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This article appears in the Fall 2015 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
You’re walking down the street in New Haven, Connecticut, texting on your smartphone. As you turn a corner, you notice a big pothole in the middle of the road. Skimming through your cell, you log into SeeClickFix, an app for citizens to report non-emergency issues to local government. Snapping a photo of the pothole and geo-coding the picture with your GPS coordinates, you submit the report and continue walking, confident the relevant agency will tend to the matter. Other SeeClickFix users can also see that a new pothole has been reported, and where.
Potholes have symbolized the everyday problems that citizens call upon local and even national politicians to address. Senator Al D’Amato of New York was nicknamed “Senator Pothole” because of his reputation for tending to his constituents’ needs. It was a compliment—it meant he was available, responsive, and got things done, at least the small, concrete things his constituents cared about. But when it comes to taking action on local civic problems, there are now options besides contacting a public official. Tools like SeeClickFix allow citizens to gather local information and organize collectively based on what they learn. “If you as an elected official have established your power on the sole exclusive rights to that information, then our app is not something you’re going to be in love with,” says Ben Berkowitz, SeeClickFix’s CEO and co-founder.
SeeClickFix offers some interesting opportunities for citizens, such as allowing them to monitor whether the government has dealt with their concerns and “reopening” the complaint if they dislike how the government responded. “There’s an element of shifting power that’s baked into the code of SeeClickFix that makes it more of a service for people and less of a service for bureaucrats,” says Micah Sifry, co-founder of Personal Democracy Media, which focuses on intersections between politics and technology. SeeClickFix also provides useful services for governments—Jennifer Pugh, who works in the chief administrator’s office in the New Haven local government, said that her office’s adoption of SeeClickFix technology has allowed it to organize work orders more systematically. She hopes that in a few years, when a greater number of departments start to use SeeClickFix, they will be able to conduct new kinds of citywide analysis.
Moreover, in theory, SeeClickFix technology should one day allow journalists, political opponents, and independent groups to publish data comparing the responsiveness and performance of local governments, allowing citizens to see how well theirs stacks up in relation to others.
Some, perhaps hoping to stir up excitement, inflate the case for new technology—heralding it as the savior of government accountability and promoter of a more just democracy. “With these digital tools, citizens and their officials can revolutionize local government, making it more responsive, transparent, and cost-effective than it ever has been,” write Stephen Goldsmith and Susan Crawford in their book, The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance. That exaggerated rhetoric about “revolutionizing” government shouldn’t be taken seriously; it only sets up people for later disappointment. But, in a more modest but still significant way, tools like SeeClickFix can help improve the accountability and performance of government—local government in particular. Accountability, however, is ultimately a political matter, and civic tech cannot simply steer clear of politics in the belief that technology will solve problems on its own.
This map of New Haven, Connecticut, is from the SeeClickFix website. The orange, green, and blue circles represent issues that have been opened, acknowledged, or closed.
The Obama Tech Letdown
Following his savvy 2008 campaign, Obama entered the White House with great expectations from the tech world. He was “the first Internet president,” as Omar Wasow, co-founder of BlackPlanet.com and now an assistant professor of politics at Princeton, called him. During George W. Bush’s second term, open-government advocates had begun to lay the groundwork for increasing transparency in the next administration, whichever party won the 2008 election. Their recommendations were just being finalized at the time of Obama’s victory. “We interacted quite a bit with the transition team and really conveyed to them that this was a bipartisan area the administration could take a lead on,” said Sean Moulton, the open government program manager at the Project on Government Oversight (POGO).
In his inaugural address, Obama declared that “those of us who manage the public’s dollars” will “do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.” A day later, he issued two memoranda, one calling for greater government compliance with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, and another that committed his administration to bring about “an unprecedented level of openness in government.”
These memos sent expectations soaring in the worlds of civic tech and open data. Silicon Valley perked up its ears. “When the president of the United States says something like that, it becomes a big deal and a big business,” says Tiago Peixoto, an applied political scientist who researches democracy’s relationship to technology. We’ve seen the rise of for-profit companies—like SeeClickFix—that focus on improving government service delivery. “Civic hackathons” began to crop up in cities across the country and even at the White House, encouraging coders, entrepreneurs, and others to figure out ways to use technology for civic ends.
“[Obama’s administration] was the first time we ever had a U.S. chief information officer, a U.S. chief technology officer, and a U.S. chief data officer,” says Gary Bass, founder of the Center for Effective Government (originally called OMB Watch), a nonprofit organization committed to public accountability, transparency, and citizen participation. Suddenly government leaders were discussing how they could recruit top tech talent. The culture of the federal government seemed to be shifting.
But several years later, public trust in government has declined to historic lows. Much of that decline reflects the general hostility of conservatives to the Obama administration, not to its information policies. But even for liberals, the promise of an “open government” seems elusive. A 2015 Pew survey found that just 5 percent of Americans say the federal government shares its data very effectively. The civic-tech community, which had hoped to facilitate a democratic revival, is also puzzling over its lack of success. “I think civic tech started getting trendy with Obama, and it’s still trendy, but we haven’t had as big of an impact as we expected,” said Dan O’Neil, the executive director of the Smart Chicago Collaborative and one of civic tech’s early pioneers.
Local Experiments, New Tools
Still, there are plenty of examples of local governments experimenting with technology over the past few years to help increase its responsiveness and reduce government costs. With improved data analysis, New York City was better able to anticipate which buildings were at risk of catching on fire. Boston was able to speed up the time it took to deliver new recycling bins on request. Many companies, organizations, and individuals have also started leveraging government data to develop their own civic tools, from Waze, a crowd-sourced traffic-data company that provides users with timely and accurate travel information, to Nextdoor, a tool that uses census data to create private social networks for local neighbors to interact.
Apps like SeeClickFix offer a greater degree of civic opportunity than apps that allow you to track your packages in the mail or those that notify you when the next bus is expected to arrive. SeeClickFix users can earn “civic points” for utilizing different features, such as commenting on other people’s reports. Through the app’s “thanks” feature, citizens can send messages of gratitude to the government agency that addressed their complaint. Ideally these types of features can help to increase trust between citizens and government, an important ingredient for democratic participation.
One of SeeClickFix’s most admired features allows users to “reopen” a report they’ve filed if they’re not satisfied with how the government responded to it. People have praised the technology for empowering citizens with the last word.
I asked Jennifer Pugh, of the New Haven government, if there have ever been times when citizens reopen requests that her colleagues have closed, and she told me that it happened all the time. In many cases, she explains, the government is not able to provide what citizens are expecting, or the government does not agree with what an individual complainant has asked for. “We don’t have a lot of resources; we’re limited on money,” says Pugh. So New Haven often closes out requests on SeeClickFix, and if people reopen them, officials usually just leave them there. “The downside is that it looks like there is a lot of open issues out there, but in fact they’ve been dealt with. We just can’t come to an agreement about how to address it,” she says.
When citizens file complaints through SeeClickFix, there’s no guarantee that the government will do what the citizen has requested. These tech tools do not eliminate some of the basic challenges facing governments, like determining how to spend a limited budget of resources. But what SeeClickFix does offer is an easier way to raise issues, and a means for the public to better understand which requests have been addressed. This in turn creates new opportunities for activists and journalists to press for details on the government’s decision-making process. Why didn’t residents in this part of town have their pothole fixed? Why did you decline to put in the speed bump I requested when I am upset by the fast traffic on my block? Why did so many people from all over the city report vandalism on the same day? Such questions have become easier for the public to ask in the age of SeeClickFix.
Peixoto, who has been studying the intersections of democracy and technology for the past 14 years, thinks that when newcomers flooded the civic-tech space at the start of Obama’s first term, “there was no way to ensure that the critical mass of people would absorb the lessons we had already learned by then.” This has led to what Peixoto sees as “some naïve assumptions” repeated inside new civic-tech circles. Specifically, he points out that many civic-tech leaders overestimate what technology can do on its own. Some have encouraged technologists to dismiss the government entirely, or just treat it as a platform from which to launch civic projects independently. But researchers have learned that civic technology generally carries a far greater impact when it works in conjunction with the government, like SeeClickFix, rather than on its own. SeeClickFix’s government partnership helps to explain its steady growth and impact.
Why Civic Tech Isn’t Easy
It’s understandable why some civic-tech leaders feel unenthusiastic about dealing with the government. In Silicon Valley, technologists are encouraged to “fail fast, fail often.” But within the public sector, taxpayers don’t necessarily want their leaders taking big costly risks, and politicians in turn fear the backlash if innovations fail. The cultures are different.
Civic hackathons, such as this one at the White House in June 2013, encourage coders, entrepreneurs, and others to figure out ways to use technology for civic ends.
There is also a talent pipeline problem—government simply does not have enough people coming to work for it who possess advanced technological skills. “You see so many agencies with so little knowledge and capacity around the technology, they don’t even know what they want or how to communicate with the contractors they hire,” said Moulton. The government bidding process itself is also notoriously difficult, precluding many smaller, and perhaps more talented, companies from competing for contracts.
Together, these issues create a government tech situation that is both expensive and dysfunctional. The best-known recent example was the disastrous rollout of the federal health insurance exchange website, Healthcare.gov. It not only went far over budget—originally estimated to cost $500 million, it hit $1.7 billion by its initial rollout in 2013, and exceeded $2 billion a year later—but the website also just didn’t work well at all. It continually crashed, stalled, and left customers unable to purchase health-care plans. Of course, once the website did start performing better later on, the news media had little interest in reporting on its successes.
In many ways, the embarrassing Healthcare.gov scandal served as a turning point for the Obama administration. “It was only after that that the alarm bell finally reached the Oval Office,” says Sifry. “This wasn’t working. You can’t just make good speeches. You also have to find good people who can deliver on those promises.” Since then, far more serious attention has been paid to federal information technology and government procurement.
In 2014, the administration created two new agencies in the executive branch—18F in the General Services Administration and the U.S. Digital Service (USDS) in the White House—both designed to improve the government’s technological capacity. The government has been trying to improve procurement issues for decades, but the tools and methods available today are different.
“From open-source tools to the refinement of methodologies like human-centered design and agile development, these are all things you wouldn’t have heard of two decades ago,” says Aaron Snow, the executive director of 18F. “These are all things that make it actually possible for us to accelerate the rate [at which] government improves its technological capacity.” While USDS technologists consult with agencies to figure out how to improve their work, the staff at 18F helps federal agencies become savvier about procurement. Speaking at the Personal Democracy Forum this past June—an annual conference for the civic-tech community—Haley Van Dyck, USDS’s co-founder, said her office has been deploying “hyper-networked teams across government” to disrupt and transform tech practices and agency cultures. And though 18F and USDS work specifically with federal agencies, they share their code freely online so that local governments can reuse and repurpose it for their own needs. At times, federal officials will use code first developed within local city agencies, too.
From Open Data to Accountability
In 2012, David Robinson and Harlan Yu, two technology consultants and open-government data theorists, published a law review article noting that the term “open government”—which was first used in the 1950s during debates that led to the passage of the Freedom of Information Act—has now blurred considerably and confusingly with the “open data” movement. “Today, a regime can call itself ‘open’ if it builds the right kind of website—even if it does not become more accountable,” they point out. Consequently, Yu and Robinson urge the public to distinguish more clearly between efforts to hold governments accountable and technology that enhances government services.
Tiago Peixoto built off of this analysis in an essay published one year later. For there to be government accountability, he argues, four things need to happen. First, government information must be disclosed—this is where open data would come in. Second, this disclosed information must reach members of its intended public. Third, citizens—not necessarily everyone, but a constituency large enough to influence government—must be able to understand the disclosed information and react to it. Fourth and finally, public officials need to respond to the public’s reactions or be sanctioned by the public through institutional means.
So with this in mind, can tools like SeeClickFix be used to create a more accountable government? In some cases, increased public transparency now exists within areas that were previously more opaque. That’s important. SeeClickFix users can compare how long they’ve been waiting for a streetlamp bulb to be replaced or for a pothole to be fixed. They can compare which parts of town had their requests answered more quickly. “It’s helpful to have a record of needs that are systematic and easy to measure,” says Robinson. News organizations can also launch investigations when reporters or watchdog groups notice that citizen complaints are going ignored.
Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, a watchdog organization that seeks to promote accountability for public programs subsidizing economic development, says he first understood how crucial transparency was for accountability back in the late 1970s, when he worked for National People’s Action (NPA), a grassroots social justice network. At the time, NPA pushed for the passage of the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (1975) and the Community Reinvestment Act (1977). “There were allegations that banks were redlining communities of color, but there was no real evidence [before these laws were enacted] to prove it,” he said.
Technology on its own cannot get the government to disclose information, but it can prove extremely valuable for those who want to understand what is released. While LeRoy’s organization has been around since 1998, he says the rise of the Internet and data technology “has everything to do” with how his organization has changed over time. All states have their subsidy information in electronic form; they could share much or all of it online if they wanted to. The first state to do so, in small amounts, was Ohio in 1999. But governments have shown that without public pressure they will generally not disclose information or will release just small amounts of information to mollify critics. Good Jobs First has tried to overcome this resistance by conducting research, promoting public discussion, and encouraging activists to push for improved transparency laws. In 2007, they published their first national report card study—“The State of Disclosure.” By that time, 23 states had put some amount of subsidy information online. Three years later, when their next study was published, the number had increased to 37.
But “the data that states do put online,” LeRoy says, can amount to a “Tower of Babel.” States often hide information in obscure appendices, upload contracts in non-searchable PDFs, or publish audits that are impenetrable. As a result, Good Jobs First recognized that “transparency” could mean very little, in practice. But this is where new civic technology developed by third-party organizations has been invaluable. Good Jobs First was able to launch its comprehensive Subsidy Tracker tool in 2010 by compiling and organizing more than 100,000 records from across the country into one unified searchable database and getting additional subsidy program information through FOIA requests. “Technology has definitely been at the core of how we improve our data and make it more accessible for average citizens to understand,” LeRoy says.
The Center for Responsive Politics, another watchdog organization that focuses on money in politics, knows its ultimate objective is to move people into action—step three of Piexoto’s four-step process. “We use technology to provide information in lots of different ways,” explains Sheila Krumholz, the center’s executive director, because the group recognizes that presenting information in just one format won’t resonate with enough people. Krumholz thinks the organization has played a key role in educating citizens about the impact of money in politics, but says its challenge now is to figure out how to design the kind of “aha” moments that inspire people to act on what they learn, rather than simply tune out and disengage.
But inspiring people to act inevitably has political implications. Eric Liu, the CEO of Citizen University—a group that works with leaders, activists, and practitioners around issues of citizenship and organizing—says it’s not enough to make government more efficient. He encourages civic-tech leaders to reckon more with politics, power, and inequality. While it’s great to have an app that can help you find out when the next bus is coming, it would be even better, he argues, if you could activate the smarts and skills of people within civic tech to help push city leaders to develop a stronger public transportation system.
“Civic tech is excellent at transparency, civic tech is excellent at efficiency, civic tech is excellent at creating a sense of community,” said Liu in a speech at the Personal Democracy Forum this past June. “Civic tech is excellent at a lot of dimensions of what you might think of as customer service.”
The civic-tech community could help Americans create not only a more efficient government, but also a more politically accountable and fair one. Doing that would require the community to venture into political territory that it’s largely avoided up to this point. But if civic tech is going to make a big impact, there is no turning away from politics. It’s something investigative journalists have long understood: Making people with power uncomfortable is part of the job. It’s part of the job of civic tech, too.
The print version of this article mistakenly says that Good Jobs First was founded in 1988. It was founded in 1998. This has been corrected for web.