Durban Answers Brain’s Trust
Sophie McManus
September 8, 2017
A few weeks ago, we hosted a breakfast with some of the most dedicated, long-serving and influential civil servants and ex-civil servants in the city. We endearingly are calling this group the “Brain’s Trust” for lack of a better title, although I have a feeling this working title will be difficult to compete with should anyone propose something different. This breakfast was an introductory breakfast with the purpose of introducing the attendees to our Durban Answers project and discussing what we envision their role could be in the project. Needless to say, it was quite an experience bumping shoulders with a group of people of this caliber, most of whom were in government when South Africa abolished apartheid and elected a new democratic government, some of whom were driving the transition within the city. It truly is an inspiring group.

To give a bit more background, Durban Answers Brain Trust is a group of professionals with demonstrated expertise and knowledge in the way Durban functions as a city and its development challenges (in terms of local and provincial government and/or civil society and community organisations and/or business) who assist the Durban Answers initiative (being driven by Open Data Durban and eThekwini Municipality) with curating and reviewing content on Durban Answers. This content (the answers) is generated during Write-a-thons, through citizens using the tool, and through direct intervention with partners in government, civil society and business. The first step in setting up the Brains Trust as a curating and reviewing body is to bring together interested and potential members to design and debate how this process should be and could be implemented.

We are particularly interested in people that have retired from local government or that have worked in local government for a long time and have an in-depth knowledge of the city. We are really keen to make sure we facilitate the storing of institutional memory and knowledge of the city as a whole (not just the municipality) and giving a new generation of citizens (including civil servants) access to it.

We hosted the breakfast at the KwaZulu-Natal Society of Arts (KZNSA) in an attempt to avoid any stuffy conference/workshop style conversation and experiences, and let the attendees know and feel that the Brain’s Trust is not your normal “advisory group” but an actual space of dialogue and openness. The conversation was extremely fruitful and everyone seemed very keen, while also offering advice and feedback as to how the group can be mobilised and organised. We’ve been working very closely with Eric Apelgren, Head of International and Governance Relations on the Durban Answers project, and specifically on pulling together this group of people for this first Brain’s Trust breakfast. Eric has been playing an integral role in our communication with the municipality and is guiding us through the process of integrating Durban Answers into the local municipal structures. Eric started out the breakfast with a really fun and interesting “ice-breaker” activity. We were instructed to get into pairs with someone we weren’t familiar with. From there, we had to share our entire name, what we were hoping to get out of the breakfast and something interesting about us that most people don’t know. Although this “ice breaker” seems straightforward, created a space where the participants established a sense of connection and camaraderie within the group from the onset.

So what are the next steps of the Brain’s Trust? It became clear to us that different members will have different interests, time constraints and skills and we wanted to be sure that we leveraged each person in the most appropriate way. We developed a google form with a few questions and sent it out to the group to get a sense of the group’s capacity from a practical point of view. We’ve given members the option to be an advisor to the project or a contributor in which they will assist in writing, curating and verifying content, or both. For the advisors, the next interaction will be another breakfast held in the coming months to update on the project, raise any questions or challenges, and strategise. For the contributors, we will host a training later in October where they will learn the ins and outs of the Durban Answers CMS, interact directly with content as editors, and get familiar with the process of verifying content.

We are really excited about what can be achieved through the Brain’s Trust both for the Durban Answers project, but also more broadly for the municipality’s institutional learning objectives and needs. As we continue to build this group and organise and facilitate more spaces for dialogue and practical experiences, we know the Brain’s Trust contribution will become an integral piece to governance structures and the Durban Answers platform. #WATCHTHISSPACE.

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