What's a political techie?

2006-01-08 6-minute read

I’ve been thinking recently about what it means to be a political techie, particularly around the conflicts between having a consulting relationship and a political relationship with the same “client” or “organization.”

For grounding purposes, let’s first consider what it means to be a political organizer using a classic example of a union organizer. For the sake of argument, let’s ignore the state of unions in the country today and instead focus on the methodology.

A union organizer walks into a non-union shop, where people are making very little money, have poor to zero job prospects outside of the particular company they are working for, and in many cases are the sole earner for a family. This union organizer’s job is to persuade them to organize, something that runs a very high risk of getting them fired. The organizer has to convince them to do something against their immediate self-interest, to take a major risk personally in order to get something much better in the long run not just for them, but for the entire group of people in the shop and for the global labor movement.

The union organizer will always be criticized for not caring about the individuals in the campaign (and many bad organizers really don’t care much about them). However, a good organizer, while caring about the individuals in the campaign, understands that the first priority is the bigger group, and by taking care of the bigger group (i.e. unionizing the shop), the individuals in the group will be better cared for in the long run.

What does this have to do with tech? Well, if we were to use this analogy to examine the role most tech consultants provide to their clients, it would be closer to the union organizer picking off the wealthiest of the workers and individually counseling them on how to get a raise or a promotion. And, the consultant would be paid by that individual worker.

Now, don’t go through the roof on this one. I’m not making this analogy to say there is no place for tech consultants, particularly in the social justice world. Given the reality of technology and the social justice movement, we’d be lost without all the enormous work tech consultants provide to individual organizations. This work is vital.

The point of the analogy is to demonstrate the conflict between providing individual support to organizations and doing political organizing for the entire sector.

So how does this play out?

It often plays out when we are asked for a software recommendation. Let’s take the office suite as an example.

As technologists, I think it’s hard to argue with the idea that we would all be best served by having an open document standard. In other words, a standard way for saving word processor files, spread sheet files, etc that is controlled by a body that is (at the least) semi-independent of any single corporation and (at the least) semi-democratic. With an open document standard, all the competing and various software programs that read and write office files could simply adopt one standard and voila: we have interoperability on a level we’ve never had in 25 years of office suites. Google, MS Office, OpenOffice, KWriter, the gazillions of groupware programs, and future programs we’ve never even dreamed of could all read and write the same type of file with a reasonable expectation of having the file look and behave the same way.

So, how do we organize our people to make that happen? Again, if politics is our guiding princicple, we organize a campaign with all the groups we work with to convince them to remove Microsoft Office from every computer within arms reach and install OpenOffice, which currently supports the best candidate for an open document standard.

Whoa! But that’s going to cause our fee-paying clients a lot of pain - they’re going to have to learn a new program, they’re going to have to deal with poor translation of files between their partners who are still using Microsoft Office, and they’re going to complain to me big time. Meanwhile, I’m going to have to work harder, explaining why this is a good idea. And, OpenOffice might not succeed, which will mean I’ve led them down the wrong path!! And all this means I might get fired!!

Yes. That’s true and that’s the conflict.

I’ve been in this game for a while, so I know that a lot of seasoned consultants will respond with: of course there is a conflict. That’s why the role of the consultant is not to make the decision for the client, but instead to layout the options and have the client make the decision. That’s what client empowerment is all about. Too often consultants tell the client what to do and that’s bad.

Agreed - telling a group what to do is bad. Forcing a group to remove MS Office and install OpenOffice is not a political or organizing move.

However, a union organizer does not walk into a non-union shop and say here are the pro’s and con’s of unionizing and here are the pro’s and con’s of working the way you’re working now. I’m going back to my hotel. Give me a call when you’ve made a decision.

While a good organizer makes clear what the dangers and pitfalls are of building a union, the organizer is there with a mission and a goal and, most importantly, a bigger vision of a better world. A traditional tech consultant is there (by virtue of paycheck) only to help with that single organization’s tech needs.

A big part of this conflict is funding based. While social justice movements need all the individual tech attention they can get, there are a lot of consultants out there. It’s an entire industry drawing thousands upon thousands of individuals, nonprofits and for profits all with the goal of meeting the individual needs of each nonprofit and getting re-imbursed by each individual nonprofit for the work accomplished.

In the late nineties, when the need for tech support to social justice organizations first surfaced, a different model was proposed, and in many places implemented. It was often referred to as the “Circuit Rider” model - with one techie managing a circuit of different nonprofits. The circuit rider was either funded by a foundation or the contributions of all the nonprofits receiving service. While this was the hot topic of the nineties, the concept has largely disappeared, mainly, I think people would argue, because it didn’t work.

I think that model will always fail if the premise is to provide individual consulting for each individual nonprofit. That relationship is better served by a consultant working just for you. However, it may be time to revive the circuit rider model for doing the political work. The social justice movement needs individual tech attention, but it also needs a broader political vision and the political leadership in the tech world to support it and move it forward.