I wanted to share some thinking we've been working on here at Global Integrity for several months: the idea of a shared, collaborative work space for transparency and accountability organizations based in the Washington, DC area.
Last summer, something obvious dawned on us: 1) there are lots of groups based in Washington, DC that work on transparency and accountability issues both domestically and internationally, 2) we seem to see each other far less often then we should, and 3) we all complain about our terrible office space.
Hmm. Maybe there's something to be done about that.
In September 2011, we circulated the note below to 15-20 friends & family organizations in the loosely defined "transparency and accountability" community in Washington.
An ambitious new initiative is the standing up of “Transparency Hub” in Washington, DC to house a number of key organizations in a single collaborative workspace.
A challenge that is contributing to the lack of learning across organizations in the transparency and accountability space is the simple fact that we are physically silo-ed from one another and too often fall back on email and set piece conferences to connect and learn from each other. Coupled with the fact that many organizations’ data and innovations are locked away in PDFs and long-form narratives, the routine sharing of lessons learned, both successes and failures, rarely (if ever) happens across the community of practice. This has also prevented seemingly disparate but potentially intellectually close communities– for example, the “traditional” freedom of information practitioners and the emerging crop of “civic hackers” – from learning about what’s working and what’s not in other sectors, and applying those lessons learned to their own work.
Locating a number of like-minded organizations under the same roof could yield interesting and powerful collaborations on a project-by-project basis as well as strategies for longer-term resource sharing across organizations. Many small- and medium-sized organizations (including Global Integrity) have shied away from investing in non-programmatic staff due to cost constraints and their legitimate concern that “it’s not a 40-hour a week job for us.” Bringing multiple groups together in the same location could make it feasible to “job share” a number of important back office and support functions across organizations, including professional communications, fundraising, social media management, accounting and finance, and events planning.
In addition, the Hub could feature regular learning and outreach events aimed at both its regular tenants and the broader community of practice in the Washington, DC area.
We could envision three types of organizations sharing such a hub space:
Anchor institutions. These are small- to medium- (5 – 30 staff) established organizations interested in collocating with one another; they are the most likely to be interested in and able to job share. These
are permanent tenants who plan to be there for the medium- or long-term.
Start-ups and desk shares: These 1-3 person organizations would benefit from the Hub in being able to move out of their living rooms and into a shared space of likeminded colleagues. The rationale is similar to why Global Integrity is choosing to sublet space from ISS in Cape Town as opposed to setting up our own small office and/or working from home: it’s simply more productive to be around others who work on and care about the same issues. Start-ups and desk shares would benefit from low monthly rates to locate themselves in the Hub.
Visitors: A modest amount of space could be set aside for out-of-town and out-of-country visitors that are “friends and family” of the community of practice (including friends and colleagues of Hub tenants). Visitor space would be free of charge.
A Washington, DC location for the Hub offers the potential for an interesting mix of internationally-focused groups as well as domestic groups that work in the same general space. We would look to recruit both the larger, established organizations as well as some of the newer start-ups and second-year NGOs that are just getting going. A hub-style space would also allow for access to improved infrastructure for all tenants, including conference room space, video conferencing facilities, and high-speed internet access.
This idea is admittedly ambitious and will take years to put into place. Key barriers include: ensuring that rent is no greater than what organizations are paying today; finding an appropriate space; negotiating terms on behalf of many organizations with a single landlord; negotiating build-out costs with the landlord, and potentially needing to secure a non-trivial amount of security deposit depending on the negotiated amount of build-out and lease term; ensuring that a minimum number of organizations are interested in and willing to commit to the Hub to ensure it’s economic viability; and simply getting lucky that enough interested groups are able to get out of existing leases and move within roughly the same year or two.
Despite those challenges, this is an exciting idea worth aggressively exploring.
Fast forward to today: we remain as excited as ever about the possibility.
Yesterday I spent several hours touring potential Hub space with two other possible anchor organizations. While we weren't actively looking to close on a space, we did make some progress in identifying what matters most to us:
- a downtown DC location (not Dupont, not the Hill, not anywhere else)
- a space that is more square or circular, and fairly open, rather than long and narrow
- having an entire floor of a building rather than a partial floor
- having a mix of open bullpen space and traditional closed offices (for those that need them)
- having LOTS of conference rooms, breakout space, and call rooms
- having a big enough public presentation space to support community events of 50+ people
We also visited the "so hip it hurts" Affinity Lab up on U Street for design inspiration. While the Hub we're envisioning is a very different concept (the majority of the Hub headcount would be working with established, larger anchor organizations and would not be start-ups or solo entrepreneurs), it was great to see something on the other end of the spectrum.
There is plenty of enthusiasm for the Hub but also plenty of barriers. At our September 2011 brainstorming lunch, virtually every one of the 15 organizations that attended was incredibly excited about the idea. But almost all of them are locked into long-term leases that make a move into the Hub a difficult and potentially risky decision. There is also the chicken-and-egg challenge of determining final headcount and therefore the necessary square footage, as well as issues of which anchor organizations take on the most risk by actually signing the lease and sub-letting to all other Hub tenants. How much empty space are we willing to commit to in the hope that others join the Hub? None of these questions have easy answers.
But we're making progress and have at least three potential anchor organizations seriously interested. Our goal is to have an up-or-down decision from potential anchors by the end of the first quarter 2012 and, if the answer is "yes," to move quickly to find space and begin lease negotiations and the build-out process. The hope is to have something ready for move-in before the end of the calendar year, and certainly by early-2013. And then we're onto the most important event of all: an inaugural ice cream social.
If you'd like to be part of the conversation and think the Transparency Hub-DC could be a fit for your organization, we'd love to hear from you. Shoot me a note at [email protected] and we can brainstorm further.
— Nathaniel Heller
— photo credit: Jukka Siltanen