There is a lot of exciting work being done in regards to using technology for civic engagement. Most of it though seems to be about access to information, more efficient and effective public services, and enfranchisement of citizens to hold decision-makers to account.
These are all laudable of course. But there does seem to be something missing: effective civic engagement – or more specifically, effective citizenship – requires critical reflection by all involved, and not simply the release and management of data by one party and the exercising of rights by another.
There are lots of tools and services now that exploit public data to help citizens understand their environment in meaningful ways, and expose the workings of local and national government. For example, MySociety offers a number of useful engagement tools: FixMyStreet enables people to monitor and lobby their council on issues such as pot-holes; WriteToThem makes it easy to contact your local MP; WhatDoTheyKnow aids the writing and delivery of Freedom of Information requests.
What these approaches don’t do – and it’s not their remit to – is encourage critical reflection on the part of the people involved. Councilors could, in theory, respond to complaints made via FixMyStreet, which in turn could lead to reflective discussion between themselves and the complainant: but this will only happen if both parties are so inclined; the tool itself doesn’t nurture that level of engagement and responsibility.
And neither should it: its job is to open up the data and put power in the hands of citizens. But for that power to be effective and useful it needs to be coupled with an understanding of the process, and a willingness on the part of the citizen to accept they may be wrong; and by citizen I mean anyone: council officers and politicians are citizens too.
In his Digital Britain Final Report Lord Carter proposes that:
“The changes that digital technologies bring require us to develop a new level of participation for a competitive digital knowledge economy and a modern democratic and fair 21st Century society”.
‘Participation’ suggests more than mere interest: it suggests a sharing of responsibilities in working towards a common goal. This, I think, is missing from much of the work that I see in the Digital Engagement field.
One tool I know of does go some way towards this, by encouraging more thorough investigation of an issue. Help Me Investigate enables people to pose a question – such as ‘Does the Job Centre check out employers when it advertises vacancies? – and collaborate to find the answer. The process helps to expose the intricacies of policies and the nature of things as being anything but straightforward or black and white. Although it doesn’t explicitly strive to highlight responsibilities of everyone rather than just the targets of investigations, Help Me Investigate does encourage critical analysis and collaboration in a way that many of the other tools don’t.
This is an area that I believe the Citizenship Foundation is well qualified to input to, and I shall be working a little to put the issue of critical reflection more visibly onto the government’s Digital Engagement agenda.