How do researchers accumulate knowledge about civic technology? So far, many of our most active discussions still happen at conferences and in the informal writing of blog posts. Individual organizations (like mySociety) are investing more heavily in the production of academic-quality research, so we can all see more clearly what happens when we try to use technology to bring people and governments together. But is this work yet diffusing into academic use?
I wrote about this question while researching the context of mySociety’s current work on US city-led civic tech. Although the term “e-government” seems to have been largely bypassed in current civic technology practice, it’s useful to see that “e-government” is still a very important concept. For those of us trying to see how governments approach the use of technology in connecting to citizens, research on e-government provides a useful perspective. At the same time, however, the perspectives of e-government and civic technology also diverge — and that too is important to note.
Why Civic Technologists Should Still Care About E-Gov
As a recovering academic, I spend more time than I should going down rabbit holes: reading articles which cite interesting studies, which I then go find and read, and then they cite interesting papers, and pretty soon way too much time has gone by. I’m currently researching the role of civic technology projects enacted by U.S cities for mySociety, so I’ve been actively looking for those civic tech rabbit holes.
There’s just one hitch: civic technology barely exists in the academic context. E-government, on the other hand, continues to have an active research program.
Searching “e-government” in Google Scholar returns 169,000 cited works—10,600 published since 2015 alone. Searching “civic technology,” meanwhile, nets a total of 185. (And one of the top results references technology in the Honda Civic.)
Read more at Civicist.
I’m Emily, a newer addition to the team here at mySociety. My current project is researching the effects of civic technology on US cities. mySociety is driven by a mission to develop useful tools for increasing people’s power, but we’re also increasingly seeking to understand what elements or conditions make these tools useful and effective — and our project in the US is an example of this work.
This particular project, supported by Microsoft, will focus on the impact of government-led civic tech projects in cities. By studying five of these implementations in cities across the US, we’ll be able to provide some answers to the questions: What kinds of effects can government-led civic tech projects have? How do they affect their communities? How do they affect their own governance? The answers we get will inform our own work, and may also affect the work of other people who are asking similar questions.
This project is fairly specific in the way that it operationalizes the concept of effects from civic technology, and I’m looking forward to sharing more about the methodology in a future post. At a deeper level, and what ties this project to the overall mission of mySociety, is that it also asks the central question: What is it that makes civic technology effective?
In my own mind, there’s a question even more fundamental than that: What is the intended effect of all of this work?
This question brings us back to a very interesting conversation kicked off (on this very blog) by mySociety founder Tom Steinberg in the spring of 2013. Tom asked what we should call the sector of which mySociety is part. The ensuing posts naturally circled around the identification of like purposes across organizations–taxonomies of purpose–that would clarify the labelling of our sector. As Tom also pointed out, the label “civic tech” won. Although that was the clear winning answer to the question of “what are we?”, it did not fully satisfy the next-level question, which is “why are we?”
That question is still in active debate. This weekend, I added another log on the campfire with a piece I published on Medium called “Debugging Democracy.” I invite you to go take a look, and respond with your own take on what it is we’re all doing here.
Because just like a democracy can’t function without your participation, what’s the point of this conversation if you don’t add your two cents?