What’s Missing from Civic Technology? Closing the gap of civic engagement by applying qualitative research practices to civic technology projects.

What’s Missing from Civic Technology? Closing the gap of civic engagement by applying
qualitative research practices to civic technology projects.
Carlos A. Moreno
LSTD-4953 Study In-Depth
Dr. Patricia A. Blaine
December 9, 2017
I certify that I have read A Student’s Guide to Academic Integrity at the University of
Oklahoma, and this paper is an original paper composed by me for this course. Except where
properly cited and attributed, it has not been copied or closely reworded from any other source
and has not been submitted as a whole, or in part, for credit in any other course at OU or any
other educational institution. It has not been created or submitted for any other purpose such as a
job assignment at my workplace or any other agency.
Table of Contents
Originality, Applicability, and Relevance
A. Real-World Relevance
B. Administrative Leadership
C. Social Significance
A. Civic technology promises to improve government transparency and service
B. Many challenges prevent the civic technology movement from fulfilling its
C. A catalyst is needed to improve collaboration between citizens and government
Citizen Trust in Government
A. Governments making decisions without citizen input leads to low levels of trust
B. Governments may not communicate a desire for citizen input
C. Citizens may not generally feel their input is valuable
Citizen Engagement
A. Governments benefit in many ways from citizen input and problem-solving
B. Citizens have greater trust in governments when invited to give their input
The Promise of Civic Tech
A. Civic technology has shown some interesting potential, but is still a very young
movement that is met with significant challenges
B. Civic technology projects are often created without citizen input
C. Research has presented models but not pragmatic solutions
Human Centered Design as a way forward
A. Narrative inquiry & ethnography improve understanding
B. Human-Centered Design from a Feminist Perspective
C. What does HCD look like in the setting of public policy?
Policymaking at the infant stages of creating a problem statement,
ideation, and input directly from citizens could be very useful in providing
the “demand side” input that is needed
A pilot initiative in Tulsa, OK centered around criminal justice will use
HCD techniques to define problem statements and project ideas, at the
early stages of creating civic technology projects
The purpose of this analysis is to carefully examine the challenges that civic
technologists have faced in their role as community leaders, for the purposes of improving the
quality of civic technology projects in Tulsa, Oklahoma and beyond. In recent years,
organizations such as the Sunlight Foundation and Code for America have made great strides in
helping local, state, and federal government offices publish more open, public data. In addition,
volunteers and government professionals in many cities have created software tools that leverage
open data to improve policy decisions and deliver quality public services. However the civic
technology movement is currently at somewhat of a standstill. Most civic technology initiatives
in cities are still in their infancy stages, while citizen engagement, voter turnout, and trust in
government all remain low. Leaders in the civic technology movement can continue to do their
work in a more effective way by learning to facilitate more opportunities for collaboration
between government leaders and citizens.
As an interdisciplinary practice that combines ethnography and applied engineering (in
the form of problem-solving) with qualitative research techniques, Human-Centered Design
(HCD) could provide a bridge between policymakers and citizens so that both those groups can
come together and have meaningful interactions. HCD methods can be a useful tool for
collecting input from citizens during the very beginning stages of the development of public
policy, providing for more collaboration. Facilitating these interactions and bridging the gaps
between citizens and their government may be an important role that civic technologists can
play, thereby helping the civic technology movement grow.
Originality, Applicability, and Relevance
Real-World Relevance
Founded in 2012 by United States Deputy Chief Technology Officer Jennifer Pahlka,
Code for America is a nonprofit organization that exists in over 80 cities nationwide. The
organization coordinates volunteer-driven groups to work in their own community. These groups
help local governments leverage new software technologies so that they may be more
transparent, more responsive to the needs of citizens, and more efficient. Organizations such as
Code for America and the Sunlight Foundation are examples of civic technology organizations
working to improve the way government policy is implemented and government services are
delivered, in cities and states. Innovation in this space is already moving at a rapid pace, with
cities working on many different civic technology projects. The future of the civic technology
movement depends on its ability to not simply develop new software, but to work collaboratively
with policymakers, transforming citizens’ relationship with their local government staff and
elected officials.
The nature of civic technology is to experiment with a new idea in one local community,
prove its success, and then learn to scale that idea to other cities. Best practices in collaborating
on local initiatives here in Tulsa, OK can be shared with Code for America brigades in other
cities. Here in Tulsa, OK, the local Code for America brigade (an organization I have helped lead
for five years) has already worked with many City of Tulsa municipal organizations to improve
the delivery of transit service and hopes in the coming year to deploy projects that will improve
the criminal justice system and have a positive impact on food insecurity. The local brigade in
Tulsa, OK has seen projects succeed and fail, as well as several projects that showed potential,
but did not get past an idea or pilot phase. As one of the first cities to organize an official Code
for America brigade, Tulsa is in a unique position to share lessons learned through these local
government collaborations. Additionally, as the city moves toward larger projects that have a
greater potential for real-world impact, it is of critical importance that the group examine the
challenges of previous efforts, and introduce new thinking and new fields of study to find more
efficient and effective ways of meeting its goals.
Administrative Leadership
In my own study of Administrative Leadership I have intentionally focused on the
leadership methods, the ethics, the importance of diversity, and the measurement of quality as
these pertain to the leadership and management of nonprofit organizations. Successful
administrative leaders are able to create a strong vision and goals for their organization, and then
build effective strategies so that these goals can be met effectively. In the nonprofit sector, one
must perform these administrative functions with the added responsibility to those in need who
are served by the organization. The study of leadership in the context of leading a nonprofit has
helped me be a more effective leader of the local Code for America brigade here in Tulsa, and
helped us—as part of a larger network of nonprofits under the national Code for America
umbrella—to be leaders among civic technology groups nationwide (Dickerson, 2016).
In their discussion on supporting the efforts of community leaders, Bono, Shen, & Snyder
(2010) emphasize the importance of cross-sector collaboration, defining integrative leadership as
“leadership that fosters collective action by multiple stakeholders from various sectors of society
who work together for the common good” (p. 325). It is this type of leadership—working to
build stronger connections between local government institutions and their constituencies—that
is exercised by civic technology organizations who seek to solve challenges in their community
not only by leveraging their knowledge of software development, but by finding ways to be more
collaborative. In one sense, the vision of civic technology is that of creating strong local
community leaders. It is the vision of Code for Tulsa that as we continue to grow as an
organization, that we can cultivate our volunteers in to strong community leaders. Providing
opportunities for listening, dialogue, and engagement between government officials and citizens
is a potential framework by which this vision might be realized.
Social Significance
Jennifer Pahlka has brought together a nationwide community around the shared vision of
a government that is, “For The People, By The People, In the 21st Century.” In her TED Talk,
Pahlka (2012) described her vision for an improved democratic society: one that leverages the
talents of software engineers, with the desire for citizens to do good in their community, all while
improving efficiency and improving the delivery of government services. Pahlka’s organization,
Code for America, has worked with the State of California to improve the delivery of the
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), resulting in the improvement of food
security for more families (Shueh, 2017). In Oklahoma, the text-messaging system based court
reminder system, Courtbot, was developed by Code for America’s Tulsa brigade and has the
potential to decrease the number of people in jail for failing to appear in court, saving Oklahoma
counties taxpayer money and decreasing the state’s challenges with unnecessary incarceration
(Dickerson, 2016). For projects such as these to scale, the barrier is not one of technology, but
one of learning how to effectively develop a leadership role in working collaboratively with
citizens and government officials.
Vechakul, Shrimal, & Sandhu (2015) found that when a technique known as HumanCentered Design (HCD) was used in the planning process for a health service to be implemented
in a low-income neighborhood in Oakland, CA, “The team integrated community members’
creative ideas at an early stage of the program planning process, rather than getting feedback on
minor changes after the fundamental design had been completed.” (p. 2557). In a sense, HCD
offers a methodology that gives a voice to those who most need to have their experiences heard
by their government. The Code for America brigade in Tulsa, OK is currently launching a new
civic technology initiative that will integrate HCD methods at the beginning phases of creating
projects. As the initiative will be focusing on criminal justice data, the goal of these beginning
phases is to collect input from formerly incarcerated individuals, lawyers, journalists, and civic
organizations that offer rehabilitation programs and alternatives to incarceration. Local and state
governments may benefit by new ideas and perspectives in solving some of the challenges faced
by the criminal justice system. At the same time, this initiative will give a broad range of citizens
the opportunity to co-create new ideas and potential new solutions.
This study draws upon the disciplines of computer science, political science, and
anthropology. The term, “civic technology” is defined as the application of 21st Century software
development methodologies for the purposes of improving the delivery of government services.
Considering the two parts of this term separately shows its interdisciplinarity. The word “civic”
refers to the discipline of public administration—more specifically the area of policy analysis
that examines the process of developing and implementing public policy. Within this area of
study is the question of what methods are most efficient and effective in the implementation of a
public policy or public service. The word “technology” is referring specifically to software
engineering, as a subset of computer science. In academia, software engineering has been studied
in order to understand the most effective methods for the creation and deployment of computer
software. In his description of Code for America, O'Reilly describes what these lessons of
software engineering bring to the study of public administration by stating, “The lessons we’ve
learned from software development can be applied to make government work better for
everyone” (Moore, O'Reilly, Nielsen, & Fall, 2016, p. 37). Hence the creation of the term, “civic
technology.” While this combination of disciplines is relatively new, and has thus far been an
interesting exercise, it is evident that simply introducing new software development practices to
the implementation of public policy has not been sufficient to improve the delivery of
government services.
Within anthropology exists the sub-discipline of ethnography, which is dedicated to the
observation and research of a people not from the point of view of the researcher but from their
own perspective. In the practice of ethnography, one removes their own preconceived
assumptions in order to document a group of people and understand them on their own terms.
This concept was embraced by the industrial design community and developed into a problemsolving methodology called Human-Centered Design. Ethnographic methods are increasingly
being adopted in more and more areas such as architecture, civil engineering, graphic design, and
government service delivery.
In essence this study asks whether interdisciplinarity itself—introducing the new
perspective of ethnography—might be a solution to the challenges faced by the civic technology
movement, which has thus far gotten to a certain limited point by only looking at policy
implementation from a software engineering perspective. This new approach requires us to look
again at the word “civic” and examine the process of policy implementation by understanding
the role and influence of citizens.
The White House Open Government Directive was a memorandum issued by the
President of the United States in December of 2009. The memorandum instructed federal
government agencies to adopt guidelines for greater transparency, citizen participation, and
collaboration, with regard to government data as well as policymaking and government service
delivery. Since its publishing, city governments across the country have followed this lead and
embraced the ideals of open data & citizen engagement in government, establishing their own
formal open data policies and launching new initiatives aimed at increasing citizen input.
Commonly referred to as, “E-Government,” “Government 2.0,” or “Civic Technology,”
these new practices in citizen engagement are typified by the use of web technology (such as
smartphone apps or social media) to facilitate dialogue between citizens and public servants
(Howard, 2011, p.16). In some cases civic technology projects seek to improve or simplify a
government process (such as applying for food stamps or finding out what permits are needed for
opening a restaurant). Often these projects are led by a partnership between city government staff
or elected officials, and volunteer software developers who desire to use their skills to create
positive changes in their city. Nonprofit organizations such as the Sunlight Foundation, the
Knight Foundation, What Works Cities, Code for America, and the international Open
Government Partnership have helped lead and organize these efforts, sharing best practices and
facilitating their growth.
This collective movement is one that believes that civic engagement can have a
transformative effect on citizens’ attitudes toward government in addition to realizing tangible
positive outcomes from improving government efficiency. Moulder & O’Neill Jr. (2009)
surveyed more than 2,700 city governments throughout the United States, looking at citizen
engagement with their local government. Among their findings, they discuss that citizens who
are given the opportunity give input and help solve problems as well as the resources and
information needed to do so, are more likely to view their government in a positive light (p. 26).
Civic technology organizations and project leaders talk about their efforts in the context of
providing the tools for citizens to become better informed and better engaged. Local government
officials are excited about the opportunity to improve citizen participation and morale.
Unfortunately despite its promises, the civic technology movement is still in its infancy
and has in some ways arrived some significant limitations. Hollingworth & Cooper (2011)
discuss that “government attempts to use Web 2.0 technologies so far have been sporadic and
small in scale” (p. 30). Most large cities have some kind of grassroots civic technology
community, but even in these communities, there is little measurable outcome beyond simply
small pilot projects. The number of people who are both interested in public policy and have the
technical knowledge to build a website or smartphone app is very small. While software
developers who are a part of this movement have good intentions to improve their local
communities, they often are ill equipped to navigate government bureaucracy.
At the city government level, it is typical that a very few number of passionate citizens
are the only ones who participate in public discussions such as planning session and city council
meetings. Moreover, opportunities for civic engagement are very limited; public meetings often
occur during business hours when most citizens who would be interested in participating are at
work or busy taking care of family. Moulder & O’Neill Jr. (2009) acknowledge that those who
participate in citizen feedback efforts are mostly themselves public servants or business
professionals and that most of these efforts still involve very old governance structures such as
officials city boards & commissions, or appointed task forces (p. 27-28). The problems reveal
themselves to stem from both the lack of desire among policymakers to involve citizens in a
meaningful way (Lidén, 2016, p. 285), and an uncertainty on the part of citizens that they know
enough about complex government policies to contribute (Wijnhoven, et. al., 2015, p. 39). These
challenges prevent the civic technology movement from fulfilling its potential.
Civic technologists have a need to better understand the inner-workings of local
government so that they may develop more effective projects. Citizens need to have an easier
way to get involved and give their input so that they may trust their government is working in
their best interests. To the extent that citizen input and engagement is desired, local government
officials need to re-frame policy issues in a way that citizens can feel invited and empowered to
provide their feedback and perspective. Introducing the ethnographic methods inherent in
Human-Centered Design (HCD) at the beginning stages of civic technology project creation may
provide a methodology for government officials to better understand the needs of citizens, and
thus provide a much richer foundation and context when developing citizen feedback
opportunities. Since civic technologists are themselves volunteer citizens in their communities, it
may be possible for them to develop HCD events and activities and invite other volunteer
citizens to participate. In this manner, the volunteer groups that are working on civic technology
projects in their communities could themselves be leaders in helping to bridge the gap between
citizens and local government.
Citizen Trust in Government
Democratic governments often have the best of intentions in mind when establishing
policy, however when some policies are implemented they do not achieve their intended result.
Given the complex nature of society, solving challenges such as criminal justice or poverty or
poor health take an enormous amount of resources from a variety of sources. Added to this
complexity, the implementation of policy can often fail when governments do not take in to
account the very people that they are meant to serve. One such example is chronicled by Fisher
(2015), who reviews the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER), a set of policy
measures implemented in 2007 by the Australian government in an attempt to curb widespread
poverty, alcoholism and sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities. These measures were largely
punitive; among them restrictions on the way that welfare money could be spent, mandatory
school attendance and health exams for children, and the transfer of land ownership and
management from tribal leadership to government officials. Overall, these polices have been
seen as a failure, as they did not help solve the problems they were meant to target. Fisher (2015)
reports, “although the NTER led to no prosecutions for child sexual abuse, the state of
emergency it named endures” (p. 140). Speaking with Aboriginal residents of Darwin and
surrounding campsites, Fisher (2015) revealed stark differences in the very language and
concepts of territory and space, as well as differences in concepts of economic success and
desires of the people (p. 153). These conversations revealed that the government failed to
understand the culture and the values of the Aboriginal peoples of Darwin. It could be argued
that until there is mutual understanding between these Aboriginal tribes and the Australian
government, improvement of outcomes will not be possible.
When policymakers make decisions without citizen input and fail to share information,
citizen trust in government becomes low. Introducing a new website or software application to
citizens who already have a low trust in their government is unlikely to change their mind or
increase engagement. In reviewing research on government mistrust in Parent, Vandebeek, &
Gemino (2005) find many contributing factors including unmet expectations, lack of
information, and a perception that the benefits received by government are minimal (p. 722). The
researchers surveyed 182 voters in Canada, and found that participants who had a high level of
political self-efficacy (belief that they could make a difference in their local community) were
more likely to trust their government and rate their experience on a government website as
higher. In other words, it is the level of trust and self-efficacy—and not the design or
programming quality of the website itself—that citizens found to be important to their quality of
government engagement. Parent, Vandebeek, & Gemino (2005) recommend that local
governments invest to increase citizen trust in government by offline means, before making
technological investments in improving websites (p. 731). The problems of establishing trust
between government and citizens can be looked at from both sides of the relationship.
Government’s Lack of Desire for Engagement
On the one hand, governments can be reluctant to have an interest in being more
transparent and collaborative. Lidén finds in his research regarding citizen engagement in
Sweden, that while higher population, higher level of education, and greater economic wealth in
larger cities play a role in the level of citizen engagement, one critical factor is a lack of desire
among political leadership to seek input from citizens. Government officials were accustomed to
more traditional (closed and authoritarian) means of communication, and in both cities studied
by Lidén, there was complete lack of enthusiasm among government leaders about increasing
community engagement (Lidén, 2016, p. 285), or for that matter investing any funding in
websites or software that would improve government transparency and citizen engagement.
In the United States, Jaeger reviews a case in which the government distributed
information for the purposes of propaganda, rather than balanced, transparent policy. He points
to the U.S. Department of Education, showing that their website was at the time of his research,
very clearly a marketing tool for the No Child Left Behind program, and not a balanced
informational resource whereby the policy could be discussed or interpreted. Jaeger (2005)
points out that “In a democratic society, the leaders of the nation are responsible to all citizens,
not just the citizens who share the views of those in power” (p. 713). Lidén and Jaeger each point
out that while there may be a desire among citizens to become more informed and engaged, this
is not possible if governments are not willing to be transparent and ask for citizen input.
Citizens’ Lack of Knowledge
On the other hand, citizens themselves may not feel that their input has much value.
Jaeger & Thompson (2004) find two factors that contribute to citizens feeling reluctant to
participate more in government policy. They write that information poverty (not having the
resources to receive, process, understand, and work with the information given), and normative
behavior (it is not normal for their friends, neighbors, colleagues, etc. to use these services and
therefore they are disconnected from people who can help them) are the main factors reported as
to why citizens do not get more involved.
Moreover, citizens may see government projects as too complicated, and don’t get
engaged because they don’t see themselves as having enough knowledge to contribute to policy
discussions. Wijnhoven, Ehrenharda, & Kuhn (2015) describe that citizens who have never
participated in meetings or dialogue with their government were less trusting of civic technology
projects (p. 38). The researchers discuss the importance for civic technology projects to lower the
inhibition threshold, increasing not only the transparency but also the comprehensibility of
projects, and clearly communicating that citizens ideas and feedback will be used.
It is easy to imagine that introducing new technology such as a website or smartphone
application to citizens who already do not feel like their participation is valued, would further
disenfranchise them rather than be a welcome solution. People who are not accustomed to
getting information online, or people who do not own smartphones or have affordable access to
the Internet in their homes have these additional barriers to overcome, on top of not feeling that
these policies and services were created for them. Parent, Vandebeek, & Gemino write that
improvements to a government website provided “no positive effect on those whose trust is
either neutral or negative. E-government is not a panacea for unresponsive, distrusted
government” (p. 731-732). These factors lead to the disturbing outcome that those who need
government interventions the most, are often the ones left out of the policymaking process.
Citizen Engagement
Fortunately the opposite of these factors is also true: when citizens are given the
opportunity to give input and help solve problems, they are more likely to get involved, and view
government in a positive light. Citizens in democratic governments expect their government to
be transparent, and so new websites that make it easy to access government information such as
budgets, city ordinances, and schedules for public meetings are well received. Citizens view
these as simply adding convenience to the information that government needs to provide.
Information sharing produces positive results, and so does inviting citizens to take an active roll
in solving problems. Welch, Feeney, & Park (2016) write, “when [government] agencies seek
support from external stakeholders in participative decision making processes, they are more
willing to share data as a means of demonstrating commitment, facilitating communication,
encouraging trust, and enabling problem solving” (p. 394). Moulder & O’Neill Jr. (2009)
discuss, “When local governments give citizens the resources necessary to solve problems, they
send a positive message about the value they place on the contributions of citizens. Engaging
citizens in solving problems…increases the chances that decisions will be made that reflect the
values of the community” (p. 27). In their survey of local governments, the researchers
discovered that applying resources such as publicizing opportunities (announcing public
meetings and ways to give input via television and newspapers), and providing government data
and policy information, government staff time, and even small budgets, were all factors that
contributed to good engagement initiatives where citizens were needed to help solve problems.
Engagement initiatives do not necessarily need to be as intense as active problem-solving
activities. Szabados (2013) found in his study of citizen engagement in cities in Europe, that the
definition of engagement should be expanded not merely to consider active participation and
volunteerism, but also consideration for the input of everyone who is involved in receiving
government services. To the extent that one is benefiting from a government effort, a citizen is
involved, and “citizens have their points of view on these issues, so their opinions and
relationships may be accessed” (p. 139). Szabados shows that there is great potential in meeting
citizens where they are already involved in their communities, looking not just at direct
government contact but also in places where they are volunteering their time and involved in
civic organizations. Providing more information about the services that citizens receive from
government—to civic and volunteer organizations—can provide a great benefit.
In turn, governments who share more data and offer opportunities for input, benefit from
increased citizen participation. Morse (2012) outlines the benefit to governments, including
increased citizen understanding of the role and scope of government (knowledge), increased
participation on city government boards and commissions (involvement), and building a
collaborative spirit in which citizens feel that they are active participants in improving their
communities (community relations)(p. 91-93). These benefits can be seen to create an increase in
trust between citizens and their local government.
Kang & Gearhart discuss that city governments that offer more information, have citizens
who want to engage more. The researchers find that citizens who use city websites for both
information and transaction purposes are more likely to participate in city activities, discuss city
improvement, offer ideas for city improvement, and feel a part of their city (Kang & Gearhart,
2010, p. 451).
These few examples show that citizens and their governments can have a positive
collaborative relationship when given the opportunity. When provided with a non-intimidating
environment, citizens do provide valuable input which governments need in order to be effective.
Citizens who are able to voice their ideas and concerns have a more positive feeling and outlook
about government, which improves trust and morale in communities, and help establish trust.
The Promise of Civic Tech
Founded in 2012 by United States Deputy Chief Technology Officer Jennifer Pahlka,
Code for America is an organization with volunteer groups in over 75 cities, each of them
working collaboratively with local governments and software developers to create a government
that is more transparent and more responsive to the needs of citizens. Each local group finds
ways to leverage new technologies to improve the delivery of government information and
services. Since all projects built by Code for America are developed on freely available and
publically licensed software platforms, it is common for a project that succeeds in one city, to be
adopted by other cities. Other nonprofit organizations in the civic technology space have similar
goals, but some have a slightly different focus. The Sunlight Foundation focuses primarily on
increasing the transparency of government data, especially information on votes cast by national
and state elected officials on policy and budgets. What Works Cities takes an active role in
helping local governments establish open data ordinances and improve the use of government
data. The Open Government Partnership works between the governments of its member
countries promote transparency and empower citizens for the purposes of fighting corruption.
Moore, O'Reilly, Nielsen, & Fall describe that the increase in the expectation for
governments to be more open and transparent derives from the widespread use of internet
technologies, which have followed the same evolution. In large part, the technology that
underlies the transfer and storage of information on the internet, the building and displaying of
websites, the technology we use to shop online, listen to music, communicate with friends and
family, are all made possible by open source software. Open source software is commonly
developed in a way that invites collaboration from a broad community, and remains open to
public view so that it can be modified and improved over time. In his description of Code for
America, O'Reilly describes what technology brings to government by stating, “The lessons
we’ve learned from software development can be applied to make government work better for
everyone” (Moore, O'Reilly, Nielsen, & Fall, 2016, p. 37). Pahlka and other civic technology
leaders envision transforming government that is closed, hierarchical, exclusive, and
conventional, into one that looks more like open software project development, which is
transparent, distributed, inclusive, and iterative. Just as the open source software movement
provided a new way of developing computer software, O’Reilly describes the civic technology
movement as one in which government can also be transformed in to a collaborative platform in
which, “outcomes evolve through interactions between the government and its citizens” (Moore,
O'Reilly, Nielsen, & Fall, 2016, p. 38)
That is the promise. It has not yet been realized. The challenges to widespread adoption
of civic technology ideals are well documented in academic literature. Hollingworth and Cooper
(2011) describe implementation of new technology in government as, “sporadic and small in
scale” (p. 30). Sun, Ku, & Shih (2015) discuss that many of these new software projects do not
deliver what they promise (p. 506). Reddick (2005) finds that at the time of his writing, very
little research had been done on the, “demand side” of e-government. He finds that in the
development of civic technology projects there was very little consideration for what citizens
might want to have in terms of finding government information online, or for what transactions
citizens might want to conduct online with their local government (p. 42). This suggests the same
challenge as described earlier about citizen engagement: the goals and formation of these new
government technology projects are being developed without input from citizens. So just as
before, citizens know little about these initiatives, they feel that these projects are not created
with them in mind, and are thus not inclined give civic tech projects their time and attention.
Many researchers have sought to understand the challenges in expanding the civic
technology movement, and try to determine how the movement can progress. Layne & Lee
discuss a four-tier model in the growth and adaptation of civic technology projects. In their
model, governments first create catalogs of information. Next they work on ways in which
citizens might conduct transactions such as receive information about a meeting or pay their
utility bill online. Next, cities work on vertical integration, where data systems within one
department are made more efficient. Finally, systems are integrated horizontally—linking to one
another so that departments can learn from one-another and citizens are able to access
government services via a “one stop shop” (Layne & Lee, 2001, p. 124). Since then, there have
been many variations and adjustments to Layne & Lee’s original model (Andersen & Henriksen,
2006; Angelopoulos, Kitsios, & Papadopoulos, 2010; Sun, Ku, & Shih, 2015; Tomasz, 2015; and
Janssen & van der Voort, 2016). These models are useful to understand the landscape of civic
tech and what the movement might become, but these models are written largely from a
government perspective and there is little discussion of how to make forward progress. In other
words, these conceptual models provide interesting frameworks for continued growth, but are not
instructive about how to get from one stage of growth to the next. Neither do these models
address how to leverage the input and the experiences of citizens. Nor do they address how to
improve the trust relationship between government and citizens. Thus the same challenges to
citizen engagement—lack of knowledge and understanding, the lack of normative behavior, and
lack of confidence and trust among citizens—continue to exist, only now in online spaces instead
of at town halls and city council meetings.
Human Centered Design as a Way Forward
Developed by professor David M. Kelley at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design
(d.school) at Stanford University, Human Centered Design (HCD) is a problem-solving
framework that puts the user of a product or system at its center. The role of the designer is to
fully understand the needs and requirements of the user, and design solutions around the user’s
experience and perspective, instead of their own. This focus on the user’s perspective rather than
that of the designer is the reason that HCD is considered to be an ethnographic practice. HCD
borrows many of its techniques, such as interviewing, storytelling, and journey-mapping, from
the world of anthropology. Jones (2016b) points specifically to a methodology used often in both
HCD and ethnography: the in-person interview (here she refers to it as a narrative inquiry), as a
valuable technique in bringing social justice into the problem-solving process (p. 472). Jones
does not mention the role of government this particular discussion, but government institutions
are frequently involved in working on social justice issues such as food insecurity, public safety,
criminal justice, environmental regulations, and other areas. Both the institutional governmentled efforts and the grassroots volunteer efforts of civic technology could greatly benefit from the
integration of structured practices such as narrative inquiry that are part of Human Centered
Human-Centered Design from a Feminist Perspective
Earlier examples discussed both government policies and civic technology projects being
developed in a hierarchical manner—only from the perspective of their author, and not from the
perspective of those being served by government. This challenge may be met in one way by
introducing feminist approaches. Jones (2016a) defines feminist approaches not merely as the
desire for gender equality but rather a broad view which “allow researchers to examine a
research question from a variety of entry points” (p. 352). The same can be said for government
officials and civic technologists. Both groups benefit from hearing from wide variety of
Jones (2016b) brings together the ideas inherent in feminism and social justice work to
outline a process of collecting narratives (p. 481) in order for leaders to hear from those who are
typically left out of policy decisions. Jones also examines the value of narrative inquiry, an
important tool in HCD, in the context of collecting valuable input from those impacted by public
policy. She writes, “Feminist research can provide the technical communicator with a way of
interrogating and investigating the human experience from the point of view of those oppressed”
(Jones, 2016a, p. 352). Thus HCD serves as a tool for those in power to hear from those who are
not in power. In a sense, the HCD helps create empathy between the user and the creator. This
applies whether the user is using a website, or a smartphone app, a city street, or a government
Solutions, then, are derived from the “bottom-up” rather than from the “top-down,” and
these new perspectives could be valuable in resolving some of the challenges to citizen
engagement described earlier in Jaeger & Thompson. A mother with small children may not
know the complexities of civil engineering, she knows if she feels safe crossing a busy street
while carrying a bag of groceries and a baby stroller. A college student who is on food stamps
may not know the policies that are behind the state implementation of Supplemental Nutrition
Assistance Program (SNAP), but he does know that it is difficult and confusing to renew his
benefits online and it costs him money to check his Electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card
balance. Citizens may not be experts in governance, but they are experts in their own
experiences, and capturing these experiences is valuable to governments, and validating for
What does HCD Look Like in the Setting of Public Policy?
As previously discussed, citizens have a desire to participate more in government, but
they find themselves with a lack of knowledge, a lack of confidence that their ideas are good
enough, and a little context for how problem-solving works in a government setting. All of these
barriers prevent citizen engagement, especially when opportunities to engage—after plans have
already been drawn up for a public space, or after a policy has already been written—is to attend
a town hall presentation of the final product and say that one approves or disapproves.
The point at which citizens could feel the most useful in the process, and the point at
which government officials—often far-removed from the day-to-day experiences of citizens—
could benefit from citizen input are one in the same. In studying the Rowandan government’s
initiative for providing and teaching about technology for the youth, Walton (2016) discovers
that these “policies affecting elite youth do not seem to be informed by their perspectives” (p.
420). This case study brings an important question to light: when implementing government
policy, are we taking in to consideration those who are impacted?
Hyler (2013) provides a case study in applying “concepts from the social sciences and
humanities…borrowed into architecture and urban planning” (p. 363) by discussing the
collection of personal stories/narratives. The researcher took walking tours and conducted
interviews with six residents of Helsingborg, a coastal city in southern Sweden, and reported her
findings to the city planners who were working to re-develop a street called Trädgårdsgatan.
Hyler's ethnographic research uncovered a sense of segregation in the neighborhood (Hyler,
2013, p. 371-373). She was able to convey this cultural knowledge to city planners, who worked
collaboratively to map the street. This input will hopefully lead to urban planning in the city that
is more inclusive, diverse, and “people-centric.”
Rose (2016) discusses the importance of HCD practitioners to use their skills to look at
problems of social justice in a more holistic way, calling for designers to “engage in participant
observation and become embedded within the context to generate a deeper understanding of the
design challenges” (Rose, 2016, p. 432). She observed homeless bus riders in Seattle,
Washington, rode the bus with them and conducted interviews, hosted group discussions, and
created video diaries, in order to understand their needs and challenges. These observations
allowed her to illustrate how changes in costs, schedules, and availability of routes to available
jobs, meant not just an inconvenience for riders, but the possibility of a lost job or not being able
to eat. The stories of these bus riders could be used as a form of advocacy to help the city of
Seattle design a transportation that helps people access jobs and services, using mass transit as a
solution rather than being an added barrier.
Vechakul, Shrimal, & Sandhu describe the initial process of creating a new initiative in
Oakland, California aimed at reducing infant mortality. The initiative is called Best Babies Zone
and started with a 12-week process of sending design teams out in to the community to conduct
interviews and neighborhood walks, asking not just about health but also about the local
economy and the way in which the community shares information amongst themselves. “The
team integrated community members’ creative ideas at an early stage of the program planning
process, rather than getting feedback on minor changes after the fundamental design had been
completed.” (Vechakul, Shrimal, & Sandhu, 2015, p. 2557).
These examples demonstrate the same goal: to create government policies and services
that are more transparent, and more responsive to the needs of citizens. HCD shows the potential
to address the concern raised by Fisher (2009), who studied the Northern Territory Emergency
Response in Australia. Policymakers need to take a step back and take in to full consideration
everyone affected by a specific policy. To the extent that we acknowledge the dignity inherent in
all humans, human-centered approaches can be used to help “identify some of those intrinsically
worthy people whom we may have failed to see (because we did not seek) and whom we may
have failed to hear (because we did not create a space for listening)” (Walton, 2016, p. 420).
To Freiss (2010), it is also important for the designer to put themselves at the center of
the design process, in the role of the person who can take user input and, “contextualize it and to
make both an argument and a product that more appropriately responds to the design problem”
(p. 48). This is certainly a counterpoint to Walton’s emphasis on putting the voice of the user at
the center, but an important one. In a government context it is useful to understand the role of the
citizen who is giving their input as well as the knowledge and experience of professional public
servants. One could make the argument, for example, in Rose’s project of collecting stories from
bus riders, that stories from bus drivers, transit security officers, and bus terminal staff would be
equally valuable in getting a comprehensive picture from which to advocate for positive changes
in Seattle’s mass transit system.
HCD Project for Criminal Justice in Tulsa, OK
In January of 2016, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) requested
a data set from the Oklahoma Department of Corrections in order to investigate the reasons for
the high level of female incarceration in the state. CIR’s journalists found from this data that for
women, sentences for drug possession and distribution (with the exception of Tulsa County)
increased 29 percent compared to a decade ago (Bransetter, Herrera, Rowan, & Sagara, 2017).
The data collected from the Department of Corrections was made public by CIR in July
of 2017. CIR acknowledges that while it reported the reliable data that it could, much of the data
set needs to be cleaned and properly formatted before further inferences can be made, or further
research can be done. Code for Tulsa and Asemio will be co-hosting an event in partnership with
CIR and the Frontier news organization at 36°N in Tulsa, OK on December 9, 2017 to review the
dataset, understand what's in it, and begin to organize the data so that it is meaningful and useful
to journalists, policy analysts, lawyers, and advocates working to create positive change in the
criminal justice system.
In addition to assisting in improving data integrity, the leaders of Code for Tulsa and
Asemio will be facilitating a series of Human-Centered Design workshop exercises with
registered attendees. Among the event’s attendees will be social workers, journalists, individuals
who have been formerly incarcerated, as well as state and county employees who work in the
criminal justice system. Attendees will be divided up in to teams, each team intentionally
constructed to be as diverse as possible. Throughout the day the teams will be led through three
rounds of exercises: (1) problem ideation (2) journey-mapping, and (3) outlining potential
solutions. During the problem ideation round, the teams will be given a summary of what the
Oklahoma Department of Corrections data set contains, and asked to provide some ideas for
problems they would like to address in the criminal justice system, that this data might be used as
a tool to help provide information or insight. During the journey-mapping round, teams will be
asked to choose one of these problem-ideas and map the journey of a person that this problem
impacts. What does it look like to face this problem from their perspective? As an example, if
one problem might be that of access to programs that provide alternatives to incarceration, what
does it look like to have been arrested and try to find what programs for which you might be
eligible? Where is that information located, how do you find it, and who is there to tell you what
can be done to help? During the potential solutions round, teams will be asked to address one or
two of the biggest pain points in the journey-map and outline a possible solution.
Vechakul, Shrimal, & Sandhu (2015) point out that “HCD is an open-ended process that
has no predefined outcomes. Embracing ambiguity creates opportunities to explore new
directions on the path to innovation” (p. 2556). This even will be no different. The organizers
have invited a team of data and programming professionals to work on improving the integrity of
the data, and have worked to intentionally invite a guest list of 40 workshop participants from
various backgrounds on many different sides of the criminal justice system, but the nature of the
problems that will be identified, the issues that will be addressed, and the solutions that arise are
completely unknown.
This civic technology initiative has been deliberately structured to introduce three HCD
techniques at the very beginning preparation and planning processes of the projects centered on
criminal justice. Indeed the attendees of the December 9 event will themselves be the co-creators
of the projects. The ideas for what to work on, and how to use the data, will come from citizens
and volunteers from a diverse background and diverse set of perspectives. After this event, Code
for Tulsa will process all the input and structure the event’s results into a report that will be
provided to local and state officials. The report will also be used to launch new civic technology
projects in the spring and summer of 2018.
Governments increasingly need citizen input in order to provide good policy. While civic
technology has offered some opportunties, policymakers are resistant to new changes (Lidén,
2016, p. 285), and citizens see open government projects as too complicated, and don’t get
engaged because they don’t see themselves as having enough knowledge to contribute to policy
discussions (Wijnhoven, et. al., 2015, p. 39).
Introducing technology alone has only gotten the movement to a certain point. New
websites are developed, new civic technology projects are created, and new ideas for open and
transparent government, derived from “open source” software development techniques have
allowed for somewhat further progress, but this progress has been limited. Citizens who already
have a low trust in government do not change their minds when the same government introduces
a new website or new software application. Mergel (2016) acknowledges that new public-facing
software projects have brought about some good change, but that the main challenge for
government “is the cultural change that needs to go hand-in-hand with the procedural changes”
(p. 522). This is the area of civic technology that has not yet been sufficiently explored. While
the civic technology movement has grown, the gaps of citizen participation still persist. In order
for civic technology to continue growing and realize its potential, organizations that are
advocating for changes to more open and participatory government must find a way to bridge
these gaps. It would be important to examine this cultural factor from within City Hall, but is
also an important question to look at public policies and government services from the
perspective of the citizen. While citizens may not have technology or government backgrounds,
they do know what it is like to walk in their own shoes every day as citizens. Capturing these
experiences has benefits both for governments, and for citizens to feel that their concerns are
understood and addressed.
Civic technologists, by the virtue of the volunteer work that they do to improve the
delivery of local government services, are leaders in their respective communities. They
collaborate with local elected officials, government staff, and their fellow citizens, all with the
goal of improving outcomes in areas such as criminal justice, food security, and economic
development. By helping to bridge the gaps between citizens and local government, civic
technology groups have the opportunity to play a greater leadership role and have a greater
impact. Human-Centered Design provides a set of structured tools to do just this.
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