Some thoughts after Mercator Forum

I’m on my way back home from Essen where I attended Mercator Forum, the foundation’s annual convening of its stakeholders, communities and grantee partners. This year it was hosted by Mercator’s Centre for Digital Society, who I’ve been working with closely for the last few years. I had a blast and tons of great conversations and met many esteemed friends and peers old and new.

I also want to take a moment to share some of the themes that came up in conversations. In no particular order:

Digital civil society is having a very dynamic moment

The field of digital society, tech policy, public interest work is having a really dynamic moment. It’s growing, maturing, growing more professional. It’s also trying to find alignment with other societal areas (and vice versa), so there’s lots of movement. It’s a field that’s both driven by a ton of inherent motivation, excitement and care, and by a strong and obvious societal need to address core issues around democracy, social media, the public sphere.

In very much related news, this was the first time we shared a study about the state of the digital civil society ecosystem that the foundation recently commissioned. It’s written primarily by Simon Höher with some support from me. It’ll be shared online soon. There’s lots of insight in it for fellow funders. The TL&DR; is: it’s a space that’s really maturing quickly, but lacking a shared guiding vision and the narrative work that supports it.

How big of a vision do we dare imagine?

One theme that came up quite a few times is how big of a vision do we dare imagine? It has become exceedingly easy to see how digital platforms fail us individually and collectively. It’s a little harder to imagine a better digital world, a kind of best possible outcome. Thinking in this space tends to be pretty iterative, and often defensive in nature. How boldly can we imagine where we should be trying to go, what a truly healthy, wholesome society and internet might look like? (As I’ve written before, I’m currently thinking that maybe there’s not much to be salvaged but that we have the freedom to rebuild better instead?)

Ecosystem health, organizational health and individual health go hand in hand

For a healthy society and democracy, we need a healthy digital civil society ecosystem. Which requires healthy organizations and team members. This sounds banal — and it is! — but it’s important to keep in mind nonetheless, for both funders and NGO leadership.

For funders, it means prioritizing institutional core funding so that NGOs can retain and take care of their staff beyond project funding cycles, to think in portfolios, and to incentivize ecosystem-generous behavior (like sharing insights and expertise with other orgs). For NGOs it means creating professional management structures and taking good care of their teams. Again: banal, but important.

Pay scales are currently all over the place

Good talent is hard to come by, always. In this space, there’s also currently more demand for talent than there are experts — good for job seekers, bad for NGOs. At the moment, there is also a strange dynamic insofar as the pay scales are all over the place. With new actors and funders coming into this space, wages paid by actors in the space of digital policy can range from traditionally low entry-level wages all the way up to those competing with industry, sometimes even competing (to a degree) with Silicon Valley levels. What this means in practice is that for very similar roles you could be paid anywhere from X to 3X. Just anecdotally, just these past few months I’ve seen job offers for similar seniority that ranged from 40K-120K annually. This isn’t super transparent and I expect this to increasingly lead to frustrations on all sides. I’m not sure what to do about it, but it seems like a recipe for friction. My hope is that this will eventually lead to a rise in the lower range, but who knows.

There are strong networks of trust

One thing that gives me hope is that there are strong and growing networks of mutual trust. The field is old enough now that enough people have been around the block a few times and know each other well enough to provide the necessary backbone of implicit trust to make things happen quickly, to allow for coordination. (The research mentioned above also found that the recent coordinated efforts around the AI Act really accelerated this, which is great.) Intuitively, we might be in a bit of a goldilocks zone where it’s small enough to always find quick connections but large enough not to be too inside baseball? Combined with lots of new talent coming in, this gives me a lot of hope for the strength of this ecosystem for the coming years.

There’s lots of talent on the move

All the things above also lead to a bunch of people looking for new roles. I think that a big factor here is that after a few years in fairly entry level roles inside NGOs or public sector, many experts are ready to make some career move but their organizations often don’t yet support the scale you need for meaningful promotions. So folks have to move horizontally or to larger organizations. I’d file this under healthy growing pains, and frankly from an ecosystem it’s a good mechanism to spread around expertise and knowledge. But it does mean a bunch of people are simultaneously looking around. And — again, anecdotally but I think I’m right on this one — it seems that some of the slightly older folks still came up in more generalist roles (I include myself in this) whereas a lot of new folks come up in much more specialized roles. 10 years in this space mean a lot of change in scale and specialization, both for individual roles and in the way organizations are set up. (Note: Over on LinkedIn, I try to amplify interesting jobs as much as possible, so feel free to connect.)

Anyway, just some quick notes. I had a blast at the Forum. Thanks for hosting, Team Mercator!