HKS Alumni Use Technology to Improve Democracy

Last fall, the Ash Center convened a panel of four change-makers leveraging technology to improve Democracy titled “#Tech4Democracy: Meet the Change Makers.” This post expounds upon the issues discussed by Tiana Epps-Johnson, Founder and Executive Director of the Center for Technology and Civic Life; Rey Faustino, CEO of One Degree; Seth Flaxman, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Democracy Works; and Denise Linn, Program Analyst at Smart Chicago during the panel moderated by Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Citizenship and Academic Dean, Archon Fung.

By James Pagano

Advances in technology and improved access to computers and smartphones have revolutionized the way citizens consume goods and interact with their surroundings. Companies like Amazon, Google, and Apple have fundamentally transformed private life. More recently, companies like Uber and AirBnB have brought creative destruction to bare on long resistant industries. The public sector; however, has lagged behind.

In September of 2016, the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation hosted “#Tech4Democracy: Meet the Change Makers,” bringing together public sector innovators dedicated to using technology to improve government performance and to increase civic participation.

The four panelists, Tiana Epps-Johnson (Founder and Executive Director, Center for Technology and Civic Life), Rey Faustino (CEO, One Degree), Seth Flaxman (Co-Founder and Executive Director, Democracy Works), and Denise Linn (Program Analyst, Smart Chicago) joined Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Citizenship and Academic Dean, Archon Fung to discuss their efforts to spur innovation in service delivery and electoral systems.

Interaction with government and other public sector actors has remained relatively static compared to the massive changes in private consumption that have occurred over the past 25 years. This relative lack of public sector innovation is particularly acute in the administration of elections and in service delivery. As citizen expectations for responsiveness and ease of access increase as a result of private sector innovation, a static public sector threatens to further erode citizen trust in and engagement with government.

Electoral Innovations

Elections in the United States may provide the clearest example of a static process. Despite the near calamitous failings of the Florida and U.S. electoral system in the 2000 Presidential Election, relatively little has changed in the past 16 years. Political consensus failed to emerge as a result of the Carter-Ford Commission at the federal level, beyond tepid calls for improved voting machines. Voting remains, or in some cases has become, difficult in different states due to long waits and short voting periods.

Turnout in the United States remains poor in comparison to other developed democracies. According to the Pew Research Center, turnout in the U.S. ranks 31stout of the 35 OECD countries. The U.S. lags behind in voter registration as well, with only about 65% of the voting eligible population registered in 2012. It is precisely the persistence of these challenges in the U.S. electoral system that drew the attention of Tianna Epps-Johnson and Seth Flaxman.

One of the main barriers to innovating in government, as identified by the panelists, is identifying the appropriate point of entry. Given the decentralized nature of the U.S. electoral system, with each state making its own election law and each county responsible for implementing those laws, there often isn’t an obvious point of entry. Epps-Johnson opted for a locally-focused approach — the Center for Technology and Civic Life is dedicated to helping local election officials build digital skills and enhance the role of data. The Center for Technology and Civic Life created ELECTrictiy — a program that trains local government officials to use the internet to spread critical information and to leverage data to optimize processes.

Seth Flaxman, Executive Director of Democracy Works, opted to work directly with voters to boost participation and mitigate confusion on Election Day. Inspired by his own experience missing an election, Flaxman and Democracy Works created Turbo Vote to aggregate voter information into a single place so citizens can easily find all relevant information regarding an election. Turbo Vote aims to make voting easy. It provides information on polling locations, registration, and allows users to request absentee ballots. It keeps track of registration and vote-by-mail rules across all fifty states.

Connecting Communities to Services

Innovation has also lagged in service delivery. Many state and local governments have failed to innovate in service delivery even as technology has allowed for a revolution in private sector service delivery (think Amazon’s delivery drones and algorithms that deliver media posts to target audiences).

A typical city has dozens or even hundreds of nonprofit and government programs available to help low income citizens and the homeless; however, the intended recipients of these services rarely know what’s available. This hurts both the intended recipients and the organizations seeking to help these populations. Communities fail to access critical services that could meaningfully improve their lives, and organizations and programs fail to maximize their own impact by failing to reach key components of their audience.

Inspired by the shortcomings he witnessed in navigating resources for low income families, Rey Faustino decided to leverage new technologies to aggregate information about social services into one place. In creating One Degree, Faustino gathered previously disparate resources into one place. With the One Degree platform, low income families can better locate and take advantage of all the programs and resources available to them. It lets users search across a variety of different services, including health, education, employment, and legal services, to find what they need quickly and easily. To date, it has reached more than 100,000 users.

Denise Linn decided to enter into the civic innovation space in a more geographically bound way, focusing on improving lives of Chicagoans through technology. As a Program Analyst with Smart Chicago, Denise works to develop products that can meaningfully improve the quality of life for residents of the city. Through a series of different initiatives in health, education, justice, and ecosystems, Smart Chicago is trying to help the city better serve its residents.

In the education space, Smart Chicago leads Connect Chicago, an initiative that increases digital learning opportunities across the city by connecting citizens with technological training opportunities. They have also helped to launch and support, an effort aimed at helping juveniles expunge their records to improve future employment and life prospects.

As President Obama delivered his farewell address, he called on U.S. citizens to reengage and to continue working and innovating to advance and reinforce democracy in the United States. Each of these change makers is using technology to address problems they’ve identified in the public sector that challenge the quality of American democracy. Their work is helping to close the gap between citizen expectations and government capacity. In so doing, they are helping to address citizen concerns, renew faith in government, and improve civic engagement.

James Pagano is a first-year Master in Public Policy student at the Harvard Kennedy School, and Research Assistant at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance. He previously worked at Democracy International (DI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) on a series of international programs aimed at improving the administration of elections and the quality of democratic governance around the world. At Harvard, James continues to study voting rights and electoral policy and also works as an Associate Editor for the Kennedy School Review.

Originally published at



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Harvard Ash Center

Research center and think tank at Harvard Kennedy School. Here to talk about democracy, government innovation, and Asia public policy.