The strategy session at ORGCon was well attended, and there was a lively, positive discussion about the future direction of the organisation. Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, presented their annual report then led a discussion on developing a new medium-term strategy for the group. I took notes from which I’ve assembled the following. If you were there please feel free to comment with corrections or anything I missed!
Jim said that ORG is growing by about 25% per year. It is funded by a combination of grants and its 1400 paying supporters. ORG now has six employees, up from three in 2010, with roles including technical, campaigning, community support, policy work and organisational management. ORG also draws on volunteer expertise from its advisory council, ORGLaw and its board of directors. The advisory council is made up subject-matter experts whose remit is to ensure consistency and accuracy in policy as well as to comment and give interviews in the media. ORGLaw is a community of volunteer legal experts that provides legal advice and engages in pro-bono case-work (though ORG is keen to point out that it’s doesn’t offer this as a service). The board of directors manages the organisation, oversees its work and ensures financial stability.
Free speech has been a big area this year. Censorship has become fashionable! Work on privacy and copyright has continued and ORG is starting to do more work on helping people know and use their rights to defend themselves online too.
ORG overspent on its campaign against the digital economy act, and while it has now recouped some of that overspend, ensuring financial security is a priority for the board. The board is also keen to focus on the ORG community, getting them involved and engaged, which is important for credability and also because grassroots campaigning is more effective than a few people lobbying centrally.
Up to now ORG’s strategy hasn’t been formalised or published explicitly. It’s still been working to some core objectives though: to get a thousand people to pay for a digital rights organisation; to create a UK-based movement; to be a press clearing house; and to defend digital rights. These objectives have now been achieved so it’s time for the organisation to review and look forward.
There are some things ORG can do better: more community building, more social activity, more self-organising action. It needs to review the skills of its staff and plug any gaps, particularly in its legal, communications and fundraising expertise.
What does ORG want to achieve? What are the threats? How should the organisation decide on these things?
ORG has 1400 paying supporters, 30,000 email subscribers and various partner organisations as well as staff, volunteers, board and advisors. ORG wants everyone to be involved in its strategy-making process. This will be a lot of work yet it want to have a thorough discussion.
These are just bullet points from the conversation as it flowed around the room.
As well as individuals, it became apparent that a number of other groups were represented in the discussion, including OKFN, No2ID and the Association for Learning Technology.
- Should ORG campaign on a number of different issues or should it focus on a single issue? Could Cory Doctorow’s talk on the preservation of general-purpose computing be used as a unifying idea and exemplar of what ORG does? A way of choosing whether to pursue a particular issue? ORG’s diversity is a real strength. It should be careful about unifying everything under the same umberella. ORG as a brand is already strong. It’s about rights rather than defending an infrastructure.
- The technology of open commmunications is almost indistinguishable from open communications themselves.
- What is it that makes ORG distinct from a broad-based Human Rights organisation? A key distinguishing factor is its technical understanding and its ability to explain the implications of technology to people.
- Are ORG going to put together a document and put it forward for debate or open up the floor? Other groups in the room have done the latter previously and it was chaos! Jim: It will be nearer the latter – have spoken to NCVO about it. Their advice was to try lots of different ways to get the information and then synthesize it later. How can ORG synthesise the results of the consultation into a strategy once it’s gathered all this information? ORG wants to ask a small group of people to coordinate the strategy generation – a steering group. ORG expects this process will take 3-4 months. It will be an expensive process in both time and money. It’s only worth doing right.
- ORG has to take responsibility for deciding what the stragety is. Really important that people know this in advance and that the decision is ORG’s and this is final.
- Some people are supporters because they have money to commit but not necessarily the time. These people may want to participate in strategy development but need to see a starting point. Don’t make people invent ideas from scratch – that would represent a high barrier to entry. Lower barrier to entry by asking questions, then iterate and publish drafts often, solicit comments on those drafts, keep going around. The process needs to have both transparency and feedback.
- Is there value for other organisations that might appear as a byproduct of ORG’s strategy development? What is the fabric of interactions between ORG and other organisations? What about the organisations that haven’t been born yet? Can ORG document its processes and metaprocesses in the interests of people who are trying to clone it? To what extent should ORG act as a clearing house for connecting organisations in this field with each other?
- How does the strategy relate to Europe? Jim: there’s some detail in the annual report. ORG’s work with EDRI has advanced over the last couple of years (EDRI now have some staff too).
- There are some obvious gaps in the UK digital-rights lanscape, for example we don’t have an independent artists’ network, or a creative commons media organisation.
- The strategy needs regular review – perhaps annually. Important to have worked out what the strategy is for and to not overreach those goals. ORG cannot predict the future and things will always come up that aren’t covered so the strategy must allow for this.
- Are there other more general human-rights organsiations that need our expertise? How can we help them? Can ORG present itself as an insurance policy to general HR organsitions – they can only continue their work if they have the ability to speak – which ORG fights to defend. It’s important not to dilute ORG’s core remit by subordinating its agenda to those of other organisations.
- How broad a church does ORG need to be to achieve its aims? Mustn’t be too cautious though.
- Technology is different to everything else – ORG can act as a hub.
- ORG need to understand how it influences in order to achieve the changes it wants.
- ORG tends to be reactive. The forthcoming London mayoral election will be electronically counted. Is there anything ORG can do in advance? Organisational flexibility is hampered by having to apply for funding.