Recently ran across a great article at The American Prospect on technology, civic engagement, and social change with a thought-provoking premise, but a disappointing conclusion.
The article, “Why Civic Tech Can’t Be Neutral” summarizes perfectly the role and responsibility of those building or advocating “civic tech” as a means of engagement to understand technology not just as a means to improving services, but a tool for breaking down barriers to participation. Advocates and builders need to understand (and build toward) what those barriers are, not remain neutral on them. And I absolutely agree. But, in summary, the author finishes:
But we’ve already seen what can happen when the tech world turns to politics, as it did in the conflicts over SOPA, PIPA, and net neutrality. What if the same energy was directed towards removing voting restrictions?
There’s a lot about civic inequality that we already know. Some barriers to participation may be reduced through better-targeted education programs and redesigned civic forums. But political inequality is not something that will be solved by an app. There’s no Uber for voting.
This is a theme I hear a lot wherever minds are melding over transparency, open government, civic tech, and even open data. Better access breaks down barriers. Okay. Technology is a tool without rival. Agreed. And if the barriers are broken down… everyone will go out and cast a ballot once a year?
This is what we’re going to call engagement? Really?
Don’t misunderstand my criticism. Voting is important and often the most relevant way to have a voice. Voter ID laws are for rubes. The guy who says “only informed people should vote” actually means “only people who read Glenn Beck’s Agenda 21 should vote” and isn’t a sound source for voting regulation. And no, caucus delegates are not more informed than the average voter. See: Every opinion poll ever. Restrictions and barriers to voting are a noble goal I wish more state lawmakers would adopt. But when we’re talking engagement, is it really the most important?
Very few people get engaged in politics out of a sense of duty. And those who do all have twitter accounts or professional cause. Most regular folk get engaged because they want to make change. And what the article linked covers well is technology’s increasing role in making that easier. But to say engagement means more people casting a vote ignores the fact that for most people, and the issues that engage them, knowing how to engage a city council member, for example, is far more relevant to making the change most likely to engage them.
Sure, when you cast your vote (once a year) you’re engaging, and low voter turnout in Utah isn’t doing anyone any favors. But arguably, a person with a life (i.e. those who’ll never read this) can make more of the change most likely to make them want to engage in the first place by talking to a council member, emailing a lawmaker, attending a public hearing, or bending the mayor’s ear. And in order for that type of engagement to happen, a person with a life must first be able to find out easily, and quickly, what is going on. What’s on the agenda? When and were is the meeting? I just heard about this, where can I read up?
My representatives answer my phone calls, but I have a radio show where I can complain if they don’t. I grew up with most of my city council and know their dog’s names, but it’s a small town. I know what’s on the agenda, the context and background, and who is saying what and when. But I’m far from representative of the average citizen. I have both a professional and personal reason to know these things. What about the working mother just getting home in time to help the kids with their homework, who notices for the 1000th time the kids walking home on a roadside devoid of sidewalks? How does she exact change? What about the 72 year old man who’s had backyard chickens his entire life, until informed after the fact his city council banned them, and by the way here’s a fine. What about the parent who can’t sleep at night over a child struggling in school, who doesn’t know the district has a program that can help? What about the woman with an idea, but no clue where to start in turning it into a home-business reality? What about the migrant family, sick from mold growing in the rental’s vents, oblivious to the city operated good-landlord hotline?
These are all recent stories of real Utahns I’ve spoken with, and just off the top of my head. Similar examples are endless. And most of these people want to make change. They want to engage. They are frustrated they were left out of the decisions that most immediately affect their lives, while they were living their lives.
All or any of us concerned about engagement, or excited about the opportunity of new technology, is our answer really going to be, “Hey, we’ll text you your polling place in November?”
My friend and longtime data-driven-communities advocate Laurenellen McCann writes, in her “Build With, Not For” series:
Engagement is often talked about as A Thing, a specific, singular activity that a person can be doing or not doing—or something that can be done to a person. (“Our work engages voters.”)
But this framing takes for granted what the definition of engagement literally is: people paying attention and interacting with each other and with a particular subject.
Basically: People doing stuff.
Data and access (information!) make it possible for people to engage more often. But to truly realize the potential of open data, transparency, and emerging “civic-tech” when it comes to engaging the public, technologists. advocates, lawmakers, and policy-makers all need to get people paying attention and interacting on the issues they care about, not necessarily the issues we want them to care about at the time and place the powers that be have designated for such. That is the real potential of open data and civic technology.
Nibley City recently handled a drinking water emergency with Facebook updates, and residents applauded. A county in central Utah interacts with residents via Twitter on issues ranging from property taxes to road construction traffic. Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams just announced a priority to create a county-wide dashboard for data, allowing residents to see how the county is making decisions, and track performance. The state has the always increasingly useful OpenData.Utah.gov data hub.
Some of these efforts might seem superficial to some, a life saver to others, and that’s sort of the point. They’re examples of engaging and interacting with people where they live, on the issues they care about. And that, to me, holds more potential for an individual, busy with day-to-day life, to exact social change through their own engagement more directly than casting a vote (once a year).