It can build and it can destroy: handle with care
Contributed by Emily McDonnell, Head of Partnerships and Communication at Civocracy
The CivicTech movement is about to hit Europe. Social businesses are becoming a norm. It’s a trend already sweeping the US, with organisations such as CivicHall (New York) and the Cut Group (Chicago), incubating CivicTech companies and bringing them to market. Also, we’re at a point where citizens now expect to directly interact with their elected officials, citizen participation is becoming a legal requirement, and governments are expected to digitalise.
And while the technology has the potential to be totally transformative, it hasn’t been so far: Why is this? And why should we be cautious about embracing technology?
Civic technologies are built with the aim of improving the relationship between people and their government; this is done by giving people a voice to participate in public decision making, and to improve the delivery of government services.
The problem with the existing status quo is that governments are attempting to produce technology themselves with little or no understanding of UX (product design) or citizen needs. Private organisations produce technology with little or no understanding of government functionality, or the technology is simply used by government as a PR stunt. When a citizen uses this poorly designed, opaque piece of technology on which they cannot understand their own impact, just once, they become frustrated and get turned off.
“We are 21st-century citizens, doing our very, very best to interact with 19th century-designed institutions that are based on an information technology of the 15th century”
— Pia Mancini, Democracy OS, 2014
So, while the best intentions may exist, the outcome is one where you simply increase the divide between citizens and their government.
Don’t get me wrong, we need CivicTech — it’s the sector I work in — the technology has the power and potential to amplify collective intelligence, co-create cities, and implement innovation that people truly need. But we need to build it into the fabric of our government with care. Failure to do so could lead to fractured societies and shattered trust.
Where’s the impact?
Let’s take a little look at what I mean: CivicTech used as a PR stunt — aka, the Matt Hancock App.
When I read that a UK politician was launching an app, I was proud. Proud until I continued reading and discovered what the app’s functionality was to be.
Where’s the impact? Where’s my reason to be online? What do I get from using the app?
The intent to digitalise, to connect with citizens on their level, is there, but the execution is poor. I can go onto the app, and connect with other community members. Ok… but for what means? I can share ideas with them when I see them; I need my MP to respond to these ideas. I can watch live streams of Matt. Right… but why? I’d rather he was doing his job, or interacting directly with me on the app. I can post my own content. Done… here’s a cat.
I’m an engaged citizen with ideas for my community. I want to share my insights in a structured way. I want to know my voice has been heard. I want to know that Matt Hancock is listening. I want to know that my ideas are being taken seriously.
How can I be so sure that I wasn’t being heard, that the app was a PR stunt? Read to the end of the community guidelines:
“We ask for Photos access permission so that we can save any memes you create in your camera roll.”
The end result? Citizens found the whole saga a mockery. The app was used for a while as a joke — some people posing as other cabinet members and even Donald Trump, but no one expects anything positive to come out of using it.
The chance I’ll download another piece of CivicTech has just decreased.
Let’s take a look at a huge CivicTech player, change.org. The concept is incredible: I want to show my discontent towards something, or to champion something else, I can at the click of a button. It’s digital democracy. Well, on the surface it is…
When the platform launched in 2007, I was signing petitions every week, but now, on the rare occasion I get asked to support a cause, I skip over the email. And I skip it for one simple reason: what does my voice actually do? I have no idea who the petition is presented to, or if it is even presented to anyone, or what the outcome is. There’s the additional issue of multiplicity of causes. For instance, the site has hundreds of anti-Brexit petitions — which should I sign? Which will have the most impact? Plus, I might not agree with everything being proposed in the petition — how can I go about sharing my opinion in a way that doesn’t detract from, or duplicate, the cause?
“Change.org has quickly become the go-to tool for the lazy in the digital age”
— Olivia Cassano, konbini.com
Design with a purpose
Both change.org and the Matt Hancock app have some exceptional functionality, and great intent. However, at a time where the ecosystem is going to get flooded with CivicTech, we have a responsibility to create tools that will encourage positive engagement, not turn people away.
As consumers, we’ve become accustomed to a certain level of service and outputs from our technology. Building a CivcTech app without a visible societal impact is like designing a social media platform where you’re not connected to other users, or an e-commerce brand where you can’t purchase clothes.
We have become used to instant feedback loops and seeing the ripple effects of our actions. We have become accustomed to easy-to-use design. So, if we fail to instantly connect with a piece of technology, we move on to the next. Therefore, we need to be cautious about the uptake of technology within government — a failure to connect to a platform or application is something we simply cannot afford when trying to reconnect citizens with their governments.
The Reykjavik example
Sold as “a bespoke portal that lets more people connect with government”, Your Priorities is a platform that allows citizens to suggest laws, policies and budget measures, which can then be voted up or down by other users. It was launched following the 2008 banking crash to rebuild trust in democracy.
Jon Gnarr, Reykjavik’s former mayor, encouraged people to use the platform to give him policy suggestions, and he committed to fund the top 10 ideas each month. Seven years on, the platform has over 20,000 users (a third of the city’s population), and 769 of their ideas have been approved by the city council.
The success of the platform is that they have connected with both citizens and the government, and woven the use of the technology into day-to-day life — its use is now part of the city’s infrastructure.
I believe that this is a good start. However, I’m not sure how effective this could be at a national-government level. Collecting project ideas by content or theme, followed by a potential vote at a later stage could be a far more effective citizen engagement method. Ultimately, there needs to be a clever combination of civic ideas and input, along with participatory budgeting and other citizen participation methods. However, Iceland’s basic concept could really help kick-start democracy — as citizens, we need to see the impact of our political actions!
When citizens feel trusted, and like their voice is of value, they share quality innovation. Implemented project examples include increasing financial support for the city’s homeless, converting a former power station into a youth centre, introducing gender-neutral toilets, and naming a street after Darth Vader.
The perfect CivicTech conditions
As we have seen, it takes more than having good technology and good intentions. To ensure the use of CivicTech becomes commonplace and effective, we need to ensure a number of key factors:
- Its use is built into government infrastructures: this is easier said than done. A recent report shows that while civic engagement is seen as a key priority by a third of public-sector workers, 86% feel as if they have had no training on public engagement. Along with giving government technologies, we need to teach them how to communicate and use digital tools.
- For any real and meaningful impact, the technology needs to be in the hands of the majority of people, and needs to be inclusive of the full spectrum of demographics. For this to happen, effective communications needs to be undertaken — from city posters to digital campaigns.
- As previously discussed, the functionality and impact needs to be clear, and technology must be easy to use.
At the present day, most democracies are plagued with corruption, but civic tech could have a way out of this too. This is where I believe that blockchain has the most potential to evolve the world! If we can use the technology in decision making, government spending, elections, legislative decisions etc, the political sphere will become totally transformed. Although there will be a lot of issues, beginning by getting this tech into political infrastructures, once it’s going to be there, then, wow!
At a more basic level, if CivicTech is created by a neutral third party, it can create government accountability. For instance, asking governments to outline their aims, processes and outcomes for each project, policy decision increases transparency — people are able to question their representatives with more knowledge when they know what should be happening.
At Civocracy, a civic-participation platform, we teach government internal change management and digital skills, as well as citizen engagement and communication best practices, and have designed the platform in a way where process and impact are transparent. We’ve ensured that the barrier to participate is low, but outcomes are high quality. Thanks to this method, we’ve had real impact in over 20 cities and regions across Europe.
“Politics has hit a wall [with] representatives isolated from the people,” says a member of Reykjavik’s city council. “We get voted in, then we do our thing and never involve the public in what we are doing.”
— Joshua Jacobs, Financial Times, 2017
We all have a duty to develop CivicTech responsibly. Governments need to create a feedback loop once they’re elected, and citizens need to share their ideas for building smarter cities. And while the CivicTech world may not be as sexy as cryptocurrency, or as awe-inspiring as robotics, it can be more transformational and have a greater real world impact. Yes, the conditions need to be just so, but once they are, we can sit back and watch as people harness the power of technology to transform our societies for the better.
Emily is the Head of Partnerships and Communication at Civocracy, a CivicTech platform focused on fixing the relationship between government and their citizens through the co-creation of projects and policies.
She is also a World Economic Forum Global Shaper and freelance travel writer.