Methodical Snark critical reflections on how we measure and assess civic tech

Where’s the beef?


And by beef I clearly mean civic interaction.

I’m in the beginning of a phd, which means swimming in theory and concepts. This can get pretty removed from actual practice, but has led to one surprising question: despite all the field’s rhetoric on responsive government, e-participation and conversational governance, there are very few examples of digital interaction between people and their governments. What’s up with that?

After all, this was one of the earliest ICT unicorns:

Technology possesses no inherent capacities to organise social power. But the qualitatively distinctive feature of the new information and communication technologies (ICTs) is their interactive capacity: one which […] changes the relationship of communication in an unprecedented way that could radically impinge upon the process of governing/informing and being governed/informed/uninformed. (Coleman, 1999, 17)

I think we’ve continued to assume that this happens, and sometimes we still think of it as a game changer. We expect that when governments release information or when people produce information, sometimes it has positive consequences. We expect that sometimes this leads to some kind of interaction. But I’m not finding that to be the case in any kind of structured way. And I’ve done some careful digging.

I’ve reviewed e-participation literature reviews, meta-analyses in the accountability literature (esp Piexeto & Fox, 2016). I’ve combed through GovLab’s 16 case studies of Open Data Impact, Smarter Cities case studies and blogposts on the burgeoning #crowdlaw community  (here, here, here). I’ve been through DataShift research on citizen generated data, plus books on policy informatics, civic media and others. I haven’t started wading through the practical repositories of Participedia, Participation Compass or the Civic Hall mapping. But so far I’ve got only slightly more than zilch.

In wading through all this information, I’ve found a lot of examples of how technology is used to disseminate information, and then something else happens. Policy is improved, businesses are started, advocacy ramps up, and one can assume that there’s a connection. But this doesn’t always have anything to do with relationships of governance, and even when it does, there’s no interaction involved. Sometimes you’ll see governments respond to citizen complaints, even directly. But you’ll almost never see them engage with the people who made the complaint or the way in which it was made. Policy consultations and participatory budgeting platforms send input into the black box of government, where sometimes they are used, but conversation and negotiation rarely follow.

I think this matters. If we think about interaction as an exchange of information which recognizes shared understandings, it looks a lot like the structural conditions that most scholars argue are necessary for meaningful transparency and accountability (Bovens et al, 2014; Carolan, 2016; Fox, 2007; Hood, 2010;  Mabillard & Zumofen, 2016; Meijer, 2014) .

With that in mind, I’m looking for civic interaction defined as follows:

  • Has some technology component
  • Involves a structured interaction of at least two degrees dependency, and with the potential for at least 3 degrees (x says something, y says something about what x said, x says something about the same)
  • Involves government institutions, not just individual politicians campaigning on social media

I’m also keen to identify examples of this where interactions are publically viewable.

The few examples I have found are listed below, but I must be missing lots. And if not, what does that mean?

If you know of examples where technology has been used to facilitate sustained interaction between people and their governments, please let me know in the comments or the twitters.


Examples of civic interaction found so far

  1. vTaiwan: protest coordination turns into institutionalized consultation and deliberation platforms. (link)
  2. Chicago police platform for crime mapping become site for email deliberations about community policing and engagement. (Welch & Fulla, 2005).
  3. Participatory budgeting in Belo Horizonte implements comments and discussion fora, which have direct consequences on levels of citizens trust (Barros & Sampaio, 2016).
  4. City of Melbourne sets up a wiki for urban plan. Engagement proliferates across platforms. (Liu, 2016).
  5. OGP consultation platform for national planning in Georgia uses web records and online planning tools to coordinate consultations with civil society. (link)
  6. Advocacy mapping in Chennai becomes a central tool for city government planning, site for negotiating partnerships and conducting advocacy. (link)
  7. U-Report mobile survey platform identifies epidemic in Uganda, incorporated into government response, now used widely for diverse policy deliberations. (UNICEF, 2011; also link).

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Methodical Snark critical reflections on how we measure and assess civic tech