Over the past decade, civic tech has been emerging as an innovative tool for citizen empowerment, enhancing grassroots initiatives and enabling the co-construction of policies through direct feedback and contributions to democratic processes. The premise is fairly straightforward – using technology to promote both citizen participation and government responsiveness – but the process of change can still take time. Aligned with the pillars of open government – transparency, accountability, integrity and citizen engagement – civic tech has the potential to shift power dynamics into the hands of the people. This kind of social innovation is not limited to the domain of programmers and developers: it is for a diverse array of individuals who want to take part in shaping the way governance works.
An opening Wisembly poll showed 52% of participants had heard of civic tech before entering the room while 26% said they had not; the remaining 22% indicated they had “seen something about it on the OECD Forum website”. The Civic Tech Hub helped this year’s Forum participants understand new forms of digital citizen engagement and how technology can serve a civic function. It showcased examples of civic tech designed to simplify public management, increase the openness and accountability of democratic institutions and innovate and co-construct public services in pluralistic societies. This was also an opportunity to hold a lively discussion on how to improve the OECD Better Life Index, an online tool where citizens can tell the OECD what matters for their well-being.
Recognising the limitations of online tools and the need for access for all, the session began with panellists’ approaches to civic tech to better understand the context. Geoff Mulgan, Chief Executive of NESTA, summarised it into three concepts: all the new tools for pressuring change in governments; citizens linking to other citizens to do things for themselves and; reaching down from parliaments, parties or municipalities to engage with the public about policy options. Bringing a technologist’s perspective, Virgile Deville, Co-Founder of Open Source Politics, emphasised the no-cost elements of civic tech like using open source tools for decisions and debates online, hackathons and open data. Similarly, Eva Kaili, a Member of the European Parliament, successfully ran for office with a social media-based “zero-budget campaign” by being able to connect with the whole country and get them engaged.
Myriad examples of civic tech are happening every day and practically everywhere. In cities, for instance, leveraging public data to solve local problems or building online participation platforms where citizens can express their opinions on policy decisions can amplify public voice, and hopefully encourage greater participation and civic dialogue. In other parts of the world, activists are working on dynamic representation, connecting people to the political system through distributive software and reinforcing this with offline political parties. Indeed, with breakthroughs in East Africa, India and China, Geoff Mulgan thought old democracies with historic assemblies were sometimes more resistant to civic tech and that, “many of the ideas will come from the emerging countries”.
Sometimes it is even just about demystifying the system. Eva Kaili asked, “What if tomorrow everyone was engaged? And we had people voting online? And we had a digital democracy? [Civic tech] still needs education, awareness”. Non-profit organisations provide free or low-cost tools for accessing and understanding legislative processes so citizens can stay informed and take action.
There was concensus on what it would take to empower citizens and how it could be sustained: information – such as data on economy, the environment and detailed analyses of where money is spent – to challenge or reinterpret the official lines; training to provide the skills required to engage digitally; inclusive technological access, to open civic tech to all regardless of resources or location; and suitable platforms with willing governments to allow citizens’ voices to have a direct role in decision-making processes.
Following this, perhaps the crux of the discussion was whether more active online engagement actually led to offline empowerment and participation. Technology has made it easy to follow, like and even hack for progress. That perpetual phrase, ‘with the click of a button, you can…’ could facilitate many brief moments of civic engagement. Such scale should not be brushed aside, but the ease of participation online may not always be reflected in reality. Geoff Mulgan admitted that, being a developing movement, there is not enough evidence to define what a working civic tech model might look like; but we are beginning to see the potential. Virgile Deville reminded the audience that, whatever the eventual potential of civic tech, we must “rely on existing offline spaces to actually co-create and shape policy, and a tremendous amount of work needs to be done by the organisation to invest in going to speak to people.”
Many online technologies carry risks regarding privacy and data handling and civic tech is no exception. There is a tendency for lawyers not well-versed in tech to regulate digital spaces and Geoff Mulgan urged parliaments and the OECD to have “bootcamps” to bring people up to speed. Similarly, but from a governmental position, Eva Kaili said that while it was not easy to get MPs involved in new technologies due to their busy schedules, for example writing laws or meeting with constituents, politicians must also be engaged. As more and more of our democracy is becoming online, Virgile Deville spoke of future challenges such as making civic tech transparent and keeping it open source. He also contemplated, “a new infrastructure of governance that ‘cannot be evil’ – how do you create something completely incorruptible?”
Feeding into the Q&A, a second Wisembly poll asked if civic tech was good or bad for democracy, with participants voting 77%, 4% and 19% for yes, no and don’t know, respectively. Over half of voters in the session initially either knew nothing about, or were new to civic tech, yet a large majority thought it could have a positive effect on democracy. This suggests that with the right promotion the movement might gain popular support. An audience member asked how to build the public’s trust in civic tech, a pertinent question given that one of three themes of this year’s Forum examined the mistrust between citizens and governments. Would civic tech really be any different from the status quo? The answer is unclear for now but, as Virgile Deville summarised, “Democracy is a work in progress: and I hope it does not stop”.
- Would you trust your government to use civic tech responsibly? Would it be any different to how things are now?
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- Rebecca Rumbul, Head of Research, mySociety @rebeccarumbul
- Virgile Deville, Co-Founder, Open Source Politics @virgiledeville
- Eva Kaili, Member, European Parliament @EvaKaili
- Geoff Mulgan, Chief Executive, NESTA, United Kingdom @geoffmulgan