Why Civic Technologists Should Still Care About E-Gov

As a recovering academic, I spend more time than I should going down rabbit holes: reading articles which cite interesting studies, which I then go find and read, and then they cite interesting papers, and pretty soon way too much time has gone by. I’m currently researching the role of civic technology projects enacted by U.S cities for mySociety, so I’ve been actively looking for those civic tech rabbit holes.

There’s just one hitch: civic technology barely exists in the academic context. E-government, on the other hand, continues to have an active research program.

Searching “e-government” in Google Scholar returns 169,000 cited works—10,600 published since 2015 alone. Searching “civic technology,” meanwhile, nets a total of 185. (And one of the top results references technology in the Honda Civic.)

This disparity prompts a few questions. First, from a research perspective: should those of us conducting research on civic technology acknowledge that we’re actually researching an aspect of “e-government”? Does civic technology fit within the e-government research agenda?

Second, from the perspective of the civic tech movement: E-government!! Are you serious?!

To answer these questions briefly: no, civic technology is not e-government; and yes, I’m serious. E-government still matters quite a lot to the group of people most likely to disseminate detailed information about technology and governance—the academic research community.

Civic technology and e-government are not the same thing for two reasons: First, they have different core users. Second, they operate under different theories of governance.

E-government aims to replicate existing government in electronic form. It has a clear core user group. By its very identity, government must be the implementer of e-government technology—its functions can’t be provided by a non-governmental source. E-government aims at providing the public with an electronic facsimile of government. What regular government achieves with person-to-person interactions, e-government aims to do online. Whether those interactions are providing specific information or completing a required transaction like renewing a driver’s license, e-government can offer a digital version of these functions that the internet-capable public can access conveniently and efficiently.

There is nothing wrong with this vision of improving government. It’s a tremendously valuable thing when services are provided online as well as they are offline. E-government does not strive to go beyond this, however. It just adds technology to a traditional expectation of how government works: that governments deliver the services which officials, elected by the public, direct it to provide. If this is how government traditionally works:

"Icons used in these diagrams were created by Chacha Sikes, Krisada, and Dmitry Beranovskiy from Noun Project.

“Icons used in these diagrams were created by Chacha Sikes, Krisada, and Dmitry Beranovskiy from Noun Project.

This is how it works with e-government:

trad governance with e-gov

E-government uses technology to improve the existing flow of government service execution. However “disruptive” technology might be, e-government does not alter the traditional model of governance.

Civic technology, on the other hand, is different both in its user groups and in its model of governance. It is technology which supports the flow of information and communication between government and members of the public. In terms of users, civic tech is technology which supports the government-public relationship by understanding both audiences to be core partners. In terms of models of governance, the way that civic tech increases interactions between governments and members of the public means that the traditional model of government no longer fits so well.

Although civic technology involves government as one segment of its users, it has an equally central relationship with the non-governmental public. This is different from a service which solely improves information and communication flow within government (which we call government tech), and is unlike even e-government’s unidirectional provision of information and digital services to the public. Reflecting that paired relationship, civic tech does not need to be housed in government. It can be created externally, housed externally, and still authentically serve the common goals of the participating public and government.

The difference in user groups and audiences for the two technology sectors reflects an underlying difference in approaches to governance. Government tech and e-government both represent ways to use technology to help governments do what they have already been directed to do more efficiently and effectively. E-government thereby supports the traditional governance model, with traditional models for accountability: government is accountable primarily to the elected officials that direct it, trusting that the choice of elected official means that governments will ultimately, if indirectly, be responsible to the public.

Civic technology has a different aim: to transform government into an entity which simultaneously responds to both elected leaders and the public. Civic technology supports the cooperative development of government service through increasing government-public communication and information flow. Unlike the traditional governance model’s uni-directional relationships, civic technology provides a communication structure that can fuel a different model of governance: a Government 2.0 or open government model. Every part of the system can interact with every other part.

open governance model

Because of the increased opportunities for input and feedback, this governance model has some substantial functional differences from the traditional model. By increasing public input into government, civic technology gives government an independent—and perhaps competing—set of directives. This feature means that the model works differently.

Needless to say, there are plenty of people who don’t want technology to change the way government works. People may want technology that can just help government “do its job” more efficiently. In this conception of government, government often does not require public input, and its core job is to become effective at performing the tasks that its leaders set out for it. This is “running government like a business”—a not-uncommon aspiration—and technology can help with the achievement of this goal as well.

In the differences between these two perspectives, we can see the disconnect in operating models. We can see why it’s so unproblematic for some people working on technology and governance to conceive of the public as “customers,” and we can also see while this label is as charming to others as nails on a chalkboard. It has to do with whether you are thinking of the digital tool as serving the needs a government has to present and improve its information, or as the doorway to an entirely new model of governance.

E-government and civic technology, with their different perspectives on sources of authoritative direction, will end up with different answers to the question of how technology helps us achieve the public good. Collecting and responding to public input through civic technology could actually make government less efficient. It’s not uncommon in participatory processes that we find that being less efficient is the right way to achieve an outcome.

However, to the extent that we evaluate the efficacy of civic tech as a government service alone, we fail to understand it for its essential role: to transform the nature of the governance relationship into one where individuals make government directly responsive to them. This is a significant change. People are used to having government be indirectly responsive to them, through the way that most of us are used to self-government through elected representation. In the indirect responsiveness of the representative system, we accept that we trade off some of the things that we want to get others. We compromise at the ballot box once a year. With civic technology—and the possibility of weighing in on individual issues more regularly and with greater precision—we don’t have to wait for elections, or even for hearings. We can continue our pursuit of responsive governance all year around, and at our own convenience.

This, admittedly, is a maximalist vision of the effects of civic technology. It’s just a dream for now. But it is a vision which foregrounds a new relationship between public and government, and one that disrupts the traditional notion that we delegate all our power to the people we elect to direct government on our behalf.

It is also a vision not yet shared by the bulk of the academic literature on government and technology. However, now that we know that, we can think more critically about how these perspectives relate to one another. We can make sure researchers working on e-government and civic technology connect regularly with one another.

And in the civic tech world, we can certainly derive value from the wisdom of our e-government colleagues who’ve been working to understand what happens when government service meets the internet. To the extent that civic tech implementation requires at least an open mind—and better, an enthusiastic partnership—on the side of our government partners, it is best if we know where they’ve been coming from.

It’s the sort of thing that might have been covered in some of those 169,000 articles about e-government. I’d better get back to the reading, I guess.

Emily Shaw is the U.S. Civic Technologies Researcher at mySociety.