As a program officer at Hewlett Foundation, I have the privilege of speaking with the smartest thinkers and most visionary leaders in the field of open government. The dialogue that follows with mySociety’s CEO Mark Cridge is an experiment — a first attempt to share some of these conversations openly. I start off by asking Mark three questions about mySociety’s work, and then Mark asks me three questions about grantmaking at Hewlett Foundation. I’d love for your feedback on the format and how to improve it.

The questions:

  • Why invest in design research?
  • Is civic tech an amusing pastime of the middle class?
  • What’s it like to sell services to the government?
  • Should funders force collaboration?
  • What participatory mechanisms improve service delivery?
  • Is civic tech a social movement?
mySociety CEO Mark Cridge speaking at this year’s TICTeC conference in Barcelona

DS: mySociety is one of the few organizations that invests in user research to inform the design of your tools, then implements those tools in partnership with other organizations, and also evaluates their impact on the lives of users and government officials. Why do you feel it’s important to do all three things, and why isn’t it more common in our field?

MC: The simple truth is that our work is better for it. So much of civic technology, and indeed technology solutions in general, is built on faith rather than proof. As the sector has matured, expectations for success and pressure to deliver results has rightly become more intense. We’re moving beyond intuition to build genuinely useful services hand in hand with those we are trying to support. We’ve all seen the latest shiny new tech tool showcased, but more often than not these tools go unused or fail to deliver against their potential.

In order to attract more sustainable funding, resources and talent to civic technology, we must prove that we are making a difference. And where we are falling short, it’s important to understand why this is the case and what we can change to better meet the often complex needs of our users. The research agenda we have at mySociety is a core part of helping to build greater evidence for our own work and for the sector. By placing research at the heart of our practice over the past couple of years we have been able to make informed choices about which projects to prioritize, which to retire gracefully, and which to adapt for new groups of users. On top of this, our TICTeC conference brings together the wider academic community with practitioners and is already proving to be an essential showcase of what works, as well as a key meeting point for sharing work and facilitating new research collaborations.

DS: Speaking of TICTec, one of the keynotes this year was titled “Is civic tech an amusing pastime of the middle-classes?” Your research into the demographics and attitudes of users of civic technology platforms seems to suggest that it might be. What are you doing to encourage wider representation among users?

MC: When we carried out the demographic research, especially on our own services, it is fair to say that it was something of a wake-up call. It certainly made us more determined to revisit assumptions about which approaches to adopt and to actively consider how we reach the ‘furthest first’ — a specific focus on enabling those who are on the wrong side of the digital divide, rather than only catering to those people already well served by government and technology. This led us to ask Helen Milner from the Tinder Foundation to give her keynote at TICTeC, and present some uncomfortable truths to an audience that might be able to do something about it. Her presentation stresses once again the importance of including the users you hope to reach in the development process.

Lack of access to public services, institutions, and elected representatives, especially among 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 services. Feeling capable of affecting what happens in your local community is a privilege many people simply don’t enjoy, and it often goes hand in hand with digital exclusion; even if a community member felt compelled enough to take action, they may simply lack the skills and confidence to use online services open to others. Over the summer we’ve been developing proposals for a new approach to our local services practice in order to create new digital services that address the toughest problems affecting the most excluded people in society, and to showcase new opportunities for digital engagement among groups that may not currently see the internet as something of benefit to them.

A 4-minute summary version of Helen Milner’s keynote at TICTeC

DS: You recently launched mySociety Services to sell services and solutions to governments and other clients. What do you see as the pros and cons of partnering with civil society organizations versus partnering directly with governments in the deployment of civic tech platforms?

MC: Our commercial arm mySociety Services provides hosted tools and services to local government in the UK. This is an important source of complementary revenue to our charitable work and allows us to dig deeper into actually resolving issues raised through our sites like by working together with those public servants tasked with responding. In recent years due to the efforts of the Government Digital Service it has become easier for a small non-profit like ourselves to compete for and work upon projects with different parts of government, however, there will always be a delicate balance to be struck when working with governments versus bringing scrutiny to the workings of governance.

mySociety has a relatively unique perspective as a ‘critical friend of government’ which allows us to bridge that divide and give citizens greater influence over those with power. We, therefore, apply a similar partnership approach to that which we use in our domestic work, where we can identify areas of policy concern that are perhaps underserved or ignored, and work with groups of local councils to fill in the gaps where we can make the biggest difference. This contrasts with our international work where we always work with partners rather than delivering services directly ourselves. We’re privileged to support digital services running in at least 44 countries which is only possible because we work with NGOs, media organizations or groups of volunteers on the ground in each country to actually run each service. We can run a small and leveraged team in the UK to deliver maximum impact, while also ensuring that each service is managed and adapted to cater to the needs of users in each country — we’re not attempting to run services from afar with limited knowledge or experience. We focus on building and adapting the technology and supporting the real needs of each of our partners in the background.

And in turn here are three questions for you to consider:

MC: As you are in a unique position with an overview across many different organizations around the world: how much are you able to connect different organizations with each other or highlight great examples that might be deployed in a particular country, versus letting things bubble up themselves and relying on the organizations themselves to make these connections?

DS: There are so many conferences, workshops, reports and blogs in our field that rarely am I in a position to introduce two organizations that don’t yet know of each other’s work. More often, in fact, I’m dependent on our grantees to point me to organizations or projects I’m not yet familiar with. It’s always a challenge when two different organizations propose the same project. Then we have to decide whether we fund both, or just one, or if we encourage the two organizations to partner. In general, we like to fund organizations that are aware of like-minded projects and are eager to partner with others.

Sometimes there are serendipitous opportunities to make connections that are only loosely related to my work. One of our grantees in East Africa, Well Told Story, was looking for inspirational stories of young farmers in Tanzania who had made a successful career for themselves. (There are concerns of an employment shortage in Tanzania’s agriculture sector as youth migrate to the cities.) While I was in Dar es Salaam I met open data evangelist and technology entrepreneur Joachim Mangilima, who had recently invested in a watermelon farm. I sent a note to Well Told Story, which ended up including Joachim’s story in one of their comic books, and I suggested to Joachim that he consider exporting square watermelons to Japan and Russia where they sell for more than $100 each!

MC: In your recent post ‘How we’re implementing our transparency, participation and accountability strategy’ you talk about how you’ll ‘fund relatively less around the provision of information and relatively more on learning from interventions that use information and participatory mechanisms to address poorly performing public services.’ Other than research activity what other forms of participatory mechanisms have you found to hold the most potential?

DS: This is still a work in progress that we’re exploring as a team, but here are a few areas we’re studying closely:

  • Social audits evolved from MKSS’s work in India during the 1990s. By 2013, social auditing had been adopted by the state government of Andhra Pradesh and adapted in Kenya and South Africa. Albert van Zyl of the International Budget Partnership has some interesting thoughts about the opportunities and limitations of social audits.
  • Participatory budgeting began in Porto Alegre as a way to seek more citizen involvement on proposals to privatize various public services. 27 years later and participatory budgeting has spread to more than 3,000 cities around the world. Just last week, I was speaking to a young woman in Mexico City who was organizing her neighbors to monitor the implementation of the projects they selected during a recent participatory budgeting exercise. Two books have been especially illuminating in describing the massive growth of participatory budgeting, as well as the many challenges as it has been adapted in different contexts: Hope for Democracy by the German group Bürgerhaushalt and Democracy Reinvented by Hollie Russon Gilman.
  • Legal empowerment: I think our field often overlooks the justice system as a channel for citizens to demand access to the public services, and that there is a role for civic tech to help educate citizens about the services they are guaranteed by their country’s constitution. Open Society Foundations and the UNDP have been leaders in supporting legal empowerment initiatives. In 2014, Namati published a helpful evidence review of research on legal empowerment.
  • Finally, we’re taking a closer look at citizen complaint platforms like mySociety’s own FixMyStreet. There is increasing evidence — most recently from Tiago Peixoto and Jonathan Fox — that these platforms are most effective when government agencies are involved in their design from the very beginning. Hopefully, the Open Government Partnership’s Subnational Pilot will encourage more cities around the world to adopt 311-like platforms so that public service providers can respond to the complaints of citizens in the same way we’ve come to expect responsive customer service from the private sector.

Returning to your earlier point about prioritizing underrepresented groups, we’re especially interested in how/whether these channels can increase the agency of groups that are often excluded from political engagement. I was intrigued by the research that Guy Grossman shared with us at this year’s TICTeC conference about the factors that encourage and inhibit participation by marginalized populations — especially women.

A 4-minute summary version of Guy Grossman’s talk at TICTeC

MC: The recent Engines of Change report commissioned by Omidyar Network summarized what could be described as a lack of ambition or ability to scale within the civic technology space. Is this lack of imagination on the part of us civic technologists an inability to see beyond technical solutions, or do we simply not yet understand our place within movement building? Or something else entirely?

DS: Just a couple of years ago, there was still a lot of revolutionary rhetoric about how technology and data, or “civic technology,” would redefine the relationship between citizens and their governments. We expected to move, as Pia Mancini likes to frame it, from a democracy of representation to one of conversation and deliberation — from a government modeled on Encyclopedia Britannica to one modeled on Wikipedia. Of course, that is not how things turned out, or at least not yet. I interpreted the report as one of several efforts to understand why civic technology hasn’t reached the hype that originally defined it. The authors’ conclusion seems to be that for civic tech to have a transformative impact on society in the same vein as feminism, human rights or gay rights, it needs better, more consistent branding, storytelling, media coverage and a shared sense of identity.

But there’s an important difference between rights-based social movements that are applicable everywhere and civic technology, which is about improving processes so that communities are more empowered to address different types of problems depending on their context. “Equal pay for equal work” by men and women is a powerful rallying cry that speaks to us all no matter where we live. But the most important problems facing civic technologists differ from one place to the next, and the opportunities to address those problems depend on so many factors, especially politics. For those of us who work at a global level, I think the most we can do is contribute to an “enabling environment” of greater government transparency, independent media coverage and citizen participation so that local actors have more pathways to demand for changes that improve their lives. Whenever we look back at the past five years, it always seems like we’re not making progress quickly enough. But when we look back at the past fifty years, it’s incredible how far we’ve come.