Technology as a Civic Engagement Tool

16 Jan

There’s been much to do about harnessing technology as a civic engagement tool, but groups are now focusing on using technology as a way to help underserved communities navigate complex government processes – and we’re totally on board with the idea. Technology has a lot of potential to be used as a tool to foster civic engagement, to make bureaucratic processes more transparent, and to improve the lives of low-income individuals. But while high-tech wizardry can act as a liberating force, it can also present a significant barrier to entry.

It’s no secret that local, state, and national governments have been slow to incorporate new technologies into their day-to-day operations. Many continue to rely on outdated systems that typically involve endless paperwork, in-person appearances, long lines, and a series of delays for people trying to access government services. People with low-incomes, who tend to rely more on these services, are disproportionately burdened by the inefficiencies in the system.

The growing movement behind civic technology—including so-called “civic-hackers”—is working to change that by “leveraging modern design and technology tools to build citizen-centric systems within governments.” In other words, these folks are working with cities to help manage their public data, making it accessible to the masses through a user-friendly platform. Organizations like Code For America are connecting web-geeks with local officials to design new systems that promise to change the way government operates.

Applications of civic technology vary. There are mobile apps that seek to increase citizen engagement, web-based tools that allow officials to crowdsource data on community needs, and tech upgrades that improve the quality and efficiency of public service delivery.

The push to embrace technology has cities across the country experimenting with new models. Boston established the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, which is dedicated entirely to the development of new technology to improve the delivery of city services. The City of Santa Cruz, California is working to streamline their business permitting process so that residents don’t have to visit ten different offices to file paperwork. And Philadelphia has a new Director of Civic Technology, headed up by a “civic hacker turned city official.”

This is all great, but while we’re looking at technology as a force to revolutionize community engagement, we also need to ground these efforts in reality. As we noted earlier, technology can present a significant barrier to entry, especially for low-income populations. Research indicates that low-income and minority households have limited access to the web, so focusing exclusively on internet-based services may actually exacerbate inequities.

An example of this can be seen in Florida’s recent transition of their unemployment services to a web-only platform. Touted as a cost-saving measure, the State Legislature “overhauled unemployment laws, adding new eligibility rules, eliminating the file-by-telephone option and requiring all applicants to claim their benefits online.” The new policy has caused denials of benefits to jump over 140 percent. The spike in denials has raised concerns that people in need of unemployment benefits are being unjustly penalized by the new system.

While the civic technology movement can potentially make the allocation of social services more equitable, many of the existing technologies are just beginning to fundamentally change the way that governments deliver services. Florida’s story serves as a reminder that if we want to craft civic technology tools strictly on the basis of cost-cutting, then many of our most vulnerable populations may be left out in the cold. As Living Cities notes, it is important to balance “business-critical” solutions that cut costs, with “mission-critical” solutions that benefit residents and enhance how government and people accessing their services interact.

One Response to “Technology as a Civic Engagement Tool”


  1. Investing in Pedestrian & Bicycle Infrastructure « The ELP Blog - January 17, 2013

    […] is out there, but it’s spotty and not readily accessible to the public. In a nod to harnessing civic technology and reducing data collection costs, local decision-makers may also consider combining official data […]

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