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#OurNation: Watching Reach NC Voices unfold

This week, the Reach NC Voices team will engage in a sprint to iterate our technology, and we will all get to watch their work unfold.

If you do not know what Reach NC Voices is by now, well, join the club. If we could tell you exactly what it is or will be, then we are not dreaming big enough.

Since I first heard about it, I have wanted to replicate the Utah Foundation’s Priorities Project in North Carolina. For more than a decade, the project “has conducted a series of surveys to determine the priorities of voters, delegates, and candidates.” 

And ever since Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation President Kathy Higgins was an Eisenhower Fellow in Australia, she has wanted to replicate Parents’ Voice, an “online network of parents who are interested in improving the food and activity environments of Australian children” in North Carolina.

Our Nation Hahn heard both stories and, in a way that only he can do, he imagined something bigger, better, and more important. And then he put together the funding, the team, and the process to make it happen. Quickly.

Reaching People

Reach NC Voices launched at the beginning of 2017. We hoped Reach NC Voices would be our 21st century, virtual town hall, using messaging tools to connect us to people and people to us, to discuss public policy in real time so we could better understand communities across our state.

Introducing a new way for you to engage: Reach NC Voices

It was an extraordinary amount of pressure for Nation. We needed proof of concept in six months.

We decided to go broad, establishing our statewide reach before building deep reach in our congressional districts in 2018 and then all 100 counties by 2019. 

To date, across North Carolina, we have reached 1,930,619 of you in all 100 counties. You answered almost 340,000 questions and provided 33,784 comments. We built a representative statewide sample of 6,184 of you that we can survey over and over.

On October 4, 2017, the News Integrity Initiative (NII) at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism announced $1.8 million in grants aimed at improving people’s lives by fostering trust between newsrooms and the public, and nurturing constructive, inclusive community conversations.

Validating Nation’s vision and the work of the Reach NC Voices team, EducationNC received one of the 10 NII grants. 

NII invests in EducationNC: Weaving civic dialogue and engagement into our reporting

“NII made a grant to the Reach NC Voices project because we see valuable opportunities,” says Molly de Aguiar, managing director for the Initiative, “to gain a deeper understanding of how to weave civic dialogue and engagement tools into reporting, particularly on a statewide level, to respond directly to the public’s information needs, and to develop a blueprint for newsrooms collaborating with nonpartisan think tanks and other respected sources of information to provide well-researched, trusted, and in-depth information that the public has said it wants.”

Our humble thanks to Jen Zuckerman, Public Input, GroundSource, Food Insight Group, Impact Thread, Annika Conrad, Cat Oaker, and many others whose hard work brought us to this point. Our thanks to our funders and our board and staff for trusting and believing in us.

Reach NC Voices

Like much of our work at EducationNC, as Reach NC Voices comes into its own, it is different things to different people.

For EdNC and our journalists, it is a way to source stories, engage with readers, and another way to circulate our content. Recently, 2,402 teachers responded to a survey about class size in just a few days.

For the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research and our researchers, it is changing qualitative research as we know it. When we visit communities, we hold focus groups with influencers and stakeholders and ask them questions about priorities in their communities. We then place surveys in traditional media outlets — where people in the community tend to get their information. Then we use text surveys to ask people in neighborhoods, schools, nonprofit programs, churches, etc. the same questions. By comparing the results, we are able to take the community’s pulse, and the stratified but nuanced information that emerges informs everything from news, research, the work of nonprofits, philanthropy, and more.

Other groups use Reach NC Voices too. A principal surveyed his students and used their input to inform his school transformation plan. Hope Street Group surveyed teachers across our state about professional development. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina surveyed their employees. The North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation launched a statewide survey to better understand how doctors, service providers, child care centers, legislators, and the community at large were supporting parents with young children and to learn what parents wished they could do better.

Here is our playbook before the sprint:

This week, during the sprint, our cross-disciplinary tech team will work together to “learn faster.” 

Sprinting is a process that helps teams answer important questions “through design, prototyping, and testing.” Developed by Google Ventures, “it’s a ‘greatest hits’ of business strategy, innovation, behavior science, design thinking, and more — packaged into a battle-tested process that any team can use.”

As Nation put it, “we want to make the Reach platform an engaging digital experience that is delightful and stable for a growing base of loyal, reliable users.” You can follow along on Twitter #reachmoonshot.

Our Process

A couple of notes about our process for those of you interested in organizational development. We leverage the very best talent we can find. Sometimes that involves hiring people, but more often it involves working with other companies, nonprofits, and academic institutions. We are able to move fast and take big steps forward because we do not limit our capacity to our own staff.

We use a leadership assessment tool called I-OPT to build teams. This is Nation’s leadership pattern:

Nation is an outlier, and we manage up to Nation. We develop personal, professional, team, and organizational strategies to make sure we are engineering our work to maximize our ability to take his big ideas and make them happen in ways we know will change our state and our nation.

We most often iterate in 3 to 4 month segments. This gives external vendors enough stability to predict work flow but allows us to be nimble. 

We are people first, not project first. We believe if you support your people to do the very best work they can possibly imagine, then the outcomes will be the very best they can be. We bring in coaches sooner rather than later and typically for shorter bursts.

We believe in the importance of pivot points. We pivoted Reach NC Voices in April, changing our staffing and revising our work plan based on our progress at that point. We pivoted again in September, after securing runway for the project for 2018 and 2019, bringing much more of the workload internally to EducationNC. This week’s sprint marks the beginning of a wave of research and development that will frame our work going forward.

The Point

When I ask Nation his favorite thing that has happened because of Reach NC Voices or what has surprised him most, he starts sharing so many memories I cannot keep up. 

He talks about what it was like for him to see the Reach NC Voices posters up in a school for the first time.

He admits he did not know where Cove City, population 217, was before our team went there this summer. He wondered that night if anyone had ever been to Cove City before to ask people what they thought.

Breaking down transportation barriers in rural communities

He talks about seeing the pictures of kids being surveyed on buses that were bringing them summer meals in Rowan County.

He talks about the first time we sent out a survey to the teachers, wondering if anyone would respond, and then watching hundreds and then thousands start replying.

“This is extremely cool,” he says. “A tipping point.”

Jamie used to tell Nation that she loved him to the moon and back. Still wondering what Reach NC Voices is?

Reach NC Voices is Nation’s moonshot. 

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC.