sometimes, a proprietary tool (like Slack) will continue to be used, because of its broad adoption and familiarity among a large base of people who interact with the Network.
  4. Decentralized collaboration, centralized standards. Network members need to be able to freely organize, collaborate, and share information in a decentralized way. But setting the consistency, standards, and moderation for each tool should be done in a centralized manner.
  5. Create once, publish everywhere. In an effort to minimize confusion and maintain consistency, I recommend we follow this principle in outlining Network architecture.
  6. Iterative & timeline dependent. Some tech recommendations might apply to quick fixes. Others require long term investment. This landscape is meant to change and the recommendations reflect that.

A key need for all volunteer project work is the ability to operate in a decentralized manner. This means that we need to create an architecture which allows volunteers to freely organize, discuss, and operate. The tasks associated with decentralized work include:

  • Creating events & scheduling zoom meetings
  • Sharing meeting notes
  • Documenting projects
  • Updating project status
  • Listing tasks to be completed & troubleshooting projects

Our two most powerful tools in this realm are GitHub and Discourse. The recommendations which follow this post reflect substantial shifts in both establishing consistent practices and in how the Network Team and the Network itself operates.

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I logged in just to :heart: this!

If I could suggest an additional principle it would be around collection and use of user data and transparency about those activities.

In particular I would like us to consider risks associated with tools from three types of organizations:

  • Small / new organizations hoping to be acquired. The data often goes along with the sale, under questionable terms.
  • Small / new organizations that may be overly ambitious about how securely they can handle very personal data.
  • Organizations where the US legal system would be especially inadequate to address risks and harms.

There are no perfect solutions and some of these concerns may even be contradictory! But I would love for these concerns to be part of the better civic tech we bring into the world.

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How do we reconcile the consonance and dissonance between the Terms of Service—ones in which users must unilaterally agree to use the tools—and some of the principles, community guidelines, and notions of cooperative communication we ask of our fellow community members?

Thanks for point to the Terms of Service @margaretcarolfine - do you have a specific aspect that feels out of line or dissonant? I’m happy to get clarity on those points but I don’t currently see any dissonance.

My interpretation of the Terms of Service, in plain language, is that contributors have a responsibility to:

  • Not share anything they don’t have the right to share (like internal company guidance documents or anything which is intellectual property of someone else);
  • Not share anything which is spammy, inappropriate, or trying to sell something;

Is there a particular part of the TOS which raises concerns to you as a contributor?

Thank you for your reply. It is appreciated.

The dissonance seems to manifest between how the tool is designed to foster civilized discussion in a community and the nature of Terms of Service Agreement that are “take it or leave it” contracts where consumers agree to terms without negotiation or discussion in order to use the product.

On the Discourse website, the company discusses how its tool is designed to be civilized through its trust system that allows a community to build “a natural immune system to defend itself from trolls, bad actors, and spammers — and the most engaged forum members” in the governance of a community. Discourse further states on its website, “We put a trash can on every street corner with a simple, low-friction flagging system. Positive behaviors are encouraged through likes and badges. We gently, constantly educate members in a just-in-time manner on the universal rules of civilized discourse.” The CfA principles, community guidelines, and cooperative communication further underpin Discourse’s intention to have civilized discussion with a focus on centering the human.

The quoted information below on Terms of Service Agreements is from a website, faircontracts.org.

I would suggest that Terms of Service Agreements (like the one I believe used by Discourse to register) are Standard Form Contracts “that employ standardized, non-negotiated provisions, usually in preprinted forms.” They are sometimes referred to as “boilerplate contracts,” “contracts of adhesion,” or “take it or leave it” contracts. “The terms, often portrayed in fine print, are drafted by or on behalf of one party to the transaction.” The consumer typically cannot discuss much less negotiate the terms, while the company reserves a unilateral right to terminate under most conditions—civilized or not to protect against legal liability.

Mainly “Standard form, business-to-consumer contracts fulfill an important efficiency role in the mass distribution of goods and services. These contracts have the potential to reduce transaction costs by eliminating the need to negotiate the many details of a contract for each instance a product is sold or a service is used.”

Without getting too esoteric with this, I see all of your points - and think we’re not necessarily just talking about the specifics of a terms of service but are actually uncovering the inherent incongruities and dissonance between commonly maintained, shared spaces like Discourse (& the values reflected in the guidance materials for this site) and our entire legal system, which is set up to protect private property, “intellectual property” and individual rights above all commonly shared or community goals. That’s just a bit of what comes up to me when I read through this.

I still don’t see where the actual fine print of the TOS, beyond the setup of the “take or leave” arrangement (which I don’t believe is something that is likely to change) is actually questionable, though. I see the TOS as an enclosure of sorts which restricts us primarily from trolls, profit-seeking, and sharing private/intellectual property. The TOS sets the fence & boundaries for people to engage in the platform, inside of which we can control the content, tone, rules, etc. While those TOS terms might be set up as ones the user of this site has to take or leave, they also don’t feel particularly burdensome or even out of line…

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