Civic Tech: fulfilling its promise?

Alisa Zomer

25 Apr 2017, 3 p.m.
Room 4

Do civic technologies improve citizen engagement and government responsiveness?

Existing theories in political science suggest that the relationship between government authorities and citizens varies significantly, based on state capacity and the socioeconomic status of citizens: relationships and behaviour that are reinforced through traditional channels of citizen engagement.

Civic technologies, aimed at soliciting citizen input and increasing participation, are touted with the potential of leapfrogging traditional feedback channels to facilitate cooperation between citizens and governments and increase government responsiveness and accountability.

To test this assertion, MIT Governance Lab collaborated with Omidyar Network on a suite of academic-practitioner research collaborations in Guatemala, Kenya, Liberia, Uruguay, and the United States to investigate:

  • Under what conditions do new, lower-cost civic technologies for citizen feedback and monitoring lead to increased participation?
  • How useful do governments find feedback provided through civic technologies, compared to feedback through traditional channels?
  • When do civic technologies for citizen input lead to more government responsiveness and better service provision?

Drawing on multi-methods design, including experimental randomised control trials and qualitative analysis, the research deliberately seeks to assess the importance of context and how local circumstances affect the ability of civic technologies to have an impact on citizen engagement and government responsiveness.

Initial data show that in both low and high state capacity contexts, civic technologies do not level the playing field between populations with low and high socioeconomic status. Instead, patterns of online participation seem to mimic more traditional patterns of political participation. In some cases, the technology interventions failed to get off the ground.

This presentation builds on these results, discusses lessons learned, and highlights future research opportunities to gather new evidence and better understand the role of civic technology in engaging under-resourced populations.