Government support is a key factor for civic technology

Dr Rebecca Rumbul, Head of Research, mySociety highlights why government support is key for civic technology, here

Civic tech is on a huge growth curve. There is much more of it about now than there was ten years ago. At the same time, it is changing the scope and reach, and becoming much more mainstream. Ten years ago civic tech was hardly spoken about by anyone. It was largely the domain of ‘outsiders’, by which I mean campaigners and data specialists working outside the mainstream. Today civic tech is an accepted, respected and widely used form of engaging citizens.

The movement over that ten years has mostly been gradual, but over the last couple of years, there has been a really significant shift in how civic tech is viewed both by those within and outside the sector. A wider range of funders are more interested in supporting projects, government seems to have woken up to how civic tech can really be a spur to public engagement, and the word is getting out there to people on the street. Quite literally. At mySociety our FixMyStreet app now garners in the region of six thousand citizen reports of things like potholes and fly-tipping every week.

This maturing of attitudes towards and use of civic tech is wonderful to see. Those pioneers who saw a problem wrote a bit of code and put it online as a way of immediately finding a way to fix the problem have seen their often locally focused efforts contribute to the growth of a global phenomenon in a really short space of time.  And we are in a process here. There is no doubt that civic tech continues to grow and continues to make an impact way beyond its humble beginnings.

But the way civic tech develops is not uniform around the world, and it does need a number of circumstances to converge to make it really sing. That coming together of citizen awareness, government buy-in and funding support is crucial to its success. And there are other important factors too.

We’ve been researching the impact of civic tech around the world, and one of the most interesting things we’ve learned is that the movement is working with institutions much more today than it did five or ten years ago. FixMyStreet started out as a stand-alone online reporting system. Now we also work with councils to ensure that the reports citizens generate are easily imported into back end systems, making it fast and cost-efficient to log reports and fix the issues raised. This doesn’t mean civic tech is ‘selling out’. We still hold fast to our core values of openness, transparency and accountability, but we can achieve so much more by working together with public institutions.

For our research report Parliament and the People: How digital technologies are shaping democratic information flow in Sub-Saharan Africa we interviewed politicians, civil servants and activists involved in democratic engagement across Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa and Uganda to learn more about how digital technologies are shaping democratic information flows in Sub-Saharan Africa.

We discovered a vibrant, energetic and enthusiastic civic tech community and a real push for greater transparency and accountability in government coming from younger people.  We also discovered some key factors that can impact the success of civic tech and which, unfortunately, mean it is not always as effective as it could be.

Mobile coverage in the area can be patchy, and smartphones unavailable. Even where there is access to data, its quality can be poor. In Sub-Saharan Africa gaining access to parliamentary data can be challenging. And without the data, it is not always easy to hold representatives to account.

In the end, one of the most significant barriers to civic tech is a lack of support from governments. The developments we have seen in the UK over the last ten years have come in part because of our government’s willingness to make information accessible. Hansard, the record of Commons and Lords proceedings, has been published online since 1997, and open data is now widely supported by both local and national government.  Sub-Saharan African countries are still developing their capacity to achieve similar levels of disclosure and publication.

But governments need to do more than just release data. They need to be open to citizen input, to support the principles of participatory democracy and, ultimately, to be hospitable to integrating civic tech with their own systems so as to close the feedback loop between citizen and administration. Where governments are not willing to support these ideals, civic tech, like other citizen-focused democratic activity, is often stifled, and forced to circumvent these issues using less than efficient means.

With this in mind it is great news that civic tech is growing and becoming more mainstream in countries like the UK, not only because this helps UK citizens to become more involved locally and nationally, but also because it is a great exemplar of what civic tech can achieve – one which can inspire other communities all around the world to develop civic tech for themselves.

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