OECD Civic Tech Background Note Feedback

This document prepared by the RadicalxChange Foundation (hereafter RxC) aggregates feedback from the Getting Civic Tech Right for Democracy conference organized by the OECD Open and Innovative Government Division and the Innovative Citizen Participation Network (ICPN) held on October 17 & 18 and inputs from the RxC community on the Background Note published ahead of the conference.

RadicalxChange Foundation, a US based 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, aims to advance plurality, equality, community and promote education about democratic innovation. By connecting people from all disciplines and places, by leveraging open decentralized technologies and mechanism design theory, our goal is to improve human’s social, political and economic interactions, and strengthen the voice of underrepresented communities.

With the present document, we aim to contribute to the OECD report on the use of Civic Tech by governments and share our insights to enhance participation, representation and openness in public life, and transform public governance for digital democracy.

Inspired by the construct of the Background Note and the questions raised during the two days of intense dialogue, we will focus on 4 key areas of debate with the goal of leveraging civic tech to improve citizen-government relations and ensuring civic tech solutions are fit-for-democracy.

Remarks on Introduction of the Background Note

In its introduction, the background note classifies OECD’s understanding of Civic Tech. it outlines the difference between Gov Tech and Civic Tech, between G2C, C2G and C2C. Our first comment would be to also consider G2G add-on for the use of Civic Tech and Gov Tech in key processes of multilateral institutions.The idea would be not only to improve on the existing process (accountability, transparency, fluidity) but also to make institutions staff use Civic Tech (hereafter CT) solutions and experience that process themselves. We also wonder how the document will sort out political personnel, government, administration or public servants. From experience, their uses of CT are different and could also justify a classification of its own. Administration and public servants tend not to work with the same CT community members as compared to political personnel and governments.

We’ll now examine contributions to the four parts of the Background Note.

First Part of the OECD Note: Meeting the Needs of Modern Democracies

Is Civic Tech delivering according to expectations? What does it take for civic tech to go beyond digital solutions and truly transform citizen engagement in today’s society?

In our experience, a unity of place and time helps reach a common understanding of the process and the methods used to engage citizens in a deliberative way. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, and from the ground up, CT Government-to-Citizen (G2C) initiatives need to start with conservation and inclusion and setting the right expectations for deployment by public authorities and non-governmental actors.

One of the key success factors is to have a prior conversation with the public office instigating the CT initiative, get them to see the value of the process, how to interact with it and focus more on the outreach than the outcome. It is important to strike a balance around this commitment: a public institution and even more so an elected official does not have to commit to implementing ideas and proposals that came out of the deliberations, but a simple pledge to respond publicly and acknowledge the process will go a long way.

As illustration, in 2023, RxC Foundation partnered with the Office of Climate Preparedness in Colorado to pioneer a unique citizen engagement model, which leveraged pol.is and Quadratic Voting to efficiently gather input from a representative sample of Colorado residents on climate preparedness policy. The model involves assembling a demographically representative group through sortition, facilitating small-group discussions, mapping perspectives in a live pol.is conversation, and conducting a Quadratic Vote to rank policy priorities.

In our experience, CT is not only about finding the right size of communities or providing spectacular platform UX. Sortition or quadratic voting mechanisms help foster trust because they address human group biases about group representatives or “dictatorship from the majority vs dictatorship of extremes”.

This is a first step regarding the central issue of inclusiveness. A detailed demographic mapping is key to reach the highest level of inclusion into the sortition process.

Second Part of the OECD Note: Are Civic Tech Solutions Fit-For-Democracy?

What are the constraints preventing a wider acceptance of civic tech projects? What are the current and foreseen barriers to the adoption and scale of Civic Tech solutions?

One of the barriers from the citizen point of view is the lack of trust in the CT process, in the capacity to safeguard data, maintain anonymity and guarantee a fair and transparent process. CT organizations working on data dignity, among them RxC, have developed social identity solutions, enabling improved trust and transparency in the Government-to-Citizen platforms.

Whereas most existing identity concepts are either centralized (with a small number of large, institutional credential providers), or individualistic (with self-authentication), Social Identity solutions are aimed at expanding the scope of possible credential verifiers like Verifiable Credentials (VCs), a tamper-evident credential using cryptography to authenticate its authorship. In doing so, Social Identity better embodies human identities’ social, and multi-dimensional characteristics, and is a transparent technology leading to better acceptance and engagement of government lead initiatives with citizens. Social Identity solutions can use decentralized technologies like blockchains. For instance, the Archipels project is an identity layer developed by public services French companies (EDF, La Poste, Engie).

Another barrier is the startup growth model and funding KPIs. Civic tech organizations and administrations’ participative programmes cannot describe their success merely in terms of active users, for example. For-profit CT or public CT announcements sometimes use the same mantras about hypergrowth as in the “attention economy” digital platforms. Citizens expect to see that their voice will count. When CT focuses on simplistic one-way decisions based upon community participation, because “this is what people want”, when for-profit CT races for the quickest player to reach 100 millions users, CT falls short of its promise to enrich democracy by meshing people and institutions together.

Several enablers can secure building a steady and inclusive process: the ability to develop low tech solutions with high quality UI and UX (not easy!), long term planning for deployment and maintenance, visibility on funding and secure, reliable and interoperable system of identifications enabling trust and transparency.

The Third Part of the OECD Note: Getting it Right

What can governments do to leverage the full potential of Civic Tech?

In collaboration with governments, one of the biggest obstacles is staff turnover in the public sector – we have had some difficulties with this. Many innovative public servants simply don’t stay in any government position for more than a year or two, and when they move, the projects are set back.We need people “high up” in government to reward the people beneath them for undertaking CT experiments. In our experience, Audrey Tang, Minister of Digital Affairs of Taiwan is a model in this regard, as is Jared Polis of Colorado, Governor of Colorado.

The lack of incentives for public officials to take risks integrating CT into public functions. They usually have more to lose than gain, and since pushing CT requires experimentation, this is a problem. In order to sustain a durable and consistent partnership with identified consistent public officials, we started implementing digital infrastructures, but are often at risk to see them decay for lack of durable collaboration.

How should civic tech and administrations build Digital Public Infrastructures to shape the future of participation culture and trust in governance?

Building Digital Public Platforms is a key component to building that trust, bridging the digital divide and opening up CT solutions. Several questions arise with that ambition: on the technology, but also the ownership, the funding and the objectives. It starts by creating a common space for different stakeholders (public entities, citizens, private and nonprofit organizations) to work together.

The RadicalxChange Foundation suggests retaining local strategic investments in CT for public policy. Again, an observable landmark and dedicated local actors are important, because it’s about a wide-ranging transformation of participation culture and trust of involvement shared by the populations.

From a government perspective, digital public infrastructures are just plain geostrategy. They need to protect self-sufficiency in digital capabilities, in order to give Society the means to decide its own destiny. The last Indian initiative launched at the last IT G20 of digital public infrastructure was a vivid example.

The Fourth Part of the OECD Note: Connecting the Dots, the Role of International Governance

What could be the role of international governance in fostering Civic Tech? In connecting CT organizations and Public Institutions and charting the way forward?

Until recently, governments and public administrations were trying to engineer flawless decisions. Now they acknowledge they have to govern more openly. They obtained from politicians, and all the way to citizens, that participation and adaptive public policies were possible, if not mandatory.

Building on this 4th panel of the conference and on the background note, we can highlight different initiatives that help define a framework for discussion, act as catalyst for global cooperation and coordination on grass-roots projects, define a safe space for experimentation and raise the tough questions for and from the community.

Regulatory sandboxes, permanent multi-stakeholder deliberative bodies, new citizen-led international organizations similar to data union are some of the tools we can use to connect the different international initiatives and build momentum around CT for democracy.

The multi stakeholder dialogue between CT companies, activists, public administrations and governments is reaching another level of mutual expectations. Testament to this solidified dialogue was the two days conference Getting Civic Tech Right for Democracy under the aegis of OECD.

How do we continue and broaden this dialogue? Here the role of international governance bodies is crucial in building bridges and charting the way forward. We at RadicalxChange Foundation are excited about the next chapters and are committed to being part of the discussion.

We would like to end by opening the discussion and questioning the way we interact with citizens, institutions and fellow nonprofit organizations: