Designing Digital Technologies for Civic-Engagement amidst social media
While Facebook and Twitter are the dominant platforms for public discourse, governments are grappling with how policy discussions may be kept from going wayward. Much like Mr. Toad’s wild ride, the risk that public opinion may lead nations down unforeseen paths has new and impending consequences for policymakers. More than that — it erodes public confidence and trust in government.
Not to be left behind, Governments are increasingly reliant on using digital technologies for interacting with their citizens — and the push to adopt new technologies and transform government is seen as a measure of national progress.
Indeed, the scalability and connectivity of today’s technology has the potential to revolutionise civic-engagement like never before. One has only to look at the hive-mind created through Wikipedia to get a sense of what lies latent waiting to be harnessed.
With all the advances in technologies, such as machine learning, computational processing power, data harvesting and data visualisation, trust in government has been globally declining — and that’s not for lack of trying. Estimates of the launch of civic-technology organisations, by the Knight Foundation, indicate an annual growth rate of 20 per cent, and studies suggest that 50 per cent of providers were created in the last 3 years.
Yet, we are swimming in a digital ecosystem where social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, shape our social interactions and influence public debate through their content, design and architecture.
It may well be argued that the design of digital platforms directs the scope, extent, and nature of user interactions — and these influence collective outcomes. What we are really dealing with are technologies that have the capacity to become persuasive instruments for social engineering. And while the concerns around this are not be taken lightly, the hope is that technology could also improve civic efficacy and strengthen public engagement and co-creation with government.
However, the most prominent digital platforms today have not been designed with this intention, even though they are frequented as highways for political and public policy messaging — and this has resulted in perverse societal outcomes. Political disinformation, ‘fake news’ and echo-chambers, along with tendencies for political polarisation due to platform homophily (on platforms like Facebook and Twitter), have been cited as catalysts for an increasing fragmentation of modern democracies.
The New York times recently reported on Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg’s call for governments to focus its attention on harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability - which calls into question its suitability for civic engagement. While recent studies suggest that the ‘ethos of the digital technology industry dominated by the culture of Silicon Valley’s technology industry’ may create tensions in technology design preferences, how this influences public opinion on policy issues is not fully understood.
So what’s a government to do?
It may be unclear what role governments have in the regulation of these platforms, but the task at hand goes beyond just content regulation — it extends to the architecture of digital platforms and the nature or rules of interaction. What is needed is an approach of inquiry that considers the interactions and the interrelationships within these digital ecosystems.
An Ecology of Civic-Engagement
“…it is in the forests that men have grasped the first idea of architecture.” — FranÃ§ois-RenÃ de Chateaubriand
Civic-engagement has evolved as an expression where governments and citizens come together, with the understanding that it is the fundamental right of all citizens to have a say in decisions that affect them. The advantages are many — governments have the opportunity to tap into wider sources of information and expertise within their communities, thereby building these relationships for greater public trust and better decision making.
But civic-engagement really speaks to the relationships between governments and citizens — and these are complex.
What about the interrelationships within this engagement ecosystem? The relationships of citizens to their communities, society and their policy landscape? The interdependencies of engagement across cultural, social and economic contexts?
While the complexity of these interrelationships might be considered too complicated to explore, it may be an over-simplification to assume that civic-engagement within complex living systems, such as the ones society presents, can be de-contextualised and reduced to a process.
Of course, the nature and scope of civic engagement varies greatly depending on the participatory processes used by governments. A mix of traditional and online consultation processes, such as ‘Public Spheres’, have previously been pioneered with the intention of ‘equitable co-design’ built on community collaboration.
The commonly used IAP2 public participation spectrum describes the extent of public impact on decision-making using five categories: inform; consult; involve; collaborate; and empower — where the assumption is that citizen impact on decision-making increases from ‘inform’ to ‘empower’, with more individual efficacy.
But living systems rarely behave in line with their modelled counterparts — for example, one could easily assert that the concept of ‘empowerment’ may have little to do with what one does, and more with what one might be able to. The capacity of citizens to participate, and the degree of their involement in civic-issues depends to a large part on the many systems they are part of — cultural, social and economic- and their constraints within these.
And then there’s context — multiple contexts — and this is where the research done by the International Bateson Institute, in embracing complexity, may provide new insights into how governments navigate this terrain. Nora Bateson’s concept of ‘transcontextuality’, refers to how multiple contexts may be brought together to allow for shifts in perspective within relationships.
In understanding the dynamic nature of the relationship between government and citizens, the recognition that civic-engagment is a ‘mutual-learning’ interaction across multiple contexts hints at where the gap between social media and traditional participation approaches may lie.
In a civic-engagement process, technology is able to provide a participatory agility which caters to the level of commitment and desired engagement. However, for most social media platforms, the contexts around engagement are limited to what was posted and the interrelational information restricted by the technology and its design.
- Deliberation and Open Spaces;
- Transparency and Information Quality; and
- The need for Consensus,
recognising that these are not exclusive or exhaustive in our quest to identify elements that contribute towards improved engagement on digital platforms.
“For me, govtech is about transformation of government into a social and economic platform on which every single person can thrive” — Pia Andrews
The importance of an ‘empowerment-based’ design in digital technologies reflects the need for influencing decision-making and potential outcomes — and this applies to both individuals and communities.
But how do we make sense of ‘empowerment’ in relation to a desired outcome? And is this really the question we need to be asking — or is it sufficient to consider what is necessary for feeling empowered on a digital platform? How the concept of empowerment relates to platform participation varies across multiple contexts, but what is clear is that empowering experiences may allow for a feedback cycle for greater participation.
Take for example, the case of ‘We the People’ — an online petition tool launched by President Obama’s White House in 2011, with the intention to empower the public by giving them a direct voice on issues and concerns that matter most to them.
The platform’s early popularity was an indication of citizen willingness to actively participate with government, but the platform struggled with the sheer volume and velocity of the feedback, and lacked the capacity to respond dynamically — eventuating in the site being a ‘virtual ghost-town’.
Whether or not petitioners would have felt empowered by a more responsive process irrespective of the outcome is now a moot point. What’s notable was the absence of an environment where the interrelationships within the civic-engagement process could be nurtured and tended to.
Deliberation and Open Spaces
“Story takes you up, then down, leaving you in a place that is higher than before.’” — Tyson Kaawoppa Yunkaporta
The need for deliberation in processing information and knowledge building cannot be overstated. A key feature of any good public engagement process, deliberation includes ‘uncovering and weighing’ of a range of different alternatives — and this may contribute towards reflection and learning. But to view deliberation as merely being provided the opportunity to pause and consider the consequences of one’s actions takes away from its full value.
For one thing, it is easy to overlook the importance of ‘open spaces’ required for deliberation. Open spaces on digital platforms that allow for the organic unfolding of complex processes, such as reflection or learning through multiple contexts, offer new perspectives and opportunities for social cohesion.
The interdependencies between deliberation and knowledge creation may seem far-stretched when considering the design of digital technologies, but to disregard these is to deny a depth of understanding that is vital for strong interrelationships.
Indigenous communities are culturally steeped in systems-knowledge (and knowledge-systems) that are often shared through oral tradition and storytelling — holding aspects of what we refer to as ‘deliberation’ as central to relationships. Tyson Kaawoppa Yunkaporta shares eight ways of learning through Aboriginal culture: Story; Map; Silence; Signs; Land; Shape; Back-tracking; and Home-world, emphasising that these are based on interdependencies between the land, language, people and relationships between them.
While it may be compelling (based on what we’re accustomed to) to consider these eight ways in a linear and de-contextualised fashion, understanding that these are inextricably combined calls for caution. What is important is to allow for these learning interdependencies when designing for different forms of and contexts for deliberation through open spaces on digital platforms.
Technology has the ability to speed things up and slow us down. Interestingly, UX designers introduce ‘friction’ as a way of slowing down in certain decision-making contexts, with the intention of building user trust and confidence in the technology used. What is yet to be fully explored, however, is how trans-contextual deliberation through different forms of learning may be achieved though platform design, so that the interrelationships for civic-engagment may be nurtured and strengthened.
Transparency and Information Quality
“[We live in] a world where we forgot that it is for governments to be transparent and for individuals to be private” — Andrew O’Hagan
The recent focus on the Open Government movement has emphasised the need for transparency in government as being critical to functioning democracies by promoting accountability and improving governance. Technology’s capacity to capture data and information on platform usage brings to the fore questions around data privacy and ethical considerations that need to be contextualised.
Indeed, transparency around the conduct and design of civic-engagement processes and life-cycles, as well as the public issues of focus, are important for genuine public rapport. Yet, many mistake transparency for ‘openness’ relying on the provision of information or data as ‘open by default’ in the hope of securing public trust.
The link between openness and trust is indeed a tenuous one — as trust in government has been declining with increasing amounts of open information. And while open data continues to contribute in improving the efficiency of services and providing better social outcomes, sense-making of this vast amount of information is key to its success.
Without sense-making, what does transparency mean?
Governments around the world are beginning to recognise the importance of how information is consumed — with one great example being the data visualisations on energy-related incidents produced by the Canada Energy Regulator.
How this translates to building confidence and trust on digital platforms is an interesting one, particularly in an ecosystem where social media hosts a growing proliferation of content that may or may not align with government messaging.
‘Fake news’ and misinformation play a significant role in undermining the intergity of information on social platforms, with false information penetrating deeper and faster into social networks as compared with ‘true’ stories. This effect gives rise to citizens experiencing cognitive dissonance, seeking out new sources of information they can trust — the most notable trend being personal narratives and storytelling, for which - ironically - social media is the obvious go to.
Here again, we are provided with a hint as to why this may be.
Stories and personal narratives resonate more deeply with people (in a way that factual information may not) — and perhaps the many contexts and perspectives that these bring allow for a broader range of avenues by which users can relate to the content and build trust. But can this be embedded in the design of the platforms themselves? Could allowing users to access multiple contexts bring about shifts in perception resulting in less polarisation and mistrust? Or is content curation the only solution? Could a balance be made between these?
The need for Consensus
“If the terms of communication are re-drawn to seek consensus, not at the level of detail, but at the rewards of the conversation itself, a shift can happen.”
— Nora Bateson
Public policy debate and the space for public discourse is a core element of democracy, allowing citizens to express their views and be exposed to alternate perspectives. With digital technologies increasingly playing a key role in facilitating these social interactions, how a platform’s design affects individual behaviours, group dynamics and networks is critical to the social dynamics and how civic-engagment is conducted in modern society.
For example, it is claimed that the social impact of Wikipedia is a “better informed population”, noting that the platform has not been drawn into the debate of fake news — while Twitter, noted for it’s radical openness, may have positive social impacts on freedom of expression, but could expose citizens to anti-social behaviour. In comparison to these, Facebook could point to homophily — which may result in political polarisation or the fragmentation of democracy.
But to neatly draw a line between ‘content’ and ‘design’ is to once again revert to a form of reductionist thinking! In ‘The Hidden Brain’, Shankar Vedantam observes that, paradoxically, it is possible for human bias to actually increase with increasing amounts of knowledge. Indeed, it would be interesting to study whether this would still ring true if this knowledge was consumed across a range of contexts — but combining this increase in bias with misinformation and a polarising digital platform design is enough to paint a grim outlook for democracy.
While digital platforms may facilitate public discourse in different ways, what governments and citizens ultimately seek is ‘consensus’ on important policy issues, despite diverging viewpoints. But what is consensus?
In an innovative approach, vTaiwan, an open consultation process allowing citizens to engage in public debate using civic technologies, aims to go beyond political polarisation and echo chambers by using Pol.is — a machine learning enabled platform that seeks to identify points of consensus.
What is fascinating is that Pol.is not only allows for a large number of users, it also endeavors to preserve minority opinions whilst providing a space for divergent public opinion groups. In a move that may surprise technology designers, there is no ‘reply’ button — only the opportunity to provide more statements that may be voted in agreement, in disagreement or as neutral.
By doing so, are users really being encouraged to provide multiple contexts, which require their readers to shift their perspectives and better understand their realtionship to the issue? In this beautiful example, we shift our own perspective of what ‘seeking consensus’ might mean —from thinking that citizens need to come to an agreement on a topic, to seeking perspectives on topics where there is a shared sense of common understanding. As the digital minister of Taiwan put it,
This article is based on “Purposefully designing technology for civic engagement”, Strata Data New York 2019; and the publication,
“Government and Digital Engagement Technologies: The Elusive Search for Consensus”, Audrey E. Lobo-Pulo, José J. F. Ribas Fernandes, Annette Hester, and Ryan J. Hum. Chicago. SocArXiv. August 2019.
Phoensight is an international consultancy dedicated to tending to the interrelationships between people and technology, and can now conduct the process of a Warm data lab, certified by the International Bateson Institute.