If Civic Tech excites you, you would have loved the recent Roundtable on the Future of Technology and Democracy. The Roundtable took place at Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation.
The Roundtable was an indication that Civic Tech is becoming more citizen-centric and less tech-centric. Civic means “relating to citizenship or being a citizen.” The dictionary definition of civics is “the study of the rights and duties of citizens and of how government works.”
Archon Fung, Academic Dean and Professor of Democracy and Citizenship at the Kennedy School, moderated the discussion. The featured panel included most of the 2015-16 Technology and Democracy Fellows and a Kennedy School student, Aaron Myran. Myran represented the student group, Tech4Change.
Fung began with his take on the state of the field. He said that governments and civic organizations had been slow to adopt new technology and that no “killer app” has surfaced yet. He stated that success did not necessarily translate into dollars and that success in any form was elusive for many of the concepts advanced as Civic Tech.
Fong observed that new technologies such as the search engines of Google and the interest algorithms of Facebook have become powerful sources of civic information. He said however that the organizations governing the technology don’t subscribe to democracy-enhancing or journalistic norms. Fong lamented the decline of older media, which in his view supported the journalist’s ethos of “telling truths and stories to hold power accountable.”
There is no question that new Tech is powerful in civic affairs. Other panelists spoke of spectacular results from experiments by Google and Facebook to push voter participation and organ donor commitments respectively.
Panelist spoke of a variety of challenges in the field. From their various perspectives, the challenges include the representativeness of online constituencies, the dizzying variation of local practices, the slow adoption by “non-digital natives,” and the difficulty of developing sustainable enterprise models.
The future for technology and democracy looked messy to most participants despite their longings. One participant pined to restore the positive meaning of “technocrat” which drew appreciative laughter. Many participants and panelists seemed to wish they could make government work better in purely operational terms but also by eliciting constructive participation from citizens, without messy “politics.” Panelists and participants seemed wistful for non-confrontational, non-competitive non-partisan visions of civic life (almost the opposite of what I have experienced in the media business and as a citizen). However, the discussion seemed to turn toward a less tidy more realistic future.
The room seemed to be on the cusp of an alternative vision of Civic Tech. Participant David Eaves, Research Fellow in the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program, challenged non-partisan assumptions, saying that the Campaign Tech component of Civic Tech was vibrant and certainly partisan. He spoke of the old partisan press as a model for future uses of technology. Another participant eloquently distinguished between designing for consumers of government services vs. designing for citizen participants in government. Student panelist and former organizer, Aaron Myran spoke of starting from what the citizen wants and empowering citizens with a “B.S detector.”
Listening to all these smart people, one clear conclusion is that the future in Civic Tech is its ability to improve the experience of active citizenship. Citizens want more satisfaction as they try to exercise their rights and perform their duties as citizens. The next generation of civic tech developers is going to improve how government actually works, not simply by automating processes within professional government, but by creating new tools facilitating citizen-self-government.
The Roundtable discussion pointed to a future in Civic Tech that is not about solitary “killer apps” but about new “killer” enterprise platforms combining multiple technologies. Such diverse components as database journalism, improved polling, constituent feedback systems and other technologies discussed at the event are not going to dominate Civic Tech. But many of these technologies will become components of more comprehensive platforms.
New multi-technology platforms could provide citizens with new means to aggregate interest, knowledge and belief into political action and far-reaching power. These enterprise platforms could compete with old-fashioned media enterprises (including internet-delivered information enterprises still using old-fashioned journalistic methods). The new platforms could also compete with old-fashioned political parties and advocacy organizations.
The key concept coming round in Civic Tech begins with what the citizen wants and builds a whole technology-based enterprise to deliver that experience – that’s why we call it Civic Tech!
Notes: I have written about Facebook Algorithms in a previous post Breaking News: There is Bunk on the Internet!
Cleve Thomson who has written a series of articles in Smithsonian Magazine providing historical perspectives on developments in technology wrote a piece about the partisan press in the May issue Tweet All About It