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Q&A on Tech and Democracy with Beth Simone Noveck

September 27, 2020
by
Lauren Burke
Beth Simone Noveck
7 min read
Photo Credit: Pavel Ignatov / Shutterstock

All democracies must hold free and fair elections, but elections alone are not enough. Democracy is a multifaceted concept that is constantly evolving to allow elected officials to better serve their constituents and to allow residents to actively participate in governance.

Cities, as “laboratories of democracy,” have a reputation for being particularly adept at adaptation. Increasingly, technology has been used by both residents and government officials to reinvigorate citizens’ democratic engagement. Technology, when used well, can be a powerful weapon in fighting off the malaise and cynicism that drives low participation by ensuring that the feedback of residents translates into tangible change.

Lauren Burke of GMF Cities sat down with Beth Simone Noveck to discuss the role of civic technology in engaging residents and producing better outcomes for cities. Ms. Noveck directs the Governance Lab (GovLab) and its MacArthur Research Network on Opening Governance.

Lauren: Do you think the pandemic has shone a spotlight on the possibilities for civic technology, and do you expect to see a greater interest—not just from governments but from the general public—in getting involved virtually?

Beth: Absolutely. I think there’s been a realization that now, whether you like it or not, it is impractical to deliver all government services face to face. Governments are realizing that engaging with citizens is not a nice to have but a must have, and new technology can help to make it efficient as well as effective. Where people in the past have been very worried that engaging with citizens will just create more burden and lead to people screaming and complaining, what we are seeing is lots of examples of platforms—whether it’s Your Priorities out of Iceland or CitizenLab out of Belgium—that are being used to help cities engage with citizens in ways that help them solve problems more efficiently.

Lauren: Do you have any examples of cities that are using civic tech particularly effectively? And related to that, do you have any favorite projects that you’re working on?

Beth: To me, the idea of co-creating, co-designing, and co-governing between citizens and government is what I think is one of the most promising and exciting areas of what we might call civic tech.

There are also lots of great examples of individual cities engaging with their citizens to do citizen engagement projects. In Helsinki, they have a wonderful project called Climate Watch, where the city has engaged residents in coming up with 147 sustainability and climate goals for the city in order to achieve carbon neutral status by 2035. Importantly, each of those climate goals has an owner, somebody who is responsible and accountable for achieving the goal, and then citizens who adopt the goal and help to hold the government accountable. Then there is a city in Colorado called Lakewood. The community has about 150,000 people, so they can only afford to have one person working as sustainability manager.  However, thousands of residents have volunteered to take on the job of leading cleanup and environmental projects in their own neighborhoods. About 20 thousand different events have taken place so far, facilitated by collaboration by the city and the residents to advance the goals of sustainability.

In the city of Athens, the city supports a platform called SynAthina, which is designed to help give community members a place to come together to develop projects that the city in turn provides support for. They’ve created new spaces together, organized clean ups, and created other civic projects. None of it would’ve been possible if it wasn’t for the technology that facilitates their engagement.

Lauren: How can technology get more people—especially those who wouldn’t normally participate—involved in local government? And related to that, have you seen any cities that have done a really good job of getting people involved?

Beth: Technology can definitely make it easier for people to participate. It’s much easier to go online than attend a town hall meeting in person, especially if you work or have children and would need to get a babysitter in order to attend. This is especially true for people who are under economic pressure; they just don’t have time to show up at a town hall meeting. Technology can make it cheaper and easier for people to participate but, that said, if people don’t know about the opportunity to participate, or those opportunities aren’t real or serious, it won’t do anything to advance equity.

There are lots of examples of cities sticking up platforms and never following up. I think it’s really important for governments to both design opportunities to participate in ways that are meaningful, and to do the extra work of actually reaching out to people and inviting them to participate. Otherwise, the people who are going to show up are not the people you want to hear from.

I think it’s really important for governments to both design opportunities to participate in ways that are meaningful, and to do the extra work of actually reaching out to people and inviting them to participate….The platforms alone are not enough, and the technology by itself is never enough. You have to structure the engagement and reach out to people, and then make an extra effort to reach out to marginalized voices.”

The platforms alone are not enough, and the technology by itself is never enough. You have to structure the engagement and reach out to people, and then make an extra effort to reach out to marginalized voices. It’s the same thing with hiring employees. You can post a job ad, but if you really care about equity, if you really care about diversity, you have to take steps to make sure that diverse candidates know about the opportunity and are encouraged to apply, or you will never achieve the diversity you are hoping for.

In terms of outreach, Madrid is a great example.  Under its previous mayor, the government mailed out a postcard to every resident in the city to advertise their engagement platform.

[T]he best way to get people to participate is number one: to do it more than once, and number two: to demonstrate how their input will actually be used. You can shout all you want from the rooftops, but if you don’t actually use citizens’ input, they will very quickly grow tired and not take your requests seriously.”

They also created physical offices where you could go in person if you didn’t have internet access or didn’t want to participate online. Unfortunately, there were challenges with organization, and serious design flaws that meant that people’s engagement wasn’t captured and followed up on.  The lesson there is that the best way to get people to participate is number one: to do it more than once, and number two: to demonstrate how their input will actually be used. You can shout all you want from the rooftops, but if you don’t actually use citizens’ input, they will very quickly grow tired and not take your requests seriously. With the Multi-City Challenge in Mexico, which I work on with GovLab, the big draw of the project in my view is that the cities are actively engaged in the process and committed to the implementation of the ideas that get developed, and that’s what’s really important. They’re saying, “If you put in the time, we will put in the time and the money to act on what you’ve told us.”

In the U.S., there hasn’t been a systematic adoption of citizen engagement efforts nationwide. What we’re seeing instead is scattered, with some cities and states adopting it and others not.  I think the main thing to take away from all this is that citizen engagement is not just the right thing to do, but it also helps to achieve better outcomes than trying to solve problems behind closed doors. I think the big idea that cities are starting to catch on to is that citizen engagement helps government do its job better, rather than costing more time and effort.

Cities Fortifying Democracy

For the Cities Fortifying Democracy project, currently in development, GMF Cities will look at the impacts that technology, inequality, and resident involvement have on the health of local democracy.  These lenses will be applied to four “pillars of democracy,” which together form the basis of public trust in government.  The four pillars are: voting, governing, public safety and justice, and the local press. Over 18 months, GMF will invite expert fellows and key stakeholders from ten transatlantic cities to examine the practices being used to keep democratic institutions and core values strong and meaningful to everyday life. The culmination of this work will be a Democracy Toolkit including research, case studies, and practical resources that can be used by citizens and their governments to keep their local democracies strong.