Civic participation, digital infrastructure, and why the US is behind

Civic participation, digital infrastructure, and why the US is behind

The one simple thing that US digital infrastructure can’t do to encourage civic participation: Share UIDs

Those who know me appreciate that I like to get to the bottom of things if I think it’ll help solve a problem. There’s a reason – logical or otherwise – why things are the way they are. While technology lends itself to logical solutions, humans and the ways we decide, engage, and go about our lives have other motivations at play. (ps. Understanding that human psychology is a big deal will give you better technology design approaches and product outcomes.)

At my job, one of the Big Problems I’ve been tasked with is exploring and instituting “some kind of system” to enable admin workflow and input tracking for civic engagement, within our functional constraints. As a nonprofit, one major constraint is money. As a civic engagement NGO, a functional requirement is the consideration of psychology — technology is made for people, after all. At an organization working on open government in the current US democracy, correlating with the infrastructure of government itself is a major technical requirement.

In pursuit of solving my Big Problem, I’ve taken a lean approach which allows me to say Yes to the many developers who reach out to me to pitch their platforms, and lets me test for and probe into the crucial use cases in an agile way. I’ve met with dozens of people with software that aims to engage citizens and residents — many coming out of Europe. The use case for engagement there is quite different than in the US, as I’ll get to in a moment.

What came out of one of these meetings this week blew my mind.

I met with the civic engagement digital team from Madrid’s city council, who’ve developed CONSUL, an open-source software that plays several key functions in their newly transparent city government.

Why, you might ask, is their city government newly transparent? Oh, because residents got fed up with corruption, formed the progressive populist party Ahora Madrid, and won over ⅓ of the seats in the City Council elections in 2015. Then, they voted to spend the time and money to create and install massive infrastructure to open up the workings of their government, and to engage people to use it.

Mic drop, Madrid.

Alongside the deeply inspiring nature of this story of political wins, here’s what’s important about this work:

  1. The nature of the product reflects the nature of the work: transparency in government and open source software go hand in hand philosophically as well as functionally. If you want to see how it works, you can.
  2. The engagement maximizes technology while reaching outside of digital space: Coordinating the input of thousands of people can be overwhelming, as the recent and excellent report From Voicemails to Votes reports. It’s also crucial to do if a government wishes to respond to need. The technology created by the Madrid team gathers input online, at offices, and with accessibility considerations. It supports administrators by coordinating digital and analog civic input, leveraging technology for what it’s good for.
  3. The infrastructure was put in place to make the project work. Europe and the US differ in many ways, including in how we’ve constructed our internal unique identifiers – the technologists’ lynchpin – for people. In the EU, as in Portugal and other places, citizens have a less sensitive kind of social ID number than the Social Security number used in the US. Also, at a basic digital infrastructure level there are coordinated, shared systems in place available to cities, city agencies, and the central (federal) government to share these social ID numbers. In short, they share a database(ish) among the levels of government. This allows them to lookup and validate input or a vote on a budget item or referendum from a resident with ease — something we struggle to do in the US. 

This might sound weird if you’re not involved in building technology, so I’ll share a clarifying metaphor. Imagine you want to call your friend in another building but their phone company uses a different kind of numbering system than your phone, which only uses its numbering system to make calls. You’ll have to figure out some intermediary or hack to connect. Now, imagine you have to do this at scale: phones in every building use different systems – and no one really trusts each other to fix it right but genuinely want to solve it. Oh and your number is your most private number you need to keep secure. How would you connect them all? That’s one facet of the issue we in the US face as we try to solve the technical aspects of coordinated engagement and input (not to mention the social engagement issues).

Because we’re built on older, disconnected systems dependent on a few variables not designed for the needs we have now, the transformation scale needed is massive. There’s a real threat that we’re going to be left behind in accessing the functionality available to operate democracy, as EU members and other countries move ahead in leveraging technology to support government staff to coordinate and residents to give civic input.

Democracy, like complex technology, is messy and needs to serve a lot of functions for a lot of people. The core of both are people: people figuring out how to put the pieces together to address needs and stay solvent. In seeing what’s possible when a group like Ahora Madrid pushes an open and participatory government agenda into the realm of a completed product raises the bar for what’s achievable in our cities and democracies.

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