The Win-Loss Gap in Civic and Partisan Technology

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 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.

Knight Civic Tech

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 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.

4 thoughts on “The Win-Loss Gap in Civic and Partisan Technology

  1. Quick response: Is Turbovote and other tools for increasing voting behavior civic tech or political tech? In my definition, that’s not a problem–Turbovote is civic tech that can be used by one side (if it wants) to gain power…or it can also be seen as a more neutral tool that changes the process for all by making it a little easier for anyone to get registered, absentee ballot, etc.

    That said, clearly the desire to “win” (i.e. gain power at the expense of someone else losing it) is a much bigger current driver of innovation in the broad field of civic tech, because partisans are more passionate than small-d democrats. Witness the intensive investment in campaign technologies and analytics (what you are calling “political tech”).

    (Separate topic–do you really “win” when your victory involves inflaming the other side too? can we someday learn how to get out of the bipolar political decision making process that a bunch of dead white men mandated for us a few centuries ago?)

    I’m still working through my thoughts on Anthea, Michael et al’s recent contributions to this discussion and more than glad to chew further on this too, Dave–glad you are chiming in!

  2. Thanks, Micah.

    Turbovote is a really interesting boundary case, I think. Their success has been pretty heavily steeped in finding spaces where voting will be treated as a wholly civic activity — colleges and universities in particular.

    I think they’d have a much harder time if they were trying to partner with Secretaries of State, because they would then run into decision-makers like Kris Kobach in Kansas.

    And that, in turn, is probably going to be a hurdle for Turbovote as they try to expand further. Once they’ve signed up all the campuses, where do they grow next? Where else will voting be actually treated as a positive-sum, rather than a zero-sum activity?

    (related note: I thought it was telling how upset some Republicans were last month when people started registering voters in Ferguson. That’s Exhibit A for voting belonging in the partisan tech category.)

    I think it’s worth looking at where the funds for partisan tech and civic tech come from. I imagine they’re mostly separate pools. You’ve got Knight, Omidyar, Google, Microsoft, and some Silicon Valley-types supporting civic tech. You’ve got partisan orgs, and electoral campaigns supporting partisan tech. That creates another cleavage.

    And yeah, I agree that victories which burn down the playing field don’t particularly seem much like winning. But that also seems like an accurate description of our country right now. And I don’t know if our government can ever learn to get out of the bipolar sclerosis it has developed. In the short-term, I’m pessimistic…

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  4. All interesting points, Dave. I’ve also been chewing over Micah’s piece and there are two important clarifications to what I wrote slowly taking root in my head. I may write about them more in depth – along with lots of other great feedback I received – but in short:

    DEFINING CIVIC TECH: With regard to Micah’s excellent piece about defining civic tech, it’s making me think about my own piece in different ways. I’m still mulling it over, but I agree that my definition of civic tech was extremely thin. I’m a huge fan of the thin/thick; impactful/symbolic; individual/aggregated dimensions as definitional terms. If I had to reformulate my thesis within the bounds of those terms, I would say that I’m in favor of investing in technology for government (specifically analytics technology coupled with cultural/workflow changes) that takes the extremely thin/symbolic/aggregate mass actions already enabled by digital tools and moves them along them scale so that they are thicker and less symbolic.

    WIN/LOSS GAP: I agree with this formulation, but think that you should consider this mentality extending beyond things that are easily aligned with partisanship. For example, if you think about the “better listening” I called for, that’s something that should theoretically impact Rs and Ds equally. But vagaries of current events will likely stymie that type of action from originating within government.

    For example, I can imagine a scenario during the health care debate and zenith of the Tea Party where Rs would have loved this type of thing (and Cantor even created something along these lines that never took off ( And at other times, it might have more appeal to Dems. In this instance, the win/loss gap isn’t a static thing measuring the advantage of Rs vs. Ds, but rather a dynamic variable that means different things at different times not in the matter of elections, but in leveraging citizen feedback to influence policymaking.

    Extending that mentality further, are there ways in which the win/loss gap isn’t partisan, but rather actively pits citizens against representatives? If there is a point at which some form of civic tech can increase the voice of citizens in government, that places a greater accountability on those in government. In such a scenario, while there could be longterm gains for both sides, there are real and immediate downsides for those within government, which disincents anyone from pushing forward the technology.

    FEDERAL/STATE/LOCAL: The last thing I’ll say here is that there seems to be really important distinctions between civic tech at the local vs. state vs. federal level. I’ll preface this by saying that I REALLY haven’t thought this through completely, and doing so would require a much deeper landscape analysis of the tools that are out there (deeper even than the Knight Foundation report, I think). All of the dimensions to civic tech that you and Mica mention – impactful/symbolic; thin/thick; individual/aggregate; partisan win/loss – have different applications across each of those levels of government. Those difference need to be accounted for moving forward as important qualifiers to any additional conversation.

    Quick thoughts over coffee this AM. Still thinking these things through.

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