Why we do what we do. No, not the name of a wonderfully named new mySociety product, instead it’s an excuse for me to take stock of where we are and where we go next.
Inevitably over the past decade we’ve tackled lots of issues and projects from lots of different angles. What we’re currently focused on is Freedom of Information, Parliaments and Elections, and Local Issue Reporting.
What links all of our work is the creation of civic technology that enables greater access for citizens to the work of government and the democratic process:
Lack of access to elected representatives amongst disadvantaged or underrepresented groups is a key driver of exclusion and inequality, yet governments tend only to become better at serving the needs of citizens when those citizens are capable of demanding better.
Simply put, this is our cause.
Our Theory Of Change
Citizens will only demand better from governments if they have access to a mix of often scarce resources: from education, to wealth, to knowledge about government failings. At mySociety we are highly aware that we can’t give people most of these things: we can’t boost business in failing economies or bring teachers into schools that have none. These are the tasks of development funders, political leaders and well-regulated markets.
Tremendous human suffering happens when governments fail to serve the needs of their citizens, and human welfare is dramatically increased when governments serve citizens’ needs well. Some governments are excellent at meeting some citizen needs, but weak at meeting others, harming a minority, often invisibly. Others make no attempt to meet any of their citizens’ needs, robbing, starving and failing them in every possible way.
Our theory of change is based on a reading of political history, and specifically of the history of reform campaigns, such as those that drove the democratisation of nations from the 17th to the 20th century. We believe that governments tend only to get better at serving the needs of citizens when citizens are capable of demanding better, creating a virtuous circle that leads steadily to better government.
Each of our services give citizens the skills, confidence and knowledge they need in order to be capable of demanding better.
Freedom of Information
FOI is a core plank of a healthy, transparent and accountable democracy. Every citizen should have the right to query and understand the workings of government and public bodies on their own terms.
Alaveteli is our platform for FOI request websites. We currently support partners in over 20 countries, from Australia to Hungary, Nicaragua to Ukraine, as well as a pan-European site AskTheEU. Our most successful site is WhatDoTheyKnow in the UK, with almost 300,000 individual FOI requests alone – drawn from over 16,000 UK public bodies.
Over the next year we will continue to refine and develop Alaveteli to better support the expansion and proper use of FOI around the world. At the same time, we’ll be actively campaigning to preserve FOI in the UK which is currently under threat from the Government’s FOI commission.
Parliaments and Elections
The activities of Government can often be opaque and difficult to interpret. We improve access to elected representatives, providing clarity, context and understanding to the decisions they make on our behalf.
We tackle the workings of government at a variety of points throughout the electoral cycle; YourNextMP/Rep for candidate information, TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem allow people to query and explain the workings of government at all levels.
Increasingly central to these efforts is EveryPolitician, our crowdsourcing effort to sustainably store and share a structured open data set of every national politician around the world. It currently holds data on more than 60,000 politicians from over 230 territories.
In the next few weeks we’ll complete work to integrate all of our existing Parliament services with EveryPolitician and continue to encourage more journalists, developers, and NGOs to create the tools they need in their own countries.
Local Issue Reporting
FixMyStreet gets right to the root of any disconnect between citizens and those who provide their local services. Literally dealing with street-level issues, FixMyStreet can help turn our everyday feelings of frustration into action.
The original and much emulated FixMyStreet.com makes it easy to report street faults like broken street lights or potholes, raising over 650,000 reports in the last 8 years.
We’ve extended the principle of issue – reporting – resolution, to create a generalised platform catering to a variety of interesting and practical new use cases; with projects as varied as empty home identification, or logging road collisions and near misses for cyclists.
Citizens feel more in control. Local councils can target their efforts more effectively. Together this can contribute to better government.
For the moment we’ll continue to consolidate our offer in these three areas.
There’s ample scope for further development, refinement of concepts and of course directly increasing the impact of currently deployed sites.
What gets really interesting is when we start to scale up the delivery of each of these in more countries, delivered to more people, ensuring we see more citizens gain greater influence over those with power.
I’ll post again later this week about some of the practical changes that we are making to better encourage the take up of our services and how we’re improving the way we work with our partners.
As this post goes live, mySociety Head of Research Rebecca Rumbul is out in Mexico, hosting a session at the Open Government Partnership Global Summit.
She’s presenting our latest paper, which seeks to provide a firm foundation for future impact research, by asking the most basic questions about who actually uses civic technology and why.
The headline findings
It’s not a difficult read, but if you’re looking for some easy takeaways, we got ’em. Try these for starters:
- Civic technology is used by a wide spectrum of individuals, but there are big differences between countries, especially when comparing developed countries to developing countries.
- Generally, more men than women use civic tech (although this isn’t the case in the USA).
- In the USA and UK, civic tech users tend to be above the age of 45 (over 70%) and well educated: to degree level or higher.
- In Kenya and South Africa, civic tech users tend to be under the age of 45, and more individuals without higher educational qualifications participate through these platforms.
- Comparative to population of each participating country, users from ethnic minorities are under-represented.
- Confidence in civic tech websites is very high. In each country surveyed, an overwhelming majority of individuals (over 85%) believed that these websites help them to hold the government to account, and believed that the government would behave differently if they were unable to see the information contained on these sites. On average 97% of users would use these sites again.
Now go and read
You can download the paper in full here: Who Benefits From Civic Technology? Demographic and public attitudes research into the users of civic technologies.
At the heart of open data is the belief that information is empowering and allows citizens to hold their governments to account. The idea that transparency promotes good governance is so widely accepted that few people dare question it. But how solid is the evidence linking open data initiatives to intended impact? Do transparency measures necessarily lead to policy change? What about the impact and effectiveness of Civic Tech in general?
mySociety has been at the forefront of talking about impact and just last March organized the first Impacts of Civic Technology Conference addressing these questions. The conference brought together practitioners, activists and scholars who discussed various ways to define and measure impact and make civic technologies more effective.
Civic Tech is a rapidly growing field and covers a wide range of initiatives from open data groups to crowdsourcing and service delivery platforms and parliamentary monitoring websites. According to a Knight Foundation report, $431 million has been invested in Civic Tech from January 2011 to May 2013 and the sector has grown at the rate of 24% per year since 2008.
As the interest and funding in Civic Tech continues to grow, it is important to start thinking about ‘impact’ in more concrete terms. The focus on Civic Tech so far has been more geared towards how to get people involved and make the technology more accessible. When impact studies have been done, they have tended to focus on the adoption, awareness or quality of the platforms rather than the actual impact of the initiatives on people and communities.
The default position seems to be that once bureaucratic or technical problems are addressed, these technologies will inevitably produce favorable results. Very often organizations and practitioners fail to see that this is not always the case. The danger when we don’t think about impact in concrete terms is it might lead us to confuse output with outcomes. For instance, poorly thought out open data initiatives might lead to transparency for transparency’s sake. Open data while hugely important is not a one-stop solution for governance problems and corruption and often it requires more than freeing data to push government and institutions to carry out transformative actions.
We have also only recently begun to think about the unintended consequences of civic technologies. One of the criticisms for Civic Tech, especially in the Global South, has been that they often end up empowering the already empowered. It is argued that social and economic inequalities are further entrenched when these technologies are made available without considering the Digital Divide in these countries. Understanding impact also means that these questions are explored in more depth and detail.
The novelty of Civic Tech as a field means that in many cases, the kind of information needed to conduct good impact assessment is not available. In developing countries, where infrastructure, access and adoption continue to be problems, impact studies simply do not top the list of an organization’s priorities. It does not help that most findings are based on self-reporting and anecdotal evidence making verification rather complex. The difficulty of measuring change, however, should not deter Civic Tech organizations from prioritizing impact. There is great value in the work that Civic Tech activists are doing around the world but it pays to know in more certain terms just how their works have been changing things if and when they are. Empirical findings are crucial but so are qualitative insights.
We have to understand the mechanisms and processes of how and in what institutional contexts Civic Tech works in order to achieve better results and avoid unintended outcomes and wasted projects. And that means among other things, establishing metrics and theories of change, finding links between activities and results and producing robust evidence. The bottom line is that Civic Tech is not an end in itself but a means to propel meaningful action and without a clear and sustained focus on results it can be very easy to forget that.
If you are a Civic Tech organization or researcher carrying out or planning to do an impact evaluation of your work, what have been your experiences been so far? What can Civic Tech organizations teach each other about defining and measuring impact? We would love to hear your perspectives.
Rubeena Mahato is working on a digital democracy project at mySociety as an Open Society Rights and Governance Grantee. The views are of the author.