The use of technology to promote citizen engagement has been described as “the next big thing”, and is often associated with adjectives such as “disruptive”, “transformational,” and “revolutionary.” Yet, in contrast with the deluge of blog posts and tweets praising technology’s role to promote smarter and more participatory governments, one finds limited evidence on the effects of technology on citizen engagement practices.
Civic Tech – Assessing Technology for the Public Good is a new book that – we hope – contributes to addressing this knowledge gap. The book is comprised of one study and three field evaluations of civic tech initiatives in developing countries. The study reviews evidence on the use of twenty-three digital platforms designed to amplify citizen voices to improve service delivery. Focusing on 23 empirical studies of initiatives in the Global South, the authors highlight both citizen uptake and the degree to which public service providers respond to expressions of citizen voice.
The first evaluation looks at U-Report in Uganda, a mobile platform that runs weekly large-scale polls with young Ugandans on several issues, ranging from climate change to access to public services. The second evaluation takes a closer look at Maji Voice, an initiative that allows Kenyan citizens to report, through multiple channels, complaints to water services providers. The third evaluation examines the case of Rio Grande do Sul’s participatory budgeting—the world’s largest participatory budgeting system—which allows citizens to participate either online or offline in defining the state’s yearly spending priorities.
In each of the chapters, the authors are breaking new ground, as there are few benchmarks available for comparison in terms of understanding what kinds of public engagement methods produce what outcomes. While the cases examined in the book are unique, authors assess two major aspects of civic tech. The first one refers to whether technology facilitates the participation of individuals who are traditionally excluded. Or if, to the contrary, it further empowers the already empowered. The second question relates to government responsiveness. While technology has made the creation of avenues for citizen participation easier, responding is as hard as ever. This may generate a voice-responsiveness deficit that cannot be narrowed by the mere creation of more civic technologies alone. Potential ways to address these shortcomings are offered in the book.
Equally important to the questions asked by the authors are the methodologies they use to answer their questions, which may be of particular interest to researchers and practitioners assessing civic technology efforts. Each of the field evaluations take a multidisciplinary approach that navigates the trade-offs of any one strategy by executing a hybrid-methodology analysis. From traditional qualitative interviews to mobile-based and random intercept web surveys, the different chapters present a wealth of ways in which data can be collected and analyzed.
While the book is far from answering all the questions surrounding the use of technology in citizen engagement processes, we hope it will be a useful starting point for both researchers and practitioners in the field of civic technology.
Please read the book and share your thoughts in the comments below. You can also join us online or in person on September 7 to discuss more about civic technology in the Global South.