Is Civic Tech Fulfilling its Promise?

Report back from #TICTeC 2017, where GOV/LAB presented on a suite of civic technology research projects in collaboration with the Omidyar Network.

(Header: Wall art — old tech meets the new at TICTeC 2017 in Florence, Italy.)

The promise of civic technology, broadly defined here as new, lower-cost technologies or platforms meant to facilitate citizen feedback, foster government accountability, and create an iterative relationships between the two, has hit a few snags. Accordingly, the opening of TICTeC 2017, an annual conference focusing on civic technology hosted by mySociety and sponsored by Google, was cautiously optimistic.

While the advancement of technology to display information, both citizen contributed and from government, is impressive (311 in Boston and Nextdoor to name some U.S.-based examples), there is a small (and hopefully growing) body of empirical evidence on how civic tech improves governance. To understand how civic tech is having an impact, and where it is falling short, many groups using civic tech are reflecting on their progress to date.

At TICTeC 2017, GOV/LAB presented a suite of research projects, developed in collaboration with the Omidyar Network, that sought to answer the following questions:

1. Under what conditions do new, lower-cost civic technologies for citizen feedback and monitoring lead to increased participation?

2. How useful do governments find feedback provided through civic technologies compared to traditional feedback channels?

3. When do civic technologies lead to more government responsiveness and better service provision? Can they facilitate cooperation between citizens and government?

To answer these questions, we worked with organizations in Guatemala, Kenya, Liberia, and the U.S. who were implementing different types of civic tech for a diversity of audiences and goals. Please note that these case studies are context-specific and not meant to be representative of civic tech efforts overall. Some quick snapshots below from the studies, which are now being written up for publication.

In Kenya, we worked with Mzalendo and mySociety to conduct a Facebook experiment on how to increase online civic engagement. We tested whether framing policy change as an opportunity to gain versus fighting against a potential loss would encourage greater action. We also looked at whether youth-specific messaging would engage more youth. We found that online participation tends to mimic in-person participation: older men (30 years plus) outnumber underrepresented groups, such as women and youth. More details on our research design and results available from our 2015 TICTeC presentation and this video.

In Guatemala, we partnered with the Center for the Study of Equity and Governance in Health Systems (CEGGS) to evaluate a Ushahidi platform that delivered SMS (texting) feedback directly from indigenous leaders to public health officials. The goal was to reduce the gap between indigenous groups, who historically suffer from poor access to health services, and government by creating a forum for feedback and communication.

In the U.S., we compared the novelty, relevance, and usefulness of online feedback using MindMixer (now mySidewalk) to more traditional feedback received in a town-hall meeting. In short, we found that while online feedback was more novel or new, in-person feedback was more relevant. More on the study framing and results can be found here.

In Liberia, we created an online website for government officials that integrated citizen feedback and critical information on the Ebola crisis. The aim was to provide relevant information for officials to better direct limited government resources. While website use did spike after a direct SMS messaging campaign, site visits were not repeated often. Data from the study can be found now on the Humanitarian Data Exchange.

TICTeC 2017 venue

Some high-level takeaways to address the research questions above.

Under what conditions do new, lower-cost civic technologies for citizen feedback and monitoring lead to increased participation?

In both low (Kenya) and high state capacity contexts (U.S.), civic tech does not necessarily level the playing field between populations of low and high socioeconomic status. In our studies, civic tech did not galvanize participation from those least likely to participate - patterns of online or SMS participation seem to mimic general patterns of political participation.

How useful do governments find feedback provided through civic technologies compared to traditional feedback channels? The results differ for high and low capacity states. In high capacity contexts (U.S.), online forums in our case studies attracted different populations and feedback from in-person meetings, demonstrating that both online and in-person are necessary. In low capacity contexts (Guatemala and Liberia), the capacity and technical ‘know-how ’of government and citizens are limiting factors in tech uptake and effectiveness.

When do civic technologies lead to more government responsiveness and better service provision? Can they facilitate cooperation between citizens and government? These questions are critically important and our case studies demonstrate that we need to better design civic tech with government in mind as end users. Currently, government bureaucratic norms are understudied, especially in low capacity contexts, and understanding the behavior of officials is important to realizing the promises of civic tech.

Though these findings and case studies don’t necessarily represent trends across the massive civic tech movement, the suite of projects is in line with the general mood at TICTeC 2017, which helped to kickstart a process of learning and reflection on the role and impact of civic tech. Next year, it would be great to go beyond “mass-tech” (Facebook and Google) and see more examples of more local, ground-built civic tech (the latest at iHub, Janaagraha’s IChangeMyCity.com, other suggestions welcome).

Lastly, more diversity among presenters and attendees at TICTeC 2018 would be ideal, though I did get to finally meet some MIT colleagues presenting interesting work from the Center for Civic Media and J-PAL. While civic tech’s honeymoon period may be waning, continuing to get feedback on the technology and the end-users are critical components of developing inclusive and participatory platforms. The civic tech community would be remiss not to be learning along the way from both our successes and our failures.