Every citizen observes from day to day how well their local government works. When faced with problems, whether it's a minor pothole or city-wide projects and policies, many of us have strong feelings about the best possible solution. But how can you express these ideas to your government? Oftentimes, city bureaucracies are difficult to navigate and slow to respond, and for issues requiring legislation, the path to change is even more complicated.
What if your government reached out, made it easy to provide feedback, and actually listened? Rapidly developing digital tools are making it easier and easier for governments and citizens to engage in productive conversations.
The goal of civic technology is to directly empower civic agency and political efficacy—the belief that an individual or group has the ability to make a difference in their own lives and in their surrounding community by participating in the political process. The implementation and use of civic technologies like the ones discussed in this collection encourages citizens to engage in the political process beyond going out to vote or protest.
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- Define “political efficacy.” Discuss what actions beyond voting can affect a citizen’s sense of political efficacy. In particular, what are some ways, other than voting, that young people can participate in the political process?
- Define “participatory design.” Explain how digital tools—like Minecraft—are enabling the involvement of more stakeholders in urban planning and other public works projects worldwide. What makes these approaches successful, and what are some of their limits or challenges?
- After reading the piece on digital democracy in Taiwan, describe what led to success in that effort to enact ride-share regulations in the country. How does Taiwan’s experience with civic technology compare to other countries—namely its geographic neighbors and to similar technologies in the United States?
- How does public-private collaboration help enhance technological capabilities of local governments? What are some positive aspects of the government working more closely with the tech sector, and what might be some drawbacks? Evaluate some potential possibilities and risks that might come from implementing AI and other technologies into local governance. Compare how outcomes might vary between partnerships with private companies versus tech nonprofits.
- Do you have an idea for an app or digital tool that can serve as a civic technology? What would it take to develop your idea and implement it?
- Journalism is a collaborative practice: reporters are writing for their community, but they also depend on community members as sources for information. Indeed, the very purpose of journalism, according to the American Press Institute, is to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments. With that in mind, SJN wants to help connect news readers and journalists. Beside the name of the journalist on any of our story pages or the results page of the Solutions Story Tracker, you’ll find a Twitter icon that will link you directly to the journalists profile. Tweet at them with questions or compliments about their piece - you might be surprised by how much writers want to engage with their audiences! Don’t forget to tag us too (@soljourno) and use the hashtag #journalistintheclassroom if you are reading as part of an academic assignment.
- Political efficacy refers to a citizen’s perception of their influence, either through voting or other political activity, on government policies. Political efficacy also relates to a citizens’ faith in the trustworthiness of their government and political processes. “Internal efficacy” refers to an individual’s belief that they can understand and participate in politics; “external efficacy” refers to the likelihood or belief that they government will respond to the efforts of civil society. Civic technologies target both forms of political efficacy by giving citizens a new platform through which to address their concerns, and also by allowing them to see the results of their actions.
- Participatory design is also called co-design and refers to an approach in which all stakeholders are involved in the design and decision-making aspects of a project. In the piece by Odette Chalaby, we see the implementation of the UNs Block by Block project, which uses the game Minecraft to engage citizens in design projects. So far, several countries have adopted plans developed by project (roughly 20 out of 50, according to the article). However, the article questions the long-term efficacy of such programs. What happens when the political will attached to the initial planning phase wears out? Who ensures that projects are carried through?
- Taiwan still has a long way to go in implementing fully participatory civic engagement, and its long-term success also depends on the actions of China. However, Taiwan’s success in making the policymaking process for riding more transparent contrasts to the lack of transparency in political processes elsewhere in the region. In the United States, as stories in this collection have illustrated, cities like Boston and New York have also embraced civic technology to increase transparency in the political and regulatory processes.
- Bringing in tech companies or nonprofits helps governments implement new technologies and ideas. Oftentimes, innovative ideas and designs come from the private sector. Bridging the private and public sector through collaboration allows local governments to enact new approaches, sometimes with great success. However, not all organizations are the same. With private companies, profit motives and a lack of transparency might be of concern. On the other hand, nonprofits like Code for America can offer similar services with a different organizational structure. Furthermore, technologies like AI have secondary effects that are difficult to extrapolate and account for on the front end; for instance, it is worth considering to what extent individual privacy might be at risk, or who has the power of oversight if civil service jobs are replaced with decisions generated by an algorithm.
- Encourage students to design an app that helps to carry out some basic civic functions, or helps individuals navigate local policies and bureaucracies more easily. This example of civil service bots in Singapore offers another example of how tech can enhance local government functions!