The emerging research on the effects of technology on citizen engagement clearly highlights the risk of technologies to amplify existing participatory biases favoring, for example, the participation of those who are male, have higher income, or have educational attainment (Peixoto and Sifry 2017). Careful considerations in terms of institutional and technological design are therefore essential if inclusiveness is a value to be pursued.
To date, most civic technology initiatives have relied on voluntary, self-selected models of participation. These initiatives have lagged behind recent sophisticated participatory innovations designed to promote the inclusion of individuals that are unlikely to participate in mechanisms based on self-selection. In this case, two institutional approaches are worth highlighting.
The first one concerns citizens’ assemblies. Particularly for engagement in policies, citizens’ assemblies stand as the gold standard for citizen engagement. The second one concerns the proactive outreach of individuals, which is particularly advised when governments want to seek simple feedback from citizens (e.g., quality of service delivery, complaints). For example, this is the case for the Jhang Model used by the Punjab government in Pakistan. Instead of waiting for citizen reports to come in, the government evaluates its performance on an ongoing basis by directly calling or texting citizens to solicit their feedback on public services they recently used. 24 There are other measures that can be taken when designing participation tools that must be available to all. For example, when designing citizen engagement efforts, the use of technology should be limited to devices that are already available and largely used by the target audience. Alessandra Orofino, executive director of Nossas, shares their approach, “To be successful our use of tech has to be thoughtful and smart. We do value accessibility, so we never really choose an emerging technology that is at the early adoption phase. We want people first, not tech.”
Yet, keeping things highly accessible from a user perspective does not exclude the possibility of using emerging technologies. Tapan Parikh, professor of human-computer interaction at Cornell University, cites the example of sophisticated call centers in developing countries that use AI solutions to handle calls, while taking calls from virtually any type of phone. “I’ve been making this argument for years. We need to think about the user interface as simply as possible, and do all the smart stuff on the backend.”
Good design of participation systems, however, require more than assumptions about what users’ needs and habits probably are. Any inclusive technological design will systematically require multiple rounds of user research and user testing as the technological solution is incrementally developed. In this sense, the capacity of governments and activists to appropriately conduct research and testing with users constitutes a core skill if emerging technologies are to be effectively used to leverage citizen engagement practices.
24: Promoting inclusiveness also requires expanding the meaning of the term “citizen” beyond its formal acceptance; that is, a legally recognized national of a state. On inclusive citizen engagement, citizens are those whose lives are affected by the decisions taken — independent of their formal status. Examples of this approach are the government-sponsored participatory budgeting initiatives in New York City and Paris in which national citizens and undocumented immigrants vote on equal footing. ↩