What is Civic Technology?
I’ve been reading a lot of smart pieces about civic tech recently. Two weeks ago, Mike Connery wrote a piece titled “Better Listening through Technology,” which built on Anthea Watson Strong’s article/Personal Democracy Forum talk, “The Three Levers of Civic Engagement,” and also drew from the Knight Foundation’s interactive report, “What Does the Civic Tech Landscape Look Like?” Last week, Micah Sifry added a piece titled “Civic Tech and Engagement: In Search of a Common Language,” which built off of a Google Hangout-based panel on “Designing for Online Civic Engagement.” This is all really interesting stuff. It seems like there’s an important conversation brewing here.
Micah points out that one problem weighing down the conversation is that we don’t have a shared, clear language for describing civic technology. What are the boundaries? What are the shared goals? Connery describes civic tech as “the intersection of technology and government/politics.” Sifry describes it as “any tool or process that people as individuals or groups may use to affect the public arena, be it to gain power, influence power, disrupt power or change the processes by which power is used.”
That’s a little too broad for me. I think is glosses over an important distinction:
Civic technology presumes a positive-sum game. But many areas of politics are zero-sum games.
Let’s take SeeClickFix.com as an example. SeeClickFix is an app that lets people report problems in their neighborhood. It uses the logic of crowdsourcing to improve the lines of communication between everyday citizens and government officials. SeeClickFix lets people report potholes and busted streetlamps without spending an hour on hold, waiting to talk with an overworked, overstressed, underpaid, and underappreciated government bureaucrat. You can watch Ben Berkowitz’s keynote talk about SeeClickFix below:
It’s easy to get excited about civic tech like this, because SeeClickFix is good for everyone involved. To use some basic of game theory, it is what’s known as a positive-sum game. The more people who use the app, the more rewarding SeeClickFix becomes for everyone involved. It’s very difficult to come up with a list of people who lose as a result of SeeClickFix usage. Most civic technologies follow this same positive-sum logic.
But politics is often a zero-sum game. Elections are the most obvious case: you have two candidates from opposing parties fighting for one Senate seat. One candidate will win, the other candidate will lose. That’s zero-sum. Every additional plus of value to you is a minus for me.
Zero-sum games foster more competitive dynamics than positive-sum games. If I’m working on a campaign that has a great database, it would be really nice if my opponent was stuck using shoeboxes full of index cards.
Theoretically, both sides in an election should also be rooting for the (positive-sum) outcome of a healthier democracy. Wins will be more legitimate if there is high voter knowledge and high voter turnout. You won’t find a lot of people out there arguing that distracted, disengaged voters are good for America.
But where theory meets practice, we also know that the lofty goals of a healthy citizenry are a distant second to the immediate goal of winning. Hence the annual GOP proposals to make voter registration harder, and the drive to limit online voting, and the attempts to reduce early voting. When Republicans try to combat the (nonexistent) threat of voter fraud, they’re acting strategically within the confines of a zero-sum scenario. Republicans are more habitual voters than Democrats. Throw up barriers to likely-Democrats voting, and you increase your chance of winning.
Why Does This Matter?
Take a look at the Knight Foundation’s breakdown of Civic Tech Growth Trends by Cluster (h/t Mike Connery. …Really, go read his Medium piece). Voting is one of the areas with the slowest growth.
That probably shouldn’t surprise any of us, because the dynamics of voting technology are so different than the dynamics of peer-to-peer sharing or online community-building. Most areas of civic tech are positive-sum, and foster cooperation. Voting is zero-sum, and fosters harsh competition.*
Likewise, companies such as NationBuilder and Change.org have faced intense criticism and threats of boycotts for working across party lines. Here’s Raven Brooks, describing his outrage over NationBuilder signing a contract with the Republic State Leadership Committee in 2012 (excerpted from Sarah Lai Stirling’s reporting):
“This is like saying Blue State Digital saying: ‘Here Mitt Romney, you can have Obama’s technology,” Brooks said. “It’s an advantage for Democratic campaigns — we’ve had a technology advantage that we’ve built up over the years, and to just hand that off to the Republican party — it could be the difference-maker in some elections. If it allows even one of these candidates to win over someone else, then you’ve chosen a side there.”
Jim Gilliam‘s counterargument was, in essence, that NationBuilder is civic technology. Everyone ought to have it, because improving campaigns will improve democracy! Many progressives disagreed, and have taken their business elsewhere as a result. Whether you side with Brooks or side with Gilliam, we can all probably agree that this debate wouldn’t happen over potholes.
The partisan dynamics of voting technology and campaign technology represent a distinct category within the broader civic tech space. I’m calling it the win-loss gap, at least until someone comes up with a better name for it.
Most civic tech is meant for positive-sum social problems. Most political tech is meant for zero-sum social problems. And that fundamental difference results in an distinctly different challenges for each space.
(I’ll write another post soon on what some of those distinct challenges seem to be.)
*Basically. You’ll also find competition in positive-sum games, particularly where multiple sites are seeking to benefit from the same network effects. And you’ll find various pockets of collaboration in voting. But I don’t want to go full-wonk in this blog post, so I’m speaking in generalities.