Horizontal vs. Hub-and-Spoke Relations, or The Emperor has no Invisible Thread

Michael Maranda posted a comment recently to my testimony before the New York City Broadband Advisory Committee. He asked me to expand on one of my recommendations:

  • Promote horizontal relationships among stakeholders rather than hub-and-spoke relationships that all connect to this committee or to any one person or organization.

The original promise in Philadelphia was to tie the city together with “invisible thread.” That’s what Dianah Neff told National Geographic. It hasn’t happened.

In planning the network and passing it through City Council, Wireless Philadelphia solicited input and testimony from a variety of nonprofit organizations. All of those organizations care about the issue of Internet usage and all work with overlapping constituencies. Yet Wireless Philadelphia did not take any steps to foster relationships among them that would encourage synergistic collaborations.

Instead, WP is forming “Wireless Internet Partnerships” or WIPs, a series of one-one-one relationships between Wireless Philadelphia and individual organizations. I am not aware of any plans to connect these WIPs to each other so the groups can form their own partnerships. At best, maybe we’ll see a WIP cocktail hour.

Ideally, the horizontal relationships would extend beyond the organizational level. I’d like to see local conventions where all of the users of the network could gather, and the people who make up these nonprofits’ constituencies could get to know each other. I think these municipal wireless projects will benefit by emphasizing their local-ness and I think the users/local residents will benefit from having stronger social bonds.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Wireless Philadelphia or Earthlink want their customers to have the capacity for collective action or self-management. Not surprising for a for-profit company with meager customer service. But the nonprofit should be trying to build community, not disempower users.

The problem for Wireless Philadelphia is that the only reason for them to exist is to mediate the relationships between the City and Earthlink, Earthlink and the poor residents of Philadelphia, and the WIPs and Earthlink. If all of those entities could relate directly to each other, they’d quickly realize there is no reason for WP to exist.

I think the system in Minneapolis, where the Minneapolis Digital Inclusion Fund Advisory Committee has just released it’s RFP, is better, but not perfect. There, the people that pushed for digital inclusion funding organized themselves, though the efforts were soon co-opted into an official “Task Force.” The result is a community-advised fund at the Minneapolis Foundation, funded primarily through a revenue-sharing agreement with US Internet, the local network operator.

The participants in that Advisory Committee have horizontal relationships with each other instead of all having separate relationships with a new nonprofit, as in Philadelphia. However, I can’t find any list of the members of the committee online (though I know Peter Fleck is one because he’s blogged about it). That makes me concerned that those relationships won’t grow beyond the Committee’s boundaries.

If they want to push that network further, they are going to be swimming upstream. The process of soliciting grant applications from 501(c)3 organizations is notorious for pitting groups against one another and creating secretive one-to-one relationships between applicants and funders.

Minniapolis Digital Inclusion Advisory Committee should consider setting up something like GiveMeaning.com – not to let people vote for recipients of the Committee’s funds, but to promote awareness of the broad variety of initiatives people in the city are doing and to give those initiatives an avenue to raise additional funds.

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7 Comments

  1. [...] a warning to all who seek digital inclusion or more (perhaps excellence) for their community, here: Horizontal vs. Hub-and-Spoke Relations, or The Emperor has no Invisible Thread. The bottom line: unless your city has character and backbone, and cares for the people, the people [...]

  2. Excellent thread… much to explore in the questions of hoizontality and the freedom to connect. Networks in the abstract and ideal are flat and flatten power when we have this freedom.

  3. Kari Gray said

    I agree – this is an excellent thread. Much of the sentiment really resonates with me.

    However, I think that we have to be careful of suggesting that one city’s strategy can be successfully imitated in another municipality. That is the mistake that Earthlink itself is making. Just as our city charters and budgets are similar, but different, every aspect of municipal culture may be unique to a city. While learning about other municipalities’ solutions, we must consider the values of our own communities to determine whether those solutions are appropriate for us.

    There are real differences in how nonprofits and community groups currently work with and respond to their local governments. In some cities, the nonprofit sector is organized to promote and develop local government initiatives and in other places, nonprofit and community groups work to challenge or improve local government initiatives. We should also acknowledge the cultural differences in our organizational communities in the same way that we work to acknowledge cultural differences in our cultural communities.

    I think that the deployments that succeed will continously develop appropriate strategies for working in the existing and emerging civic culture. There will be municipalities and communities which do not value horizontality because they want to exclude their local government from any type of participation in the system. So may be more like a series of parallel lines, than one, connected line.

    But, as we will all agree, the more public participation we can guarantee in these deployments, the more robust and successful they will be. Because as public participation increases, those who would be “separate-but-equal” will be enticed to the table of community and civic collabortion.

    Or so we hope.

  4. Kari – I think your point is profoundly important.

    If I were to characterize the relationship between government and the nonprofit sector in the two cities I use as examples, I would say that in Philadelphia it is more a situation of patronage and in Minneapolis (which I don’t know as well) it’s more collaborative. Historically, government has not done as much for people in a place like Philly as it has in the upper Midwest.

    So in Philadelphia, the Wireless Philadelphia Community Advisory Board went from looking for applications, as Derek Pew said early on, to having its members appointed by each City Councilperson. And Clifton Roscoe, Earthlink’s Project Manager for Philadelphia, ended up on the board of People’s Emergency Center (the one organization in Philly that had both the technical expertise and community connections to shape the WP network, if that had been a goal).

    In Minneapolis, the Digital Inclusion self-starters became the official city task force, more or less. I said “co-opted” above partly because this happened in a pretty indelicate way, but also because I am a jaded New Yorker.

    Although that kind of suspicion is probably universal here, you’ll find just about every kind of relationship among nonprofits and government agencies in this city. If I had to summarize NYC I’d say, if you’re going to play, you have to play big.

  5. wsoftheart said

    Hey Josh,

    I just moved to Philly and have been trying to read up on your WP reporting (so that I can understand what it’s all about politically, of course:). And very practically speaking, to see if I should sign up with Earthlink/WP. In trying to choose an ISP, I’m wondering if I should go with someone like comcast (expensive), or with with WP (relatively affordable yet shady). Have you heard any feedback about the performance of their service? What do you recommend to someone who wants to be mindful of where they put their dollar?

    -mL

  6. Minneapolis Unwired: Digital Inclusion Update

    I am a community representative on the Digital Inclusion Fund Advisory Committee and if you drop by often you may have read this article when we were looking for proposals for our very first funding cycle.

    I now have forty-five proposals to go thr…

  7. [...] before the dais, tomorrow’s Oakland Summit includes a variety of formats to strengthen horizontal networks among the many local community-based digital inclusion [...]

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