Civic Tech: The Missing Link?

How are digital technologies connecting people and the government?

The field of ‘civic tech’ is growing — in Africa as well as in other parts of the world. More governments, more activist organisations, more development institutions are thinking about opportunities, trying experiments, building new technologies and digitising their processes. According to a research report by the Knight Foundation , technology has the potential to change the way citizens interact with the government and one another, strengthening communities and governance. People, organisations, and the government have started leveraging technology to inform and encourage civic engagement.

Global experts director of Investment at Luminate, Ory Okolloh, Senior Public Sector Specialist, World Bank Governance Global Practice, Tiago Peixoto and Facilitator, Trainer & Movement Builder, Nicole Carty, shared their experiences and thoughts about the current state of civic tech field at the Civic Tech Innovation Forum in November 2018.

Speaking about how technology helps activism, Nicole Carty explained that technology is a way to do activism better. “People have been able to come together because of the internet, online movements, using technology to reach all people. Using technology in activism brings people and resources together on whatever goal they are working towards,” Carty said.

The missing link

Peixoto said that civic tech was the missing link between decision-makers and citizens. Civic tech now makes it easier for citizens to be consulted on their needs and issues they are facing in communities. He, however, wonders if the technology is improving access, providing a voice or if the technology is making issues worse. “The use of technology, mobile or internet is very biased, as opposed to non-online interactions, through technology and online platforms the bias is amplified because the participants are often not the same people who are directly affected,” Peixoto said.

He explained that the bias stems from the development and usage of the technology. For example on men create more petitions than women but women participate more. Women are extremely successful when they start petitions. “The feedback from petitions is supposed to enforce policy change, so the solution to this issue is when you design a civic tech platform or start a petition, start working with the user, create channels to generate responsiveness,” he said.

To fully mobilise and use technology for citizen engagement or bringing people together the civic tech community has to engage with communities. For instance, if they are putting together a petition, organisers should teach the community about the petition, educate them on the importance of citizen participation. Okolloh also mentioned the importance of engaging citizens and finding out what they have already been working on.

“The idea we are talking about is civic, to fight for whatever issue, anchoring around the civic, not the citizen because we ask too much of the citizen, thinking about the average African citizen, ignoring our privilege, how do we use our privilege to build better civic techs?” Okolloh said.

Carty emphasized the importance of having a strategy and goals for the petition or civic platform. “In some cases, there is no impact because there is no strategy, people don’t know where they are going, no plan leads to things falling apart, the things fail because we are not understanding the matrix of what we are trying to do,” Carty said.

“Building relationships when it comes to petitions is also important because people sign a petition and donate but there is no relationship that’s been built, there has been a drop off responsiveness with petitions.”

Where government responsiveness is concerned, Okolloh said we should think of it in the context of “what is the incentive for the government to report information, understanding government incentives is how you work”. If the government understands the benefits of civic tech, open data and technology in responding to citizens’ needs the government might be open to implementing civic tech.

The civic tech community in Africa is becoming more active and visible however there are many obstacles in the way. “One of the problems of civic tech is that we are not addressing the structural issues that our society is built on which directly affect whichever issue we are mobilising for,” concluded Okolloh.

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Civic Tech: The Missing Link?


Melissa Tsungai Zisengwe


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