Increasing Citizen Engagement and Access to Information, Part 1

The federal government has only scratched the surface of engaging citizens through technology. Most of what we have seen so far is just adding technology to existing forms of engagement: rulemaking comments can be submitted electronically, tweets and on-line chats supplement press releases and speeches.

 The Goals of Increasing Engagement through Technology

The greater potential for engagement is enabling citizens to build new services on top of government systems, and to analyze the same data that government maintains for its internal use. This lets citizens not only comment to government, but co-produce government.

 Recommended Actions

  1. Welcome the Civic Hackers

The citizens who participate in this deeper level of engagement are often called civic hackers. Civic hackers work on public sector projects using technology, but outside the traditional structure of government systems development. While hacking can also refer to criminal activity, civic hacking has gained enough legitimacy for the White House to host several hackathons.[1]

Civic hackers can operate as networks of individual enthusiasts, as nonprofit organizations, or occasionally as businesses. Local government leaders have had some notable successes cooperating with civic hackers to leapfrog the business-as-usual approach of government and its contractors. For example, GetCalFresh.org provides a simpler, quicker online process to apply for food stamps in six California counties. It was developed by Code for America, a civic hacking nonprofit, in cooperation with the counties.[2]

Civic hackers generally do not charge the governments they work with.[3] But for the engagement to produce results, the government may have to discuss its internal processes with the civic hackers at the same nuts-and-bolts level that they are only used to sharing with contractors.

Whether a government leader can benefit from civic hackers depends on whether she is willing to participate in disruptive improvement. For example, some state governments have threatened and even sued civic hackers for posting the state’s codified laws on the internet, because the state or its contractor claimed copyright.[4] But when civic hackers wanted to use the District of Columbia code without the restrictions imposed by DC’s contractor, the General Counsel of DC’s legislature found a contract loophole that allowed him to put a copy in the public domain. Civic hackers then created free software for searching, citing and analyzing the code with features the contractor did not offer, which has been used by both the public and the DC government itself.[5]

[Next week we will post Part 2: Eat Your Own Dog Food. You can find the complete paper at https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/hws4f/ ]

[1] White House, “Leadership and Policy Hackathon,” The White House, accessed September 9, 2016, https://www.whitehouse.gov/node/345151; White House, “White House Foster Care & Technology Hackathon,” The White House, accessed September 9, 2016, https://www.whitehouse.gov/node/355016; White House, “Wrap Up: A Hackathon Here at the White House,” Whitehouse.gov, June 3, 2014, https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2014/06/03/hackathon-here-white-house.

[2] Code for America, “California Counties Make It Easier to Apply for CalFresh,” Code for America, accessed September 12, 2016, https://www.codeforamerica.org/featured-stories/counties-make-it-easy-to-apply-for-calfresh.

[3] One exception is that Code for American charges $250,000 to assign a full-time Fellow for 11 months. But their volunteer “brigades” work with governments for free. Code for America, “Partner with Us,” Code for America, accessed September 12, 2016, https://www.codeforamerica.org/join-us/partner-with-us.

[4] Mike Masnick, “State Of Georgia Sues Carl Malamud For Copyright Infringement For Publishing The State’s Own Laws,” Techdirt., July 24, 2015, https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20150723/17125231743/state-georgia-sues-carl-malamud-copyright-infringement-publishing-states-own-laws.shtml.

[5] Michael Grass, “The Ultimate in Open Government: Unlocking the Laws,” Government Executive, July 8, 2014, http://www.govexec.com/state-local/2014/07/ultimate-open-government-unlocking-laws/87997/.

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