Civic Tech Design



I am frequently asked what key factors have made SeeClickFix a successful platform for engaging residents and officials where others have failed. These ten key principles that have been translated into product and design decisions have led to a rapidly growing platform that constructively solves problems while making government officials look good in the process. We believe these principles can be applied to other civic tech efforts and leveraged for more inclusive, representative governance.

The following is a list of biases and opinions that have been baked into the SeeClickFix platform over the past 8 years. It is not meant to be exhaustive and it is evolving as we learn more about the community we serve.

1) Transparency

SeeClickFix was launched because we were concerned that the opaque 1–1 protocols (phone calls and email) for managing citizen communication was crippling participation and strengthening distrust in government. Where legally possible communication with government and communication with residents should be immediately available to the public. This is different than an open data or FOIA policy which makes records available after the government has processed them. Real-time transparency maximizes overall efficiency by deceasing the duplication of public communications and internal government work. Feedback Loops have a stronger impact when they are published to everyone.

2) Feedback loops at every step

When you report an issue on SeeClickFix you are immediately sent an email that your issue has been created. In that email you are told who from the government has received the email as well as how many neighbors were sent a message. When you check out your issue you can see how many times it has been viewed and all of the public responses and the number of people who are following along. When the status changes on the issue (Open>Acknowledged>Closed) or a comment is made you receive an update. With feedback loops nothing is lost in a black box. With transparent and immediate feedback loops everyone can see the responsiveness of government and word of mouth spreads to others who are encouraged to show-up and communicate constructively. Twitter, Medium, Facebook and every other successful communication platform leverage stats (likes, follows, reads, shares) to encourage more engagement. This is no different and your government product needs to be thinking about creating feedback loops at every step.

3) Resident experience must rival experience with popular consumer applications

There’s no reason why digital engagement with your government can’t feel like digital engagement with your friends and family. The experience needs to be well designed, meaning that a product person is listening and responding to the needs of the market. The experience should also be beautiful. Interacting with government should not feel like a lesser form of digital interaction designed by a time traveler from the late 90s. People fall in love with products that feel like they are designed for their needs and speak to their aesthetics. People can fall in love with their government for the same reasons.

4) Official experience must be as good as resident experience

If you are in local government and you want to engage residents, you need to do it in a way that benefits your co-workers, managers, and direct reports as well. Admittedly, this is not where SeeClickFix started but it’s where we live today. Incorporating gratitude into the platform for those that are creating the feedback loop can be done in a number of ways. SeeClickFix has a “thank you” button that residents use to praise local officials when a request is finished. As external communication increases, the product needs to make communication simple, easy and convenient. More residents engaging can translate to more work produced but it does not have to translate to more work done.

5) Understand that residents and officials are users of a bigger ecosystem than one government

Residents and officials live and work in multiple communities served by multiple public agencies. Software needs to acknowledge this and provide officials and residents opportunities to talk to each other beyond the traditional boundaries created by one-off systems. SeeClickFix users can report an issue in their county, their city, a neighboring town and to even smaller entities within towns like universities and housing authorities. Preaching regionalism feels like preaching to the choir these days. Still, many overlook software design and procurement as an opportunity to realize a regional vision.

6) Anonymity

Wherever possible residents and public employees should have the opportunity to participate in two way civic conversation anonymously. Studies have shown that communities that are previously disengaged are more likely to participate if they can do so anonymously. Put good community flagging features in place and terms of service that favor respectful communication and the concerns for trolling will be behind you. SeeClickFix is one of the largest digital platforms engaging people in government but trolling and disrespectful communication is minute, isolated and easily controlled. Anonymity is a baby quickly thrown out with the bath water on the web. In civic tech it’s a must.

7) Meet users on equal ground

A citizen needs to have equal say in the tools they use to communicate with government if communication is going to be a truly empowering to residents. This means the software that you are using for internal communication needs standardized API’s for other software applications to connect. It’s also important that residents are treated as equals. If a request is not resolved, the resident should be given the same opportunity to reopen the issue that a government has to close it out. I think this can apply in others areas of civic tech but maybe this is esoteric to request management and open 311. This is how trust is built in both directions.

8) Features should empower citizens to be more helpful than they previously thought was possible

At SeeClickFix we have enabled anyone to receive alerts, claim responsibility, and help out even when they are not ultimately responsible. As a result neighbors have helped out other neighbors in snow storms, cleaned up parks, helped to spread important civic information and offer suggestions for improving traffic safety and general quality of life. If your engagement strategy is working well residents will feel like they are helping and officials will feel like they are being helped.

9) Be portable

City Hall does it’s best engagement when it shows up at community meetings outside of the doors of City Hall. Your digital product should take the same approach. SeeClickFix achieved early growth in the community through it’s widget which can be embedded on a local news site, a community group blog as well as the City’s website.

10) Iterate

At SeeClickFix we persistently take advantage of the ability to push updates to our government partners and resident users continuously. We built dynamic mobile apps where service requests, buttons and other local customizations are dynamic and can be updated remotely without resubmitting to app stores. The days of legacy software installed on premise are gone. Your government software like your government has the ability to respond iteratively to the needs of its community.

In the spirit of #10 I will continue to iterate on this list as we learn more. These values are what make SeeClickFix so powerful. Without them the platform would be a shell of itself, not have created meaningful change and likely failed. As one of our spiritual leaders Micah Sifry once said, “Civic tech can’t be neutral.”

Ben Berkowitz is the CEO and founder of SeeClickFix. This piece was originally published on Medium.

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Advice for civic technologists from people who know; campaigning on Tinder; and more.

  • This is civic tech: In Civicist, Kristen Rouse, the founder of the NYC Veterans Alliance, describes how relationships she built after joining Civic Hall helped her win a big legislative victory here this past year.

  • Also in Civicist, SeeClickFix co-founder Ben Berkowitz offers some hard-won advice for other civic tech entrepreneurs on how to build a successful platform for engaging residents and city officials.

  • Former Los Angeles chief data officer and Code for America OG Abhi Nemani offers a useful list of “7 tactics for fostering 21st century civic life” including creating collaborative hubs, pulling in civic-minded capital, opening up slots for civic innovators to work inside government, focusing attention through contests and dedicated media, educational programs, creating more civic apps, open data, and strengthening user engagement.

  • Making the rounds: the video presentation of “Equipay,” the Comedy Hack Day San Francisco 2016 Grand Prize winner. Don’t be fooled by its formal description: “Pulling data income data from U.S. Department of Labor, Equipay allows you and your friends to split the cost of a meal in accordance with gender and racial income inequalities.”

  • Tech and politics: Some young women are using Tinder to campaign for Bernie Sanders, Joseph Bernstein reports for BuzzFeed.

  • Molly Longman of Cosmopolitan magazine went on Tinder while attending a bunch of rallies for most of the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, to see what kind of guys were nearby on the app. The results are pretty hilarious.

  • Classified information was sent to the private email account of Secretary of State Colin Powell and top aides of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, NBC News Ken Dilanian reports, suggesting that Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while Secretary wasn’t unusual.

  • The FCC is close to finished updating rules for the Lifeline service to allow it to begin subsidizing Internet service to low-income Americans, Maria Trujillo reports for The Hill.

  • Crypto-wars, continued: Oscar-winning documentarian Laura Poitras is publishing a book February 23rd called Astro Noise: A Survival Guide for Living Under Total Surveillance, and as Andy Greenberg previews for Wired, it’s based on journals she kept detailing what it’s been like for her to be on the U.S. government’s watch list for years.

Civic Hall



Kristen, center, holding the pen used to sign legislation creating an independent Department of Veterans Services for New York City.

This blog post is adapted from a short address given by Kristen Rouse, one of four Civic Hall member-honorees, at our first year anniversary party February 1. Rouse is a three-term Afghanistan veteran who founded and runs the NYC Veterans Alliance. The other members honored for their accomplishments this past year are Chana Ewing of littlebigGirl + CO, Marek Banczyk of Cityglobe, and Erin Vilardi of VoteRunLead.

I joined Civic Hall last June when I heard about the Craigconnects scholarship for veterans. I had no income from any of my advocacy work, and I was overwhelmed with writing and editing the first ever in-depth report on NYC veterans policy. It was a lonely process that mostly involved me sitting by myself in pajamas in my tiny Brooklyn apartment, feeling isolated and like I might never see any of this through.

The Craigconnects veterans scholarship got me into Civic Hall, and Civic Hall got me out of my apartment and out of my pajamas, and interacting with a community that—even though most of you aren’t veterans—could definitely understand what I was going through.

A couple of years ago I was idly scanning through Google Zeitgeist, the search giant’s annual data release of each year’s top search trends. Somehow I found my way onto the international results, and picking almost at random I chose to look at the search terms for Germany.

There, sitting at the top of the pile, was something I could barely believe. The term in poll position was ‘Wahl-o-mat.’ Despite not being a German speaker, I recognized it: it was the brand name of a German website that helps people work out who to vote for.

Not a recently deceased TV star, or a major movie, or a massively viral YouTube video, but an old-fashioned, 36 question online quiz that ultimately spat out a suggested political party. Further searching revealed that it had been used, through to completion, over 13 million times in the 2013 national elections. Even more astonishing is the quiz is run by an arms-length public body—effectively a ‘who to vote for’ service delivered by part of the state.

Since then, I’ve been acutely aware that Germany has a social-impact technology scene that is somewhat unlike that of many other rich countries. So in January this year I set out on a trip to Berlin to find out about tech initiatives that might be a bit different from what you find elsewhere.

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Deray Mckesson to run for mayor of Baltimore; how cops use HunchLab; and more.

  • This is civic tech: Conteneo’s CEO Luke Hohmann previews this month’s participatory budgeting project for the city of San Jose, where the company has worked with local officials since 2013. “The target is 1,000 people in in-person sessions and 50,000 people participating online with our Decision Engine to prioritize how San Jose should invest the portion of its budget devoted to programs and services that affect San José’s neighborhoods,” he tells Kathleen Goolsby of “This is a ‘zero-based’ budgeting opportunity in which the budget allocation from the prior fiscal year will stay the same, but the set of programs and services will change based on resident feedback.”

  • As part of the Obama Administration’s Connect Home broadband initiative, which says that “every child” should have access to high-speed affordable Internet, Google Fiber has announced that it is giving a few hundred residents of public housing projects in Kansas City free gigabit internet service, promising to do so for residents “in all public housing properties that we connect to” in that city and boasting that it will eventually reach “more than 1,300 families” in nine properties. The company says it will bring similar free service “to select affordable housing” in other Fiber cities. Yahoo! At this rate, free gigabit service from Google will reach the 45 million Americans who can’t afford high-speed broadband sometime in 11016 A.D. (Alphabet, Google’s parent company, is one of the world’s top two most valuable companies at the moment, worth around $550 billion.)

  • The Marshall Project’s Maurice Chammah reports on how cops in East St. Louis are using HunchLab, a predictive policing tool made by Philadelphia’s Azavea (a B Corporation), to help them decide which so-called “hot-spots” in the city’s neighborhoods are in need of more attention. As Chammah notes, unlike other companies in the predictive policing marketplace, Azavea’s “rhetoric is civic-minded; the company’s other projects include tools to analyze legislative districts, as well as an app that helps city residents map the locations of trees in order to study their environmental impact.” Chammah’s article is worth a close read—unlike many pieces on predictive policing, it doesn’t overstate the value of the technology and it is careful to give voice to critics like the Massachusetts ACLU’s Kade Crawford, director of its Technology for Liberty program, who see the whole field as only “adding a veneer of technological authority” to practices that still disproportionately target young black men.

  • Tech and politics: DeRay Mckesson, a leading independent activist in the Movement for Black Lives who rose to prominence by his adroit use of Twitter, has announced that he is running for mayor of Baltimore, joining an already crowded field, as John Eligon reports for the New York Times. The Democratic primary there is April 26.

  • Google is starting a pilot program with NGOs using the company’s Adwords grant program to enable them to run ads “against terrorism-related search queries of their choosing,” in an attempt to boost “counter-radicalization” efforts by those groups, Ben Quinn reports for The Guardian. (Early reports on this project incorrectly stated that Google would be redirecting search results to anti-radicalization sites.)

  • Building on a network analysis of 120,000 individuals from the LittleSis database of politically connected Americans and the timing of their campaign contributions to Barack Obama or John McCain in the 2012 election, a Dutch political scientist named Vincent Traag has found that the likelihood of someone donating increases not only when someone in their personal network gives to a candidate (hello, bundlers!), but also when they see people from other networks that they are weakly linked also giving. “Our findings suggest that appealing to constituencies of diverse backgrounds may actually aid in diffusing support through networks,” Traag tells MIT’s Technology Review.

  • Crypto-wars, continued: A United Nations panel , the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, has ruled that Julian Assange’s confinement in the Ecuadorian embassy in London amounts to his being “arbitrarily confined,” the BBC’s Caroline Hawley reports. The WikiLeaks founder has said that if the panel’s ruling went the other way, he would leave the embassy and accept arrest. The panel’s ruling is not legally binding, but as Hawley notes, “Previous rulings by the panel have gone against countries with some of the world’s worst human rights records, such as Saudi Arabia, Myanmar and Egypt.”

  • A group of political activists and leaders of internet rights groups including La Quadrature du Net and Access Now are criticizing Twitter for alerting them when their accounts are attacked by “state-sponsored actors” but then releasing no information indicating which country is probing their personal information, Bethany Horne reports for The Guardian.

  • Your moment of zenGoodbye, Rand Paul, who has announced he is dropping out of the presidential sweepstakes. But was he really a Jedi?

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Uber drivers “log out” in protest; what it’s like to be monitored by Egypt’s secret police; and more.

  • The Uber Bowl: Thousands of Uber drivers are planning to assemble Sunday in San Francisco to disrupt traffic around the Super Bowl, Mike Dean reports for the Observer. 1,000 drove in protest through the city on Monday to protest the company’s fare cuts.

  • Related: Noam Scheiber reports for the New York Times on rising labor conflicts not just aimed at Uber, but also Lyft and Postmates, highlighting the “Good Work Code” being championed by the National Domestic Workers Alliance as a response. Uber drivers in Dallas and Seattle have succeeded in collectively pressing the company for some policy reversals, Scheiber reports. In Tampa several hundred protesting drivers have “started an weekly logout of an hour or two during peak periods for weekend revelers,” he reports, using Zello, an app-based walkie-talkie service, to communicate with each other.

  • Note to self: In the digital age, a walkout by on-demand workers is to be called a “logout.” (And I remember when we thought logging in was the radical move.)

  • Tech and the presidentials: Conversational trends on Twitter and search trends on Google both gave a clear inkling that Texas Senator Ted Cruz was going to finish strong in Iowa, Marcus Gilmer reports for Mashable.

  • Donald Trump’s failure to listen to advisors telling him to invest more in tech and data for voter targeting allowed him to get out-organized in Iowa, Kenneth Vogel and Darren Samuelsohn report for Politico.

  • Many of the presidential candidates are responding to questions about the internet and cybersecurity, but as Tim Karr of Free Press writes, the bad news is none of them seem to know what they’re talking about.

  • This is civic tech: The Sunlight Foundation has just launched “Hall of Justice,” a massive data inventory on criminal justice in America. It includes nearly 10,000 datasets and research documents from across the states and the federal government.

  • Spying times: The proposed “Snooper’s Charter” legislation in the UK—officially the Investigatory Powers Bill—”is so vague as to permit a vast range of surveillance actions, with profoundly insufficient oversight or insight into what Britain’s intelligence, military and police intend to do with their powers,” writes EFF’s Eva Halperin and Danny O’Brien. They add, “It is, in effect, a carefully-crafted loophole wide enough to drive all of existing mass surveillance practice through.”

  • European and American negotiators have reached a deal renewing “safe harbor” regulations allowing American tech companies to keep moving people’s digital data across the Atlantic, Mark Scott reports for the New York Times. The deal still has to be approved by the EU’s member states. And as Techdirt’s Mike Masnick cogently notes, the core issue that is still unresolved is whether the US government will stop indiscriminate mass surveillance of personal data of foreigners that moves through US-based servers.

  • A group of 11 U.C. Berkeley professors are objecting to a new internal web traffic monitoring program put in place at the behest of the University of California’s president, Janet Napolitano, the former national director of the Department of Homeland Security, Steve Lohr reports for the New York Times. “My primary concern is monitoring the private information of students and faculty in secret,” said Eric Brewer, a professor of computer science.

  • Don’t miss Mona Eltahawy’s chilling first-person essay in the New York Times on what it’s like to be constantly monitored by Egypt’s “National Security” secret police—and ask yourself why American cybersecurity firm Blue Coat is helping them trawl through Skype, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

  • Your moment of zen: Bernie Sanders as a rabbi in the 1999 low-budget film, “My X-Girlfriend’s Wedding Reception.” Take that, Larry David.

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Inside the Cruz “Oorlog Project”; on Microsoft’s role in the Iowa caucus; and more.

  • Tech and the presidentials: Sasha Issenberg, pretty much owning the data-driven campaign beat again in 2016, reports for Bloomberg Politics on Ted Cruz’s voter targeting operation in Iowa, known inside the campaign as the Oorlog Project (taken from the Afrikaner word for “war”—and as far as we know not an endorsement of apartheid, just some staffer’s delight in the word’s sound). Some nuggets: Cruz came against Iowa’s fireworks law because his analysts had identified 60 votes who could potentially swayed by it, something they discovered by experimenting putting micro-message ads in the Facebook feeds of self-identified Iowa Republicans. Ah, democracy at work.

  • Perhaps a day late on its relevance, here’s Ben Smith, editor in chief of Buzzfeed, reporting on how dethroned GOP frontrunner Donald Trump dominates the media, new and old.

  • Here’s a fun story about edit wars on the Wikipedia pages of various presidential candidates, written by Jeremy Merrill for the New York Times.

  • This is civic tech: Re/Code’s Dawn Chmielewski reports on Microsoft’s behind-the-scenes role in the Iowa caucus vote-counting by both parties, a “showcase” for the company’s expanding efforts in the civic tech arena.

  • Our Jessica McKenzie interviews New America fellow Hollie Russon Gilman about her new book, “Democracy Reinvented: Participatory Budgeting and Civic Innovation in America.”

  • Crypto and privacy: A new study from the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard argues that the fears of government agencies that strong encryption will let evildoers “go dark” are outdated by the emerging Internet of Things, where user privacy is essentially non-existent. As Xeni Jardin cogently points out on BoingBoing, “Basically, they’re saying the government won’t have any problem tracking us and surveilling our communications, because we’re freely sharing a lot of very revealing personal data and metadata to third parties, all day, every day, security be damned.”

  • Life in Facebookistan: Facebook has started sharing more “audience optimization” data and from that Dieter Bonn and Brian Abelson at The Verge have produced “the definitive list of what everyone likes on Facebook.” Bad news: Government ranks just below Gyms, but ahead of Animated films. Politics is way, way down: just below Justin Bieber but above France.

  • What sharing economy? Hundreds of Uber drivers in New York City went on strike yesterday to protest cuts in fares made by the company, the New York Times Marc Santora and John Surico report. One driver, Tsering Sherpa, said the lower rates would force him to work 10 to 14 hour days, declaring, “They call us partners. But they’re treating us like slaves.” Uber says it has lowered prices “to get more people using Uber, which is good for drivers because it means less time waiting around for trips.”

  • Don’t miss Steven Johnson’s eloquent rebuttal of Paul Graham’s defense of inequality as the engine of Silicon Valley’s tech innovation. Most intriguing is Johnson’s argument that the tech sector is actually more egalitarian than most American businesses for how well it rewards employees at all levels, and suggests that a maximum income ratio of 40-to-1 would fit quite easily within the parameters of what most Valley companies now provide their workforces. Johnson writes:

    Right now the tech market, even with its admirable pay ratios, is signaling to the world that inventing a new app for teenagers to flirt and banter can be thousands of times more valuable than becoming a high-school principal in a troubled district. That is a ratio with real costs to society. And I say that as a believer in these technologies!

  • Opportunity knocks: The OpenGov Foundation is looking to hire a senior web application developer.

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Breaking down the Clinton-Sanders battle for the nomination; an oral history of Howard Dean’s YEAHHHHHHHH; and more.

  • Iowa watch: Joe Rospars, the founder and CEO of Blue State Digital, draws on his seminal experience in digital campaigning for Howard Dean and Barack Obama to produce a very smart analysis in the Washington Post of the dynamics of the Clinton-Sanders presidential battle. Rospars points out that both candidates’ teams “inherited an ingrained culture of constant testing and data-driven optimization that shapes every ad, every email, every call script for a volunteer and every list of voters they call. And both campaigns have built their organizing efforts on the foundation of tech and data infrastructure at the Democratic National Committee that first came together in the 2008 cycle.”

  • Rospars, who is neutral in the 2016 primary, also notes that “whether you support him or not, Sanders’s campaign is the home of the prevailing grass-roots energy in this race. The most recent financial reports, for the period that ended in October, showed that the amount Clinton raised from donors giving less than $200 decreased from $8 million to $5.2 million, while Sanders’s low-dollar take nearly doubled, from $10.4 million to $20.2 million. Clinton raised barely a quarter of the amount from grass-roots donors that Sanders did. Whatever the ultimate result, that shows the Sanders campaign has accomplished extraordinary things in volunteer mobilization and small-donor fundraising, period.” The Sanders campaign announced that it will bring in $20 million in January, Matea Gold reports for the Washington Post, calling it “an astonishing sum that underscores the power of its online fundraising operation.”

  • While you wait for the Iowa caucus results, you can take a trip down memory lane with Esquire’s Jack Holmes, who has gathered an oral history of “YEAHHHHHHH!” from a gaggle of former Howard Dean campaign staffers. Relive how internet-powered Howard melted down, with the infamous scream just the crowning blow.

  • Caucus math: Sasha Issenberg reports for Bloomberg Politics on how the Hillary Clinton campaign has worked hard to avoid the mistakes it made in the lead-up to Iowa in 2008, when Barack Obama’s superior field operation took her by surprise. From what Issenberg details, the Clinton team has a “customized campaign plan for each” of the state’s 1,681 precincts.

  • Republican Ted Cruz’s campaign is reportedly doing a lot of behavioral targeting, but a mailer sent to some Iowans warning them that they had a “failing” voting “score” was denounced by Iowa’s secretary of state, who says “There is no such thing as an election violation related to frequency of voting, reports Mother Jones’ Pema Levy. Hilariously, one of the people who received a Cruz mailer was Iowa State University professor David Peterson, who runs the journal Political Behavior, and who told Levy that his own alleged voting score was inaccurate. (Every one of his neighbors who received the same mailer got the same score.)

  • Echelon Insights Patrick Ruffini (longtime friend of Personal Democracy Media) has a great list of things to watch for those of you politics junkies who want to be the smartest people in the room as tonight’s Iowa results come in.

  • Thinking ahead: Some guy named Sifry explains for The National Memo why Mike Bloomberg is probably going to (again) not run for President as a third-party candidate.

  • Crypto-wars, continued: Privacy and technology expert Ashkan Soltani has left the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy because he was denied a security clearance, The Guardian’s Danny Yadron reports. Soltani had previously worked for the Federal Trade Commission, but he had also done work for the Washington Post, helping it analyze and protect its cache of NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden.

  • President Obama wants to dedicate $4 billion in new Department of Education funding over the next three years to reward states for increasing computer science education in schools, Davey Alba reports for Wired.

  • This is civic tech: Voqal has announced its 2016 fellows and they include several building tools that have civic tech written all over them: for example, Marquis Cabrera’s aims to help social workers improve the foster-care process; and Andrea Hart’s community data project creates a pipeline for south and west Chicago residents to create new data sets to help civic investigations.

  • On Friday, Facebook announced that it will ban the private sale of guns, Vindu Goel and Mike Isaac reported for the New York Times. Licensed dealers and clubs can still maintain Facebook pages. The company will be relying on user reports, and says it will remove any post that violates the new policy.

  • Cara Giamo reports for Atlas Obscura on a group of MIT-based activists who are working to address Wikipedia’s well-documents bias toward white male editors (and content).

  • If you are hoping to speak at the second annual TIC-TeC (The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference) in Barcelona this April, you’d best get your proposal in by this Friday. (We got ours in already—nyah, nyah!)

  • is looking to hire an executive director for its newly formed Charitable Foundation.

Civic Tech Participatory Budgeting Participatory Democracy



Last week the Ash Institute For Democratic Governance and Innovation published Civicist contributor Hollie Russon Gilman’s first book, Democracy Reinvented: Participatory Budgeting and Civic Innovation in America. What follows is a short Q&A with Gilman about her new book and what the future may hold for participatory budgeting and other civic technology trends.

Civicist: First of all, participatory budgeting is relatively new to the U.S. Although it started in Brazil in 1989, it wasn’t practiced in the U.S. until 2009, and is still quite rare. How is participatory budgeting different in the United States than in other countries?

Hollie Russon Gilman: That’s a great question. Participatory Budgeting (PB) in the United States has so far been working through existing political structures. In some places PB becomes its own structure alongside traditional bureaucracy. The U.S. process has often been implemented on the district level with elected leaders who have capital funds—things that can fund bricks and mortar. In other places, PB funds sometimes come from a centralized pot and are not always limited to capital funds. The amount of money being put into the process in some places is much higher. For example Paris is putting 426 million euros into the process over a six-year period.

Is there a canonical definition of participatory budgeting?

While there are numerous exact definitions of PB, some that are more or less binding, for the tenets of the book I define PB as: (1) a replicable decision-making process whereby citizens, (2) deliberate publicly over the distribution of, (3) limited public resources, arriving at decisions which are then implemented.

The New York Times has called participatory budgeting “revolutionary civics.” How “revolutionary” is it, really?

I think its revolutionary in so far as it is simply about empowering citizens to make governance decisions. In theory, this is not revolutionary at all! But our politics have become so partisan and contested; the very concept of bringing diverse people together has started to seem revolutionary. Perhaps, the most revolutionary aspect is that PB is simply returning politics to a more localized ideal.

The book includes several in-depth case studies; which did you find to be the most interesting or surprising?

Time and time again I saw people who became involved from initial curiosity, or even skepticism, become deeply engaged and staying involved over the course of several months. People stayed because they found the process to be fulfilling and they often forged new connections with neighbors, elected officials, and their community. These relationships were profound and often transformative.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing participatory budgeting and other efforts to increase civic engagement?

A process like participatory budgeting requires resources and time to effectively engage people, including from elected officials, civil society leaders, and people. Further, the funds to run process itself can be difficult to fund raise around. The process is very well structured which takes hard work. In New York City, the Participatory Budgeting Project has worked closely with Community Voices Heard, a local membership based organization that focuses on women of color and low-income families, to support and expand the process.

What are some of the key policy recommendations you make to encourage these kinds of participatory practices?

I have worked with some government officials who are excited to engage citizens in decision making but are also concerned about how to manage the floodgates of citizen input. There is a general concern that in an environment where people are already overworked and understaffed that engaging people without adequate staffing capacity will lead to deleterious results. One potential recommendation is to work closely with allies and strategic partners, including foundations, civil society, and universities, who can lend additional capacity. Another recommendation is to create processes that are fully transparent from the onset. This can help manage participants’ expectations throughout. People understand that some public sector employees have limited capacity; explaining a process to people, including its limitations, can go a long way.

What should we be looking for in the next few years? What’s the next big participatory thing, do you think? What, if anything, should we be wary of?

We will continue to see experiments combining online and offline tools. I think this can offer many exciting opportunities for reducing barriers to entry and engaging previously marginalized residents. As we often talk about with technology, it can be used to strengthen and support participation but we also need to ensure that it supplements, not entirely replaces, face-to-face participation. As further digital tools are integrated into participatory mechanisms, questions surrounding access, equity, privacy, and digital literacy will be front and center.

Can you elaborate on how PB is incorporating online tools?

In 2015 New York’s PB used electronic ballot counting and a partnership with Textizen, which started as a Code for America project. The City Council has created a web-based mapping tool for gathering crowdsourced public input for project submissions. The geo-targeted maps enable people to drop a pin on a map and provide ideas, suggestions, and comments. The maps are powered by OpenPlans open source technology. As covered by Jessica McKenzie on Civicist, in the 2015 PB vote, New York City employed a digital ballot experiment with both iPads for mobile kiosks and computers for in-person voting. They partnered with Stanford University’s Crowdsourced Democracy Team and Democracy 2.1 to test alternative ways of voting with the goal to make voting “as easy an ATM.” For 2016, New York’s PB is slated to conduct the first-ever remote online voting with an integrated online/offline ballot.

This reflects the push throughout global deployments of PB to use more digital interfaces and explore the opportunity for SMS to reach non-traditional participants. The first use of SMS was in 2004 in Ipatinga, Brazil. A World Bank pilot in the city of Jarabacoa, in the Dominican Republic, used SMS to encourage face-to-face participation, using a message targeted specifically at women. As Rafael Cardoso Sampaio and Tiago Peixoto note in Hope for Democracy: 25 Years of Participatory Budgeting Worldwide, “online voting can be seen as the gateway for politically inactive or less active citizens. The fact that online participation is generally more affordable can certainly be an extra attraction.”

I am optimistic for the opportunity to leverage civic tech combined a place-based local approach to engage citizens.

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Behind-the-scenes on the development of; social media and the campaign; and more.

  • This is civic tech: Building on David Moore’s essay yesterday about the need for open data standards for civic information, Mark Headd of Accela chimes in, asking “What organization(s) have the clout, impartiality and durability to bring together disparate interests and help craft a new data standard?”

  • Speaking of open data, the FCC just voted to require all but the smallest cable, satellite, and radio stations to upload their political files, which reveal who is buying what ads and when they run, online. As Libby Watson points out on the Sunlight Foundation blog, these files are technically open public records but only available for viewing on paper at each station’s office. This FCC decision will make Sunlight’s Political Ad Sleuth tool far more useful.

  • Presidential Innovation Fellows Kate McCall-Kiley, Luke Keller, and Adam Bonnifield go behind-the-scenes on the development of, a new platform they built in just two weeks that helps citizens find out how to register to vote in their state. They also report that Facebook has partnered with the site, using its tools to alert users to state registration deadlines, writing “With the help of this Facebook pilot, more people registered to vote in one day than did so in the entire previous two weeks.”

  • Tech and the presidentials: Snapchat has started a political campaign show anchored by former CNN reporter Peter Hamby, Steven Perlberg reports for the Wall Street Journal.

  • Presidential campaigns are uploading their email lists and voter files to Facebook’s advertising network, which then matches “real-life voters with their Facebook accounts,” Harry Davies and Danny Yadron report for the Guardian. This is allowing campaigns like Ted Cruz’s to “target voters on a range of broad issues like immigration controls to niche specific causes such as abolishing state laws against the sale of fireworks.” The company is also finding users “who like lots of political content and share it with their friends, mark[ing] them as ‘political influencers’ and allow[ing] campaigns to target them specifically.”

  • As the Guardian reports, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, told investors on an earnings call Wednesday that “the 2016 election is a big deal in terms of ad spend,” adding “Using Facebook and Instagram ads you can target by congressional district, you can target by interest, you can target by demographics or any combination of those. And we’re seeing politicians at all levels really take advantage of that targeting.” Luckily, Facebook is helping more voters register too (see above item).

  • Whither privacy? With signs that the Federal Trade Commission is going to start policing privacy violations more stringently, business lobbyists are mounting an active campaign to delegitimize its efforts, Chris Jay Hoofnagle, UC Berkeley privacy expert, writes for The Hill.

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YCombinator to lead research on basic income; life inside Facebookistan; and more.

  • This is civic tech: David Moore of the Participatory Politics Foundation (longtime friend of Personal Democracy Media and Civic Hall member) lays out a detailed vision of the “open data infrastructure for civic engagement” that the U.S. civic tech field badly needs. Believe it or not, we still don’t have open data for every elected official and candidate; nor do we have open standards for constituent communication data.

  • YCombinator’s Sam Altman announces a research project aimed at exploring the idea of a universal basic income. They want to give a basic income to a group of people in the U.S. for a five year period, and they’re looking for a full-time researcher to lead the project. (Who will presumably get something more than a basic income. Oh, the irony.)

  • Mark your calendars: Personal Democracy Forum Poland-CEE 2016, our fourth annual European sister conference, will be taking place in the historic city of Gdansk this coming March 17-18. The theme this year is Re/Disconnecting Citizens. For more details and to register, go here.

  • Janet Haven, longtime director of the Open Society Foundations’ Information Program, is joining the Data & Society Institute in February as its first director of programs. (Welcome to the neighborhood!)

  • Digital Democracy, which works to empower marginalized communities to use tech to defend their rights, is looking for a Community Engagement Fellow.

  • Tech and the presidentials: ZDnet’s David Gewirtz makes a valiant effort at decoding the presidential candidates rhetoric to determine where each of them stands on encryption.

  • The “Grassroots for Sanders” sub-reddit, which has more than 150,000 subscribers, has raised more than $1 million through its own dedicated portal for the campaign, the Burlington Free Press’ Jess Aloe reports.

  • More than half the people Donald Trump has retweeted so far this week have white supremacist connections, Jay Hathaway reports for New York magazine, citing data from Marshal Kirkpatrick’s data analysis service LittleBird. (Do note: the “connections” cited are things like following one of the top 50 White Nationalist accounts on Twitter or following at least three people who have used the hashtag #WhiteGenocide recently.)

  • Something to like: Remember Facebook’s experiment in giving its staff a taste of the slow internet service its poorer users experience in the developing world, which was supposed to help them be more “empathetic.” Well, the guy who signed off on that idea, Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer, is now leading the company’s push to drop its “Like” button for a new, more varied feedback tool called “Reactions,” reports Sarah Frier for Bloomberg Business.

  • Frier’s story is filled with fascinating findings about life inside the heart of Facebookistan, including this gem about the impact of people “liking” stuff on the site: “In January, [company chief operating officer Sheryl] Sandberg went so far as to suggest that likes could help defeat Islamic State: By posting positive messages on the terror group’s Facebook pages, users could somehow drown out the hate.”