Democracy GovTech Open Government

In Brazil, Championing the US Digital Services Playbook

In Brazil, Championing the US Digital Services Playbook

A civic tech start-up in Brazil has translated the U.S. Digital Services Playbook into Portuguese and wants to distribute it to elected representatives and government agencies.

  • Last year, a civic tech start-up in Brazil called Núcleo Digital (Digital Core) translated the U.S. Digital Services Playbook into Portuguese and began trying to distribute it to elected representatives and government agencies. Recently, through a colleague in a civic hacking community called HackersBR, they have succeeded in getting the playbook in front of a government administrator in Ceará, Brazil’s eighth most populous state.

    Digital Core first began working together as a digital lab in Sao Paulo’s City Hall. In 2013, the Urban Development Secretariat Chief Officer, Weber Sutti, invited Vini Russo, Digital Core’s CEO, to build a digital platform to support citizen participation in the review and revision of the Department of Urban Development’s Master Plan. To build his team, Russo reached out to activists he had known and worked with since 2008, all of whom had an interest in civic tech and updating democracy through technology.

    The website they went on to build made available “all the information related to the participatory process, such as schedules, results, news, and files…[as well as] innovative participatory tools, such as an online proposal form, a shared map and a collaborative draft bill, where any citizen could post specific comments and suggestions for each article.” The city of Sao Paulo’s website states that the platform made possible “unprecedented” levels of citizen participation.

    “We made it very fast,” says Maria Shirts, who helps with public relations and project management at Digital Core. “With free software and open codes. We like to say that we hacked City Hall. In a legal way.”

    After the successful implementation of the urban policy platform, the team stayed on at City Hall to build digital tools for other government agencies, facing considerable opposition in their quest to made government more open and transparent. “The City Hall, and our government in general, is very closed to new digital initiatives,” Shirts tells Civicist. “Two years ago it was very taboo [to share code on Github, for example]. We kind of changed this thinking.”

    Shirts says that her team was at City Hall for more than a year, and that they were starting to change the culture around technology. But in late 2014, Shirts says, “the data agency [PRODAM] began kind of a conflict with us because they have another kind of thinking.” According to Shirts, the agency refused to give her team the data they needed to build their platforms, so they began to think about leaving City Hall.

    It was at that time, September 2014, that the team translated the U.S. Digital Services Digital Playbook:

    It was our last month in city hall. We were already thinking that we were leaving, thinking ‘how can we leave city hall but also keep doing this job of opening government.’ We had a horizon but we were not sure where this horizon was going to take us…At the time we could think [only] about spreading this digital word in other sectors, for other parties, other candidates.

    The presidential election took place that month. “We were trying to show politicians that they should follow some kind of digital guidelines,” Shirts says.

    The U.S. Digital Services Playbook is a list of 13 “plays” that government can make for better technology policy and practices, beginning with “Understand what people need” and ending with “Default to open.” The reasoning behind each play is explained and the playbook includes a checklist of things to do successfully carry out the play, and questions to ask to ensure you’re making the right choice.

    For example, the checklist for “Default to open” includes the command to “Ensure that we maintain the rights to all data developed by third parties in a manner that is releasable and reusable at no cost to the public.” The key questions include “If there is an API, what capabilities does it provide? Who uses it? How is it documented?”

    The Maria Shirts and her colleagues left City Hall and started Digital Core in October. They have not had much luck getting the playbook in government hands. Their biggest coup, getting it in front of a staffer in Ceará, only occurred in the past few months, through one of their connections in HackersBR, a national network of civic hackers in Brazil. (HackersBR, while only four months old, has spread to more than ten cities already.)

    Shirts says that they also have a close relationship with the opposition, the Sustainability Network party, and they shared the playbook with some of their candidates in 2014, but none of them were elected.

    “Baby steps, but we are getting there,” says Shirts.

    Jennifer Pahlka, the founder of Code for America and former U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer, tells Civicist that there was no attempt made to track international adoption of the USDS playbook but that she has heard it is being used in Puerto Rico.

    Although she says “I hope that everyone uses it,” Pahlka acknowledges that the playbook “was intended to validate an approach.”

    “It’s not possible to suddenly start following these practices without a lot of work,” she adds.

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Setting More Realistic Expectations for Civic Tech

Setting More Realistic Expectations for Civic Tech

  • There is much discussion about the precise opportunities for integrating digital tools or information communication technologies (ICTs) into the political sphere. After an initial wave of tech utopianism, some are searching for more tempered and realistic implementations of technology to strengthen democratic governance. This includes leveraging these tools to hold government accountable to its citizens.

    With support from the Open Society Foundation, I was part of a small research team in 2010 led by Archon Fung to conduct original field research in Brazil, Chile, India, Kenya, and the Slovak Republic. In India, for example, I witnessed the power of digital tools to reduce barriers to entry, empowering students to crowdsource information on elected officials running for office.  In an environment of “paid news,” where advertisements can be concealed as news, crowdsourced information was able to serve as a credible source.

    Based on this research, we found three particularly salient models for how technology might improve democratic transparency and legitimacy. These included: 1) truth-based advocacy, 2) political mobilization, and 3) social monitoring. In all these examples, the underlying premise is that there are lessons from the realm of commerce and social life that can be integrated into the political realm. However, it is not as simple as a one-to-one analogy. Rather, in the realm of civic and social life, politics and local context are much more critical than in the commercial or social spheres.

    We conclude:

    A third political party in the United States, or more likely Brazil, could embrace an ICT that made party leadership much more transparently responsive to constituent interests, became massively popular, and as a result displace one of the existing parties—a political analogy to Netflix or Amazon displacing brick-and-mortar video rental shops. / Such technology has not yet emerged. We hope that it will. But today’s governance ICTs operate in a more incremental, less revolutionary, way.

    Our complete findings were collected in a recent World Bank publication, Deliberation and Development: Rethinking the Role of Voice and Collective Action in Unequal Societies, which you can find here.

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“I’m hoping to challenge the audience to think critically about our role as advocates for digital democracy. Are we focused on the right problems? Where are our blind spots?”

Personal Democracy Forum is in less than two weeks, and we’re reaching out to some of the speakers for a quick preview of their respective talks and panels. What follows are a few words from Catherine Bracy, Code for America’s Director of Community Organizing, who will deliver a talk entitled “Public Engagement Is Broken. Are You Part of the Problem?”

So, for people who aren’t familiar with your work, how does it relate to civic tech?

Code for America’s mission is to build government that works for the people, by the people in the 21st century. We do that by collaborating with government on improving service delivery—in the health, safety and justice, and economic development areas—through technology. We also focus on improving the public’s relationship with government by creating innovative spaces and channels (sometimes digital) where government and residents can meet.

I understand you’ll be speaking at the conference about how public engagement is broken. Is this public engagement with government or with communities or something else entirely? You will also address how someone can tell if they are part of the problem; are people in the audience going to be squirming when you get there?

I’m speaking specifically about the public’s engagement with government. I’m certainly hoping to challenge the audience to think critically about our role as advocates for digital democracy. Are we focused on the right problems? Where are our blind spots? Why haven’t we been able to significantly move the needle on the public’s sense of trust in government? But, I’m also really hopeful and plan to share some bright spots I’m seeing.

The theme of the conference this year is the future of civic tech. As briefly as you like: Where do you think civic tech is going, what do we have to look forward to, and what pitfalls should people working in this sector be aware of?

I think we’re at a point in the civic (gov) tech movement where we can move from building apps to show what’s possible to really thinking strategically about how we can implement technology to make structural change inside government. We are beginning to measure our success not just by how many users a particular app gets, but by how much impact a tool has on a social outcome, or by the kinds of process and policy changes that happen within institutions as a result of building a tool. In terms of what to watch out for, I think we’re going to need to pay a lot of attention to privacy as we help governments open more data. But generally, there are lots of pitfalls whenever you try to change the status quo. As someone, can’t remember who, said, “the first ones through the wall are always the bloodiest.” But the friction is part of the process. It’s how we know we’re getting stuff done. And we’re extremely excited about what’s next. 

GovTech Smart Cities



What Works Cities will provide technical assistance and expertise to 100 mid-sized cities to help them develop solutions for their biggest challenges through their use of data and evidence.

This interview originally appeared on the Brookings Institution’s TechTank blog.

Cities are gaining momentum as incubators for innovation. There is much excitement about the idea of cities as “laboratories of democracy.” As a result, cities can learn best practices from one another. Sharing this information can build a strong foundation to amplify and encourage experimentation.

Recognizing the power of shared learning, Bloomberg Philanthropies, in partnership with The Behavioral Insights Team, Harvard Kennedy School, Johns Hopkins, Results for America, and the Sunlight Foundation, have recently launched an exciting initiative. What Works Cities is pledging $42 million to target 100 mid-sized cities, with populations between 100 thousand and 1 million, to help these localities develop solutions for their biggest challenges using evidence-based data.

I recently talked with Michele Jolin, CEO and co-founder of Results for America, who’s also the campaign manager for Bloomberg Philanthropies What Works Cities effort. We discussed the opportunities and potential for this initiative:

What was the impetus for this initiative?

From many of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Government Innovation initiatives, they learned that city leaders are hungry to do more and do better with data and evidence, but they often struggle to access the relevant tools, knowledge and expertise required for implementation. America’s mid-sized cities (100,000-1,000,000 citizens) typically have little support to help them enhance how they use data and evidence, but they are eager to learn from experts and from one another about how to be more efficient and effective. What Works Cities was created to respond to this need and to improve the ability of mayors and local leaders to deliver results for citizens.

How will the cities be chosen?

We are looking to partner with cities that represent a cross-section of the country, reflecting diverse geographies, demographics, and politics. We also hope to work with cities in various stages of implementing What Works strategies. Most importantly, we are looking to work with mayors and local leaders who are truly committed to enhancing how they can use data and evidence to make their government more effective, improve people’s lives and engage the public.

How can this approach ameliorate some of the current challenges of employing innovation?

There’s already a tremendous amount of forward motion in America’s cities to open up their data, use evidence to ensure services are continuously improving and facilitate innovation, while also enhancing government’s transparency and accountability to the public. This initiative was designed to put additional wind behind mayors’ backs and to define a new level of achievement for American city government. What Works Cities will demonstrate that when city governments across America use data and evidence to drive decisions and engage with citizens, they will achieve more for all their residents.

How do you envision training people who may be less familiar with technology?

Not surprisingly, the level of technological sophistication varies among city governments across the country. Where cities want to advance their knowledge and practice using technology, we will make available significant technological expertise from our partners. The Sunlight Foundation, for example, has extensive knowledge and experience in expanding open data policies to governments at all levels. And the Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins University has some of the leading minds in open data portals and performance management systems and is ready to work with cities interested in putting in place new systems or improving what they currently have in place. Cities have been partnering with their residents to use data to improve the delivery of services for themselves and their neighbors, and What Works Cities is there to help cities advance their practices and know-how, capitalizing on existing momentum

What does success look like?

At the end of three years, we hope to have accelerated the effective use of data and evidence in at least 100 cities, and supported Mayors in their efforts to get better results for all citizens. We also will point to examples of What Works strategies in cities all across the country, so that every Mayor will have examples and models that can be used for how to successfully use data and evidence to improve the lives of residents.

How can cities apply to be a What Works City?

Cities can find more information and apply for What Works Cities on our website. The first What Works Cities will be selected in mid-June based on applications received by June 1. However, cities will have multiple opportunities to apply over the course of the three-year initiative.