Favorited From the Archives: Ton’s Thoughts on Work Life Boundaries, Barriers and Attractors by Nancy White

A wonderful surprise to see a post in my feed reader discussing a posting I wrote 14 years ago. Nancy White is going through her old draft blogposts and dug this one up that has been in her drafts folder for all that time. The posting she refers to, Work Life Boundaries Barriers and Attractors, talks about things that help me create and stay in flow or obstruct my flow as a nomadic worker. Nancy draws a parallel with the past two years where those questions have become relevant for a wide new group of people. Indeed, I’ve revisited such questions myself during the pandemic.

The timing of her post is also a wonderful coincidence. Nancy and I have known eachother for a long time, despite her being on the US west coast and me in the Netherlands. We blogged about similar themes at a time that meant you’d automatically end up in conversation, and first met f2f in 2004. Since then we visited each others homes, had dinner with eachothers family and friends, and shared an increasing number of connections to other people. The wonderful coincidence here is that right as I found Nancy’s blogpost in my feedreader I had just ended a 1 hour conversation with Bev Trayner and Etienne Wenger, both close long time connections of Nancy. I talked to them about possible participation for my team in a training they regularly give, the format of which itself evolved from E’s and my very first birthday unconference that Bev attended. My 2008 blogpost that Nancy refers to discusses part of the outcomes of that unconference, as one of the sessions had been about the topic of organising one’s work effectively as a knowledge nomad.

I think that’s a wonderful way of things going full circle. Which all that time has been the title of Nancy’s blog.

Full Circle, connections for a changing world, online and off…

Nancy White

After three years it was a regular Koningsdag (king’s day) again. The royal family was visiting Maastricht and so were we as we’re spending a few days in the hills of Limburg. We joined the crowd at the corner of Het Bat and Graanmarkt where Y sitting on my shoulders got to see the royal family just like three years ago when they visited our hometown. She probably thinks it normal now for King’s Day to see the king himself, instead of a coincidence. We had a fine relaxed day, mostly away from the crowds but still enjoying the city. Coffee, strolling in the sun and through the beautiful city, extended lunch, more strolling, crossing the river, and then the bus back to the village we’re staying in.

Nancy writes about the importance of endings, a rich source for reflection and of insights. And suggests it as something we should be more literate in, more deliberate in as a practice.

Yes, endings, acknowledging them, shaping them, is important.
When the BlogWalk series already had practically ended, with the last session being 18 months or so in the past, it was only when I posted about formally ending it, that it was truly done. It allowed those who participated to share stories about what it had meant to them, to say thanks, and it was a release for the organisers as well.

In our short e-book about unconferencing your birthday party (in itself a gift we sent to the participants of the most recent event it described, a year afterwards) we made a point to write about a proper ending. We had been at many events where the end was just when people left, but also at those where the end was a celebration of what we did together. We wrote "So often we were at a conference where the organizers didn’t know how to create a proper end to it. Either they’re too shy to take credit for what they’ve pulled off or they assume that most people left already and the end of the program is the last speaker to be on stage. Closure is important. It doesn’t have to be long, it doesn’t have to be a closing keynote, but it should serve as a focal point for everyone to end the day and give them an opportunity to thank you and each other as a group, not just as individuals. We gathered everyone after the last session and made some closing remarks, the most important of which was ‘thank you!’. […] Obviously this was the time to open up a few bottles as well."

In an Open Space style setting as a moderator I find releasing the space at the end for me usually involves strong emotions, coming down to earth from creating and surfing the group’s collective energy and shared attention, from weaving the tapestry of the experience together. When E and I helped P create such a space in 2019 I wrote afterwards "When Peter thanked Elmine and they embraced, that was the moment I felt myself release the space I had opened up on Day 1 when I helped the group" settle into the event and "set the schedule. Where the soap bubble we blew collapsed again, no longer able to hold the surface tension. I felt a wave of emotions wash through me, which I recognise from our own events as well. The realisation of the beauty of the collective experience you created, the connections made, the vulnerability allowed, the fun had, the playfulness. We wound down from that rush chatting over drinks in the moon lit back yard."

Endings such as those Nancy describes and the examples I mention, need their own space. It’s not a side effect of stopping doing something, but an act in itself that deserves consideration. As Nancy suggests, a practice.

I notice a strong and persistent reluctance with Dutch civil servants to use the word citizen. Apparantly because the Dutch word ‘burger’ carries overtones of ‘kleinburgerlijk’, petty bourgeois, of bourgeoisie, and of the general disdain university students voice for ‘burgers’ (with ‘burger’ being bandied about as an insult amongst them, which gained national usage through the 1990’s Jiskefet satirical tv program). Many civil servants said to me they think the word citizen is ‘old fashioned’.

I find this not only an oddity, but also detrimental to public governance and potentially dangerous.
Not using the word citizen obscures how in the relationship to government citizens have basic human rights, specific constitutional rights, and some duties. A citizen has autonomy and a certain power vis-a-vis the government.
Not using the word citizen, easily obscures that power and those rights to civil servants.

I hear civil servants talk about

  • ‘customers’, usually in the context of providing public service
  • ‘clients’, often in the context of the social domain, reminiscent of how therapists talk
  • ‘inhabitants’, usually a hand-wavy acknowledgement that other people are involved, but in an abstracted, passive or even statistical way,
  • ‘users’, usually carried over from an IT related context
  • or worst case ‘residents’ as if you’re institutionalised.

In all these cases it creates either a distance to people or implies power assymmetries. It makes it easier to dehumanise people. The consequence is the creation of policies about people, but not with those people, because people are never perceived to be on equal footing. Policy gets done over people’s heads, done to them. Participatory processes are then easily reduced to a ritual, a checkbox to mark, something that is a pain and a drag without which your policy process would be so much more efficient. Clients, users and inhabitants are never equal to those who determine policies, whereas citizens would have to be met eye to eye. Acknowledging people as citizens would require curiosity about their needs, motives and actual experiences when developing policy.

Every civil servant I’ve worked with cares about good governance and public service, and individually they wouldn’t treat people as passive objects on which their policies operate, but collectively in their work context they do abstract people out of the equation. And their own choice of words contributes to that, makes it more likely to happen, I think.

In conversations with our public sector clients I always talk about citizens with emphasis. I often also introduce myself as citizen (not as consultant e.g.).

In our projects we always emphasize the need for civil servants to go outside, to check their data and documents against the reality outside, and as often as possible create conversations with real people, with citizens.

With the drive towards ‘data driven’ work, this is ever more essential. Data must be presumed to always describe only a sliver of reality, and to always do so badly on top of that. There is always a check against reality necessary when you want to start relying on data in policy decisions. Visit the places and the people represented in the data, do you recognise them? Do you have a sufficiently nuanced, detailed and rich view on an issue before making a decision? Do people’s stories validate the data, is their meaning incorporated?
Acknowledging people as citizens is also essential to being able to see and use government data publication as a policy instrument, meant to provide agency to people in the context of societal issues and as equal partners in addressing these issues.

Hight time for the public sector to use the word citizen routinely and meaningfully again.

Today left me wondering if conference backchannels are still a thing and whether organisers need to start organising/designing backchannels to make it useful (again).

I was at the FOSS4GNL conference today, the first large scale event I went to since the Dutch start of the Situation mid March 2020. Or largish event, because there were about 60% of the usual amount of people, with some staying away because they felt uncomfortable in groups, or because of not wanting to submit themselves to QR code scans to verify vaccination or testing status, and a presenter testing positive the day before.

In the run-up I added the conference # to my Tweetdeck columns and mobile Twitter app. Yesterday was a workshop day, and today a conference day, and the 101 participants posted all of 45 tweets during the event. That works out to about .4 tweets per participant and 2 to 3 tweets per tweeting participant. Back in the day ™, aka 2006, I remember how Twitter started replacing IRC as a conference backchannel of the more geeky conferences I went to. A decade later, when visiting the global conference of the Dutch local one I visited today, FOSS4G global in 2016, I was happily surprised to see IRC even used as backchannel.

This time around there’s wasn’t much of a backchannel, not publicly on Twitter, but also not in some other channel. The conference organisers had used a Telegram group for their preparatory work, and beforehand suggested participants to use that as well. That didn’t pan out I think. I don’t use Telegram and wouldn’t install it for a conference either. The organising membership organisations OSGEO.nl and the QGIS-NL user group themselves use a Matrix channel, which I think would have been a much better suggestion as at least community members are familiar with it, and it allows a variety of clients to tap into it.

To me backchannels, and I’m spoilt ’cause Reboot (again: back in the day ™), allow one to be in one track of the conference and follow along with the sessions in other tracks to get the salient bits or know when something out of the ordinary happens because one of the rooms ‘explodes’. This works very well, up to the point where I may well think I remember noteworthy conference sessions, while in reality I wasn’t in the room where myths originated but followed along from the next conference room on IRC.

I dislike conferences where members in the audience are just that, and don’t behave like participants. Backchannels allow you to build connections with others based on content or wit during sessions, not relegating it only to random encounters over coffee or lunch (which is also useful). In events like today where it is primarily a community meeting, that is even more true despite everyone being in a more known environment: I’m a lurker/boundary spanner in the Dutch FOSS4G community, have visited/spoken at their events, have organised related events, but am nowhere near the core of community members, yet I knew some 1 in 10 today and a similar number of ‘colleagues of’, including the international participants.

Twitter definitely isn’t the ‘great equalizer’ of backchannels as it has been for a decade or so any more. In the past few years I saw how the use of Twitter as backchannel diminished already, now at the first event I visit after All This it stands out once more. I don’t see something else naturally taking its place either.

In short I miss well-functioning backchannels. Do others miss them, or never knew to miss them?
If you (like I am at times) are an event organiser, is it necessary to plan ahead for a ‘back-channel experience‘ taking into account accessibility, avoiding silo’s and tracking, with which to add to what it is like to attend your event? Or will the idea of a back-channel be let go entirely, reducing all of us to more singular members of an audience?

Bookmarked Sp’ákw’us: ways of seeing (chriscorrigan.com)
As part of the course, we are invited to articulate takeaways and giveaways, naming the gifts received and how we will offer gifts as a result. This cycle of reciprocity is essential.

Juxtaposing takeaways and giveaways, as Chris Corrigan relates here, strikes me as such a strong and beautiful shorthand to use in the future. I’m currently doing a program with new colleagues about networking, where I’ve said networking is to learn things, and to share and give things, so that people can see you and think of you when you may be of value to them in addressing some need.