Who Uses Civic Tech?

Who uses civic technology, and why should we care?

A new study from mySociety – a non-profit based in the UK that focuses on civic tech – helps us answer these questions and provides some invaluable information for the civic technology community, and for governments.

mySociety surveyed civic technology users in four countries to understand the characteristics of civic tech users and their attitudes toward the solutions they are using. This is an important study that will no doubt be discussed in great detail in the civic tech community, but I see two key takeaways that bear some immediate discussion.

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First, the users of civic technology solutions believe they have value:

Individuals are citing civic technology as the cause of an increase in confidence in approaching public officials. This form of empowerment has numerous potential positive outcomes for individuals, for politics and communities. If civic technology is helping to increase citizens’ confidence in engaging with civic life, even if that is only in a small way such as reporting issues, questioning politicians or officials, or asking for information, this is likely to be contributing to a greater plurality and quality of discourse in the public sphere.

This is encouraging, and it validates the reason that many people become involved in civic tech projects. However, this perceived legitimacy of civic tech solutions comes with some risk:

If sites are believed to be having an effect on government behaviour, and are in fact, not doing so, the risk of disillusionment in such platforms is very high once this fact is established. Far from improving government accountability, there is a strong possibility that this eventuality would ‘poison the well’ of civic technology in certain territories in the short to medium term and cause a long term reduction in confidence in similar innovations.

This suggests very strongly that those of us working in civic tech need to carefully manage expectations and be transparent about what we think the actual impact of our ideas and solutions can be.  We should be very judicious in our use of words like “transformational,” “disruptive,” and “revolutionary” when talking about our work.

Maybe more importantly were the finding on the demographics of civic tech users, particularly in the U.S.:

Those individuals that are already effective and able to engage with governance mechanisms are facilitated by civic technology to engage more efficiently. Those individuals without such efficacy remain outside the system, either choosing not to engage digitally, or unaware that such engagement is even possible or desirable. This effect is stark in the data from the US, where 74% of users are over the age of 45, and 74% are educated to degree level or higher. The UK performs poorly in male-bias, with 65% male users, of whom 72% are over the age of 45, and 57% hold a first degree or higher.

In other words, the users of civic tech solutions tend to be people who typically are already empowered to engage with government and those that are disempowered are less likely to use civic tech solutions. If the promise of civic technology is that it can help empower traditionally marginalized communities in obtaining services and information from government, and engaging with their elected officials, then we have work to do.

But I wonder if there may be another way to look at this finding…

If we consider that civic technology solutions may provide an additional option for citizens that want to interact with government (e.g., using an app like PublicStuff vs. calling 311 on your phone), then it is possible that the use of these apps may be accompanied by a decrease in use of existing engagement channels. People that can use civic technology to engage may elect do so  (because they have the technology required to do so, or the awareness of this option), leaving resources allocated for existing channels to be focused on other users that may need more intensive engagement.

Most services request apps that let citizens report issues only cover a subset of possible report types – usually the most common types. If a citizen wishes to report an atypical issue type – something that happens less frequently or is inherently more complex – they will likely need to call 311 and report the issue to an agent. For governments that operate 311 centers, call center agents are by far the most expensive and valuable resource they have. If civic technology solutions like PublicStuff can help those citizens most able to “self serve” report their issue on their own through an app, then it may lead to a more efficient allocation of scare resources (call center agents) to the kinds of reports where they are most needed.

If the use of civic tech solutions provides a new channel for some users to engage with government, does this reduce pressure on other, more traditional channels for engagement? If so, how do we reallocate the resources used to support those existing channels to ensure they are focused on marginalized and underserved communities? And if we do, can we ensure that the quality of the experience between civic technology solutions and more traditional government engagement channels is comparable?

I don’t know the answers, or even if these are the right questions. Clearly more research is needed in this area.

Having said that, this new study from mySociety offers invaluable information to those of us in the civic tech community that we can use to enhance our impact.

We’ve got work to do.

[Note: Photo courtesy of Flickr user Robbie Sproule]

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