When we face change it’s a great time to step back and be reflective about the thing we’re struggling to change or the thing that has been changed for us. It’s hard to abstract while we’re in the middle of things, when things are moving along nicely, our instinct is to just keep at “the work”. This year a network I’ve been closely involved with changed significantly and it forced me to think about what matters, its value to me and it’s purpose more broadly.
Every year the members of the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP: neighborhoodindicators.org) gather twice in different cities to share, learn, reconnect and struggle together with the tough issues of running community data organizations. Almost twenty years old, this network is now 36 cities strong and boast university departments, think tanks, nonprofits, government agencies and collaborative mixes of these in each city. I love the people who attend, their varied perspectives and the great work that inspires me to do better, do more and to implement good practices successful elsewhere in my work and my city. To be honest these meetings (the conferences are self run and rather informal, and feature NO vendors anywhere!) are the highlight of my year, every year.
In 2013, due to a few factors we are only convening once. This is a major change from the seven years I’ve been involved and comes after I leave my three year term sitting on the national executive committee that helps to govern the network. I’ve struggled with this departure from the norm and it has caused me to think a lot about what NNIP really is to me. I’ve talked with others about these ideas but they do not represent a surveyed perspective nor broad agreement that I’m aware of.
Thinking over what is truly unique or valuable about NNIP yields this list for me:
· No fluff sharing of projects, tech, failures and successes in other cities.
· A dynamic mix of execs, researchers, technologists and academics.
· Honest discussions about the pros and cons of systems, software, products and approaches.
· Very honest discussions and thinking through business sustainability amongst peers who face similar struggles in other cities- providing a safe place given the lack of ‘competitors’ in the room.
· A chance for junior staff to begin presenting their work, learning to communicate issues and data in public.
· Broad awareness of who is an expert in certain issues nationally and a relationship that ensures they will respond to you when needed.
· Connections in many cities to allow for effective referrals of inquiries that should be met by local experts.
· Social connections to people you respect and appreciate who inspire you and also learn from your work. Lots of humility.
Putting all of this together and stepping back from who we are and what we do as a network I’m faced with some discoveries. Our network is a face to face entity. It exists almost entirely in person, in the same place at the same time. The strong bonds that form are sustained on the sidelines between convenings but are really nurtured in person. The attempts to foster online webinars and workgroups have come and gone every couple of years and always have flopped. I think there are three reasons for this- firstly the fact that we all have other learning networks and webinar type options in our work. Secondly, we are very much a personal network that relies on good relationships, not remote web based presentations. Lastly I think this is because of the style of network support offered by the Urban Institute staff who do a great job running the convenings and supporting the network broadly. When I consider the networks and collaborations that Urban Strategies Council supports, such as our Alameda County Community Asset Network, we put a huge amount of resources into staffing and supporting this kind of network. The fact that our UI team have other, very demanding roles within their jobs suggests that our network would likely benefit from a configuration in which there are one or two dedicated people managing and supporting the NNIP network. I don’t offer this as a criticism, but as a reflection on who we are, how we function, our value and our needs, painted against the competing obligations of regular researcher roles in a major institution. It’s time for the NNIP to fully staff its coordination (with more great leadership from Kathy Pettit I hope!) and to ensure we understand our value to our members and support that to the fullest.
After abstracting our activities into a set of valued components and priorities it’s important to think through what you (or we) can do to ensure those strengths are sustained, our weaknesses either tackled or discarded and our network operates as best it can. Moving to a single meeting per year has the very unfortunate effect of destabilizing the single biggest advantage of our network- the strong relationships within this field. In our twice yearly format you can miss one (say you have a baby, it happens) and only have a year gap between reconnecting with your peers and plugging back into the sharing and learning network. In a yearly format, miss just one conference and you face a two year gap with no formal connection. It’s next to impossible to build up the typically strong relationships we see within NNIP in a yearly interaction and such a large gap ensures all newcomers will stay outsiders and strangers to the vast majority of seasoned members.
This is a serious weakness for us and my suggestion is that those budgeting and managing our network should do all they can to maintain our twice yearly format. It works. It has been successful in so many ways and the cost of cutting back is far greater than the savings of one less event to fund. Sustaining a core and building networks is valuable work, we’ve exhibited this remarkably well and must continue this aspect of our work together. I’m looking forward to our network assessment and the chance to objectively consider our future together, NNIP is a rare and wonderful thing and we need to be serious in maintaining and improving it!