E-Government and Its Limitations: Assessing the True Demand Curve for Citizen Public Participation

Paper by David Karpf:  “Many e-government initiatives start with promise, but end up either as digital “ghost towns” or as a venue exploited by organized interests.  The problem with these initiatives is rooted in a set of common misunderstandings about the structure of citizen interest in public participation – simply put, the Internet does not create public interest, it reveals public interest.  Public interest can be high or low, and governmental initiatives can be polarized or non-polarized.  The paper discusses two common pitfalls (“the Field of Dreams Fallacy” and “Blessed are the Organized”) that demand alternate design choices and modified expectations.  By treating public interest and public polarization as variables, the paper develops a typology of appropriate e-government initiatives that can help identify the boundary conditions for transformative digital engagement….


Figure 1: Typology of Appropriate E-government Projects”

7 Tactics for 21st-Century Cities

Abhi Nemani, co-director of Code for America: “Be it the burden placed on them by shrinking federal support, or the opportunity presented by modern technology, 21st-century cities are finding new ways to do things. For four years, Code for America has worked with dozens of cities, each finding creative ways to solve neighborhood problems, build local capacity and steward a national network. These aren’t one-offs. Cities are championing fundamental, institutional reforms to commit to an ongoing innovation agenda.
Here are a few of the ways how:

  1. …Create an office of new urban mechanics or appoint a chief innovation officer…
  2. …Appoint a chief data officer or create an office of performance management/enhancement…
  3. …Adopt the Gov.UK Design Principles, and require plain, human language on every interface….
  4. …Share open source technology with a sister city or change procurement rules to make it easier to redeploy civic tech….
  5. …Work with the local civic tech community and engage citizens for their feedback on city policy through events, tech and existing forums…
  6. …Create an open data policy and adopt open data specifications…
  7. …Attract tech talent into city leadership, and create training opportunities citywide to level up the tech literacy for city staff…”

NEW Publication: “Reimagining Governance in Practice: Benchmarking British Columbia’s Citizen Engagement Efforts”

Over the last few years, the Government of British Columbia (BC), Canada has initiated a variety of practices and policies aimed at providing more legitimate and effective governance. Leveraging advances in technology, the BC Government has focused on changing how it engages with its citizens with the goal of optimizing the way it seeks input and develops and implements policy. The efforts are part of a broader trend among a wide variety of democratic governments to re-imagine public service and governance.
At the beginning of 2013, BC’s Ministry of Citizens’ Services and Open Government, now the Ministry of Technology, Innovation and Citizens’ Services, partnered with the GovLab to produce “Reimagining Governance in Practice: Benchmarking British Columbia’s Citizen Engagement Efforts.” The GovLab’s May 2013 report, made public today, makes clear that BC’s current practices to create a more open government, leverage citizen engagement to inform policy decisions, create new innovations, and provide improved public monitoring­—though in many cases relatively new—are consistently among the strongest examples at either the provincial or national level.
According to Stefaan Verhulst, Chief of Research at the GovLab: “Our benchmarking study found that British Columbia’s various initiatives and experiments to create a more open and participatory governance culture has made it a leader in how to re-imagine governance. Leadership, along with the elimination of imperatives that may limit further experimentation, will be critical moving forward. And perhaps even more important, as with all initiatives to re-imaging governance worldwide, much more evaluation of what works, and why, will be needed to keep strengthening the value proposition behind the new practices and polices and provide proof-of-concept.”
See also our TheGovLab Blog.

Creating Networked Cities

New Report by Alissa Black and Rachel Burstein, New America Foundation: “In April 2013 the California Civic Innovation Project released a report, The Case for Strengthening Personal Networks in California Local Governments, highlighting the important role of knowledge sharing in the diffusion of innovations from one city or county to another, and identifying personal connections as a significant source of information when it comes to learning about and implementing innovations.
Based on findings from CCIP’s previous study, Creating Networked Cities makes recommendations on how local government leaders, professional associations, and foundation professionals might promote and improve knowledge sharing through developing, strengthening and leveraging their networks. Strong local government networks support the continual sharing and advancement of projects, emerging practices, and civic innovation…Download CCIP’s recommendations for strengthening local government networks and diffusing innovation here.”

Civic Innovation Fellowships Go Global

Some thoughts from Panthea Lee from Reboot: “In recent years, civic innovation fellowships have shown great promise to improve the relationships between citizens and government. In the United States, Code for America and the Presidential Innovation Fellows have demonstrated the positive impact a small group of technologists can have working hand-in-hand with government. With the launch of Code for All, Code for Europe, Code4Kenya, and Code4Africa, among others, the model is going global.
But despite the increasing popularity of civic innovation fellowships, there are few templates for how a “Code for” program can be adapted to a different context. In the US, the success of Code for America has drawn from a wealth of tech talent eager to volunteer skills, public and private support, and the active participation of municipal governments. Elsewhere, new “Code for” programs are surely going to have to operate within a different set of capacities and constraints.”

We the People Update

Washington Post: “The White House launched the We The People petition site in 2011 as a way for Americans to get their government to respond to their calls for action. On the digital platform, people can create and sign petitions seeking specific action on an issue from the federal government. In theory, once a petition has garnered a certain number of signatures within a certain time frame, it is reviewed by White House staff and receives an official response.
But that’s not always what happens.
Now a new site, www.whpetitions.info, takes its own tally and highlights petitions that have received enough signatures but have not received responses. By its count, the White House has responded to 87 percent of petitions that have met their signature thresholds with an average response time of 61 days. But the average waiting time so far for the 30 unanswered petitions is 240 days. And six of them have been waiting for over a year.”

What should we do about the naming deficit/surplus?

in mySociety Blog: “As I wrote in my last post, I am very concerned about the lack of comprehensible, consistent language to talk about the hugely diverse ways in which people are using the internet to bring about social and political change….My approach to finding an appropriate name was to look at the way that other internet industry sectors are named, so that I could choose a name that sits nicely next to very familiar sectoral labels….

Segmenting the Civic Power sector

Choosing a single sectoral name – Civic Power – is not really the point of this exercise. The real benefit would come from being able to segment the many projects within this sector so that they are more easy to compare and contrast.

Here is my suggested four part segmentation of the Civic Power sector…:

  1. Decision influencing organisations try to directly shape or change particular decisions made by powerful individuals or organisations.
  2. Regime changing organisations try to replace decision makers, not persuade them.
  3. Citizen Empowering organisations try to give people the resources and the confidence required to exert power for whatever purpose those people see fit, both now and in the future.
  4. Digital Government organisations try to improve the ways in which governments acquire and use computers and networks. Strictly speaking this is just a sub-category of ‘decision influencing organisation’, on a par with an environmental group or a union, but more geeky.”

See also: Open Government – What’s in a Name?

Beyond Code in the Tomorrow City

Article in the Next City: “Since 2009, the San Francisco-based non-profit Code for America has embedded its budding techies in one-year fellowships with city halls around the country. The goal: To build apps that make city governments run more effectively and bolster engagement between citizens and civil servants. But even Code founder Jennifer Pahlka — who hatched the idea for her organization over beers in Flagstaff, Ariz. and will soon take a year off herself to serve as a White House chief technology officer — admits that apps alone can’t solve the world’s problems. That might explain why the group’s mission is in flux, with hard questions and new projects pushing the increasingly high-profile group into its own 2.0 moment. Journalist Nancy Scola goes inside the Code for America universe, talking to believers and skeptics alike to find out how the organization is evolving and what that means for the future of the civic tech movement and cities at large.

Cities must do more with data than ‘crowdsource pothole locations’

Technically: “Using data from citizen-powered mobile and web apps has become such a clear best practice for city governments, that a new question was the focus at the 7th annual Mayors’ Innovation Summit held in Philadelphia last week. What’s next?…

When it comes to moving the civic technology movement forward, the consensus was twofold: we need to continue reaching out to new user bases and seeking better ways to make sense of the data we’re collecting. (A similar need for deeper goals also came out of a civic innovation panel)

“We’re going to have to get better as cities at processing all of this info,” said Mesa, Ariz. Mayor Scott Smith, whose iMesa application invites ideas from citizens for how to make Mesa a better place to live. He reported the app is already becoming overloaded with data, in his words “a great problem to have.”

An Ethnographic Approach to Impact Evaluation: Stop Measuring Outputs, Start Understanding Experiences

Panthea Lee, a principal at Reboot, in TechPresident: “Is open government working? I asked the question in a previous post …Too often, assessing the impact of open government initiatives amounts to measuring outputs: how many developers flocked to a civic tech hackathon; the amount of procurement records feeding corruption hawks and socially-minded graphic designers; or the number of tweets or media mentions about a particular initiative, regardless of whether they are from the same industry blogs and actors covering open government.
Quantitative metrics have their place. They may be useful for gauging the popularity of an initiative. They are almost always used to justify funding for an initiative. But, ultimately, these studies say very little about open government’s actual impact on people….We need to move beyond measuring outputs and toward understanding experiences….
Applied ethnography holds great potential for understanding how individuals experience open government initiatives. Ethnography––“a portrait of people”––is the study of people within their social and cultural contexts. It embraces context, examining how results can be explained by human factors and situational interactions. Ethnography allows us to understand the meaning of participation for different individuals––who is affected or not, and why. (Ethnographic research is often mistakenly equated with “interview studies” or other types of qualitative research. An immersive research approach, it uses techniques such as participant observation, unstructured interviews, and artifact collection to attempt a holistic analysis of human behaviours, interactions, and perceptions over time.)
Take, for example, this ethnographic study of a participatory budgeting initiative in Rome. The study found that through engagement with the participatory budgeting process, some participants “discovered a passion for politics,” leading them to join neighborhood associations and local political parties. Other participants, however, left the budgeting process feeling more cynical about and disengaged from participatory democracy.”