Engaging volunteer interns for think tank activities: a win-win collaboration

10 October 2017

It was a hot summer day in Kyiv. Walking on the street felt like being in a desert – a modern urban desert. The cool and ventilated co-working space was definitely a more attractive choice, especially because it hosted an international gathering of digital enthusiasts. They were there for the panel discussion “From Е-Estonia to Е-Ukraine”, featuring scholars and practitioners from both countries in search of a synergy in expertise to develop digital solutions for governance and civic participation in Ukraine. While Estonian experts impressed the audience with a wide spectrum of e-services, introduced at home, Ukrainian activists demonstrated smart IT and social inventions developed in our country. Having studied best practices of e-governance and e-participation in both countries, I was aware of their successes and challenges. So, I threw in several provocative questions and impact estimations. Moreover, in real-time journalism manner, I posted a summary of the presentations and my comments on them on Facebook. This triggered discussions among offline and online audiences alike, which was exactly what I intended to achieve. The more people know about e-services and online participation, the more likely these are to flourish.

All hot debates come to an end – this time for a reception. I was happy to meet colleagues from the same field and had a couple of nice talks with them. Unexpectedly, several young smiling people approached me and started asking questions about my perspective on the digitisation of the public sphere. The six of us formed a circle of e-participation enthusiasts and engaged in a discussion. They turned out to be undergraduate students who were attracted by the topic of the panel and got together at the event. They were seeking an opportunity to contribute to high-tech innovations in our country, so I said: “Come join our team!” They seemed surprised: “Really?! What should we do?” I told them that to work in this dynamic and demanding sector they needed practical experience. I encouraged them to send me and my supervisor their resumes and motivation letters over the upcoming weekend and to come to our think tank meeting the following Monday. They agreed. My supervisor, Serhiy Loboyko, joined us and said: “Oh, you are new e-dem enthusiasts – good to hear!” Everybody looked ready to work hard to promote an e-democracy agenda.

In the following days I received resumes and motivation letters from applicants to the internship program. They manifested a desire to contribute to reforms in the country. For example, Arina Kuts wrote about her mission in these words:

My priority interest is any activity aimed at re-engineering public administration in its classic meaning.

A month later she got admitted to an MA program on E-governance. An undergraduate intern, Stas Mahula described his perspective like this:

In my opinion, e-democracy is an excellent instrument, which will help not only to simplify people’s life, but also enhance their activity in social life at all levels.

While I focused on their interests and skills, my supervisor envisioned future projects they can contribute to. Thus, we combined “supply” with “demand” and I drafted a matrix of projects, implementers, and specific areas of responsibility for each intern. In turn, he suggested publishing these motivation letters online as inspiration for other young people.

In our think tank, I manage the e-Dem Lab, while Serhiy Loboyko leads the whole Center for Innovations Development. Both of us do strategic communications in the Reanimation Package of Reforms and the Coalition for the Advance of E-democracy in Ukraine. We complement our roles: he as a visionary and I as a practical manager. This seems to work for us and the organisation.

The following meeting at the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy was very exciting: the new interns were thrilled to attend. We gave an overall picture of the e-democracy field in Ukraine and discussed how they can contribute to it. The adjusted matrix of activities and responsibilities looked impressive. We committed to conduct weekly offline meetings and online assessments of results and planning, and interns began their work with great enthusiasm.

In one week, e-Dem Lab grew to over twenty members and increased its analytical and communicational capacities. Over the last two months the e-Dem Lab team has completed several surveys, developed a couple of analytical and applied papers, elaborated the National Bank of IT solutions, and conducted a workshop for local authorities. Motivation, vision and strategic approaches have yielded results.

This shows the importance of promoting interaction between civil society professionals and a target audience of proactive youth. The very fact that these young people thought outside the box and came to a discussion on a specific topic is telling that they had internal drive for social change. They only needed a clear cause, strategic guidance, and an organisational opportunity to manifest themselves. We were able to provide all of these. On the other hand, our think tank always has numerous projects and a host of related tasks to do. Thus, the new interns received an opportunity to serve for the community and grow professionally. At the same time, they brought a fresh wave of enthusiasm, creativity, and a boost of productivity to our organisation. Evidently, a win-win leadership is possible and feasible.