Coding “IRL” (In Real Life); Democratic Design for Civic Tech and Civic Media

Thomas_Paine_rev1_with_caption.jpg“People in civic tech didn’t go through the hurdles of face-to-face civic life…We need to think about design,” said Tiago Carneiro Peixoto, Team Lead, World Bank’s Digital Engagement Unit, during a recent panel discussion entitled The Ethics of Democracy Entrepreneurship.  The event was hosted by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard.

Serious Thinking about Democratic Design

Peixoto wasn’t talking about design details – he was talking about fundamental institutional design in its full political-economic context.  The term democratic design crystalized the topic of the panel.  Such thinking represents important progress in the development of civic tech and civic media.

The Tragedy of the Commons 

Our Democratic institutions are common stocks for the public good,” said moderator Archon Fung, Academic Dean and Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Citizenship at Harvard Kennedy School, in charging the panel.  “We are overfishing and polluting our common stocks...It’s nobody’s job to sustain democracy,” he lamented.  We are deluded, he implied, by the belief that “once you set up the rules democracy works by its self.”

Common Sense Civility

The opposite approach to democracy was the inspiration of panelist Marci Harris, CEO and PopVox, in founding her company.  “Growing up in a small town,” she said, “I saw how people got together and addressed problems.”  PopVox is being built she said as “a mission driven sustainable business” in that spirit.  Her company tracks legislative processes and provides opportunities for constituent input. 

“We want to be useful not innovative,” continued Canadian Peter MacLeod, Principal and Founder of MASS LBP.  He quoted Thomas Paine about Mass part of the name:

There is existing in man, a mass of sense lying in a dormant state, and which, unless something excites it to action, will descend with him, in that condition, to the grave.

He explained that the LBP part of his company’s name was not some new legal form but simply stood for “Lead by People.”  His company specializes in orchestrating “long form deliberative process” by conducting reference panels through which citizens advise government.

Up Against Intentional and Accidental Bad Actors

Authoritarian entrepreneurs” competing against democratic entrepreneurs don’t care about ethics, cautioned Peixoto.  He outlined three dilemmas he sees in applications of civic technology in poorer and less democratic countries around the world.  People buy for the wrong reasons, at high opportunity cost given scarce resources, and in distressed social contexts where the technology barely matters, he explained. However, he argued that in each case there are mitigating considerations.  Judgement is required he said, but we can’t be paralyzed by the challenges of moving toward greater democratic freedom.

“How do you think of unintended consequences?” ask Fung, reframing the issues in terms of Joseph Schumpeter’s creative destruction.  He questioned how disparate access and knowledge of new practices might influence equality.  “Can these innovations exhaust the good will of citizens?” he asked.  He challenged the panelist to “name democracy entrepreneurs that are doing it bady.”

“The bad actors,” Harris graciously demurred, “don’t have bad intentions...They put too much trust in technology without knowing enough real civics.”  Her company she said practiced “disrupting politely;” starting by automating existing processes but “with a strong sense that transparency is a net good.”  She mentioned Participedia as part of a growing community of practice growing also in its collective understanding of the field.

Coding as Craft; Creating Beauty by Democratic Design

“We need to think about what it is we are disrupting,” asserted MacLeod.  He rejected the heroic entrepreneurial image and said he thinks of his work as more akin to craft.  He listed public commissions and committee work among the old tools that complement his “reference panels.”  Town halls may seem like “The mad, the bad and the sad” he said but we need to think of civic tech as more of a partial “displacement and rebalancing” of public processes rather than as a replacement.  Additionally, he said, our work needs to be conducted “with a clear sense of public interest.”

“Are we investing enough in training citizens?” asked audience member.  Other audience members questioned whether introducing online civic participation in Arab countries reduced capacities for more powerful forms of participation and whether well-meaning funding of civic technology through foreign aid and philanthropy to African countries simply fed corruption rather than empowering citizens

Process can be pedagogical,” Peixoto stated.  “People can learn how to debate.”  There is an opportunity for “civic-upselling” in any process that gets people involved.

Democratic design counters our tribal instincts and intuitions, MacLeod stated.  He advocated an architectural mindset recognizing the genius of representational government.  Done right “the process puts us in each other’s shoes.  There is beauty in that moment.

Fear is Our Friend

arrows-w-words.pngContent is scary,” said Harris, visibly moved by the discussion.  She explained how cautiously PopVox approached “the prospect of people connecting” for action through the medium.  “We didn’t start with it,”  she said,  “We were concerned about trolls…We are opening the door slowly.”  PopVox’s pilot general-interest efforts at the federal level have gotten good response and a test at the state level got even better click rates, Harris reported. “We are trying to be neutral.”  We are “informative, but not negative” about the realities of the legislative process.  “Our tone is positive.  We want to create a reinforcement loop for positive civic engagement.”

I see real progress when Civic Tech and Civic Media entrepreneurs recognize they are in a scary business.  Ethical coding in real life, structuring new governing institutions, empowering new social forces, can’t be ideological, romantic, or utopian without risking disaster.  The founders of our democratic republic were practical visionaries who understood the rough and tumble realities of science and political-economics.  Today’s civic innovators need be at least as practical and visionary


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