From Nomadland to Amazon and on to technology project funding

Have you seen Nomadland yet? Or read the book by Jessica Bruder on which it is based? You should. And for a variety of reasons. Nomadland covers a new US economic and cultural phenomenon – older migrant workers facing the vulnerability of poverty and old age with startling resilience in Recreational Vehicles progressing through stunning landscapes and, in the movie’s case, to the accompaniment of haunting music. And, what turns out to be lurking in the spider’s nest behind it all? Emerging out of the desert is Amazon.

Amazon’s data driven management realised the value of creating a ‘Camperforce’ of older workers willing to accept slightly higher minimum wages for Christmas seasonal work of mind-numbing boredom and a parking spot. The Amazon way is not that generally followed – or, indeed, extolled –  by the Not for Profit sector in any country. But it would be foolish not to seek lessons from an organisation that has been so successful and that vaunts ‘customer obsession’ as one of the keys to that success. What not for profit would not claim ‘user obsession’ as one of its attributes? In particular, are there any lessons for the development of technology in access to justice?

The major issue here is the transfer of commercially developed matrices of performance management to the voluntary sector. This is the subject of a considerable amount of study and literature. You might sum up the results as ‘desirable but tricky’, particularly when an organisation is seeking quantifiable matrices as proxies for qualitative judgements. Your organisation aims to influence public debate on as issue. How can you measure that? You can set targets, count and rate media coverage but, at the end of the day, you are going to have to add subjective judgements. That is fine. At least you are measuring.

Let’s make just one more general observation. Much of the real value of performance management in the NfP sector is not that managers can be on employees’ tail the minute they linger too long on a toilet break – as in Amazon.  It is for self-motivation. There are targets for this column and, if Google Analytics reveals a falling behind – it is time to raise the game and write something that people will actually read (and thank you for doing that right now).

The issue for discussion is the relation of performance management and project funding for technology and access to justice. Developments in this field are overwhelmingly dependent – outside of those developed by private practitioner lawyers – on project funders in the form of charitable and statutory foundations around the world. Pretty well all of these report the amount of their donations and the names of the recipients. They will each have procedures for the information to be given in bids for funding; for reporting the consequent results; and for evaluation. These are largely private. But the bare detail of the amount of funding is a start. It means that you can trawl the sites of the major funders and have an idea of what they are resourcing. Added to the results will be those of public bodies like the Legal Services Commission in the US. This has detailed requirements for ‘milestone reporting’. A specific form is even available for those unfortunate to be running late – the ‘TIG Milestone Reporting Extension form’. Want to renegotiate the milestones in the manner of the UK government in its Northern Ireland Protocol? There is a procedure for that. Exemplary.

But here’s the rub. Suppose you believe that there is a public interest in the development of technology in access to justice which would benefit from more publicly available information on what works and what is being attempted? And that it helps to have clearly developed specific objectives. You might begin to argue that it would be helpful for funders to be more open. 

Let us move from the level of generality to a micro example that arises simply from random selection. Victoria Law Foundation reports on its grants in the usual way. For 2020/21 it gave Northern Community Legal Centre $20,000 for its TEALS project (Technology-Enhanced Access to Legal Services). This was to ‘develop a self-assessed triage tool that will assist people accessing the legal service to safely disclose the legal and non-legal issues they are experiencing. This information will be used to ensure those who are most in need receive legal help and that appropriate referrals are made to other services.’ This example really is taken at random. There is no implied criticism. My expectation is that Northern Community Legal Centre and the Victoria Law Foundation are exemplary organisations. But one or two sentences would add immeasurably to the public interest of the project’s description. Those sentences would identify the specific and measurable intended benefit. In this case, it would presumably be a measurement to a predicted amount of effective referrals eg 5,000 more people are going to use the tool and 2,000 more than previously are going to be effectively referred.

At this point, we can segue into a discussion which has been happening on Twitter. Grant recipients and grant providers are too shy of providing public information on the detail. Yet, there is immense public benefit in knowing the detail of performance – quite apart from the transient advantage of having someone worrying through the night about how they going to meet objectives which are public. We can use the blog as an illustration. Its targets for 2020 were an average 1200 readers a month; 14,000 over the year; 35,000 page views; 150 subscribers for the blog; 2000 twitter followers. This is valuable information – really hard to obtain elsewhere – for any of the admittedly very few people who might  want to do something similar.  In the commercial world, it would be regarded as sensitive and might affect advertising and income. For the record, the targets were largely met – though not all. The point is that this something that gives others a reference point if they wanted to do something similar. Beat these and you are doing well. Or at least better than here. 

Much more valuable than figures for blogs are figures for projects. Northern Community Legal Centre’s project is relatively small. Even so, there is a public interest in knowing if it has developed a product which makes a measurable improvement and could be used by others. So much more for the big tech projects like the Legal Navigators developed by the Legal Services Commission. This got buy in from Microsoft, Pew Charitable Trusts and the LSC  – for all of which no criticism is intended. But tell us how many people in the two states selected for the pilots – Alaska and Hawaii – were hoped to be helped; and how; and what has happened? This is information of public interest and public value.

So, what we need is a long way from Amazon’s data-driven, spooky desert warehouses. But we should covet its consumer commitment and obsession. And, particularly since money is tight, we need public funders to give us information on targets and performance. It would be handy if they could standardise this. But a good way to begin would be with just a tiny bit more information on objectives and performance. Not too much to ask surely?   

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