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.