Top Five Things to Know about Civic Tech Before You Start

by Participation Factory

Civic Tech may seem like the next logical step for your city or municipality. Most of your residents spend a large proportion of their time online – and you may have heard about the technology behind voting in New York City’s Participatory Budgeting, or Iceland’s crowdsourced constitution. There is a clear opportunity to use Civic Tech to reach more people, and engage those who might not be able to participate in the in-person meetings and workshops you usually hold. In short: Civic Tech is enticing, and increasingly, it can even seem like an inevitability. However, there are a few things that you need to know and consider before getting started with the Civic Tech.

1. Define your needs and understand your options

The field of digital participation is growing fast. Hence, there are numerous different providers who offer solutions that can do anything from facilitating secure e-voting like Decision 21 or Scytl, to engaging people in reporting issues on the streets like FixMyStreet in the United Kingdom – and all of it at different price points.

That’s why it’s crucial to have a very precise idea of what you need to employ a Civic Tech tool for. Only then will be able to define exact requirements for a tool and its functionalities. After this, you will be ready to assess the options available. Even though it can be enticing to purchase the most widely used tool or the tool that the city next door employs, you need to remember that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Be sure to look through all of the options available on the market in order to find the perfect fit rather than opting for something that is good enough, but is not quite right.

2. Plan the process before choosing a tool

One of the most common problems municipalities face when using Civic Tech is trying to fit a process into a tool that has been bought long in advance. In these cases, the tool dictates what the process will look like, which inevitably leads to sacrificing essential steps and engagement points in line with the existing tool’s features. Let’s agree that there’s no good way that a tool designed exclusively for voting can help you to collect project proposals.

You will achieve much better results if you start by mapping out the process, defining all the necessary steps and data that needs to be collected. Based on this plan, you will be able to see where Civic Tech fits and will understand your requirements for the technology. This will help you find a tool that will enhance the process, rather than ending up obstructing it.

3. It should not be an IT person “calling the shots”

It follows logically from the last point that the choice of Civic Tech and how to implement it should not rest on the IT department. The IT personnel are obviously essential in ensuring swift deployment and seamless use of the tech. Yet the core needs should be defined by process designers and project managers.Therefore, the key responsibilities for choosing a mode of digital participation should rest with those in charge of the participatory agenda or a given participation-driven project.

4. Meet people where they are and invite them to join your tool

The excitement about a new tool is understandable. However, administrators of digital participation processes often expect people to flock to the online engagement space once it opens. Yet in practice, it never works like this. People need to be educated about the process you want them to engage in and the tool they will be using. You also need to convince them that it’s worth their while to use it.

Before launching the tool, research what kind of media people use – local forums, Facebook groups, WhatsApp chats – and make sure to communicate with them about the process there. When you talk to them, explain what the tool can do for them, how to use it, and how the data they provide will be used in decision-making and planning.

It’s important to remember that you should also be open to not using any civic tech tools at all for some projects – in some cases, the pre-existing digital tools simply won’t fit the needs of your project.

5. Always have an analogue track ready

Even though people are spending more and more time on their smartphones and other devices, not everyone will be able or willing to engage online. This only becomes a problem if you rely 100% on digital engagement.

Instead, you should build a process that supports both those who will take part online and those who would prefer to engage in person. In the case of New York City’s Participatory Budget, the vote on which projects to implement is conducted both in-person and online in order to make sure that as many people can join in the process.

Of course, you will also need to make sure the process is seamless and interconnected and that all the data gathered through both streams is communicated to all the participants and used equally in planning and decision-making processes. For the NYC PB, this meant deploying a scanning solution that allowed them to immediately combine the paper ballots and online votes in one pool of data to select the winning projects.

Civic Tech can enhance your process, help you activate people who are usually disengaged or hard to reach, and make it more transparent. Yet you should always keep in mind that while Civic Tech is a useful instrument, it is not a cure-all. You need to choose your tool wisely and make sure that it fits the tasks you have for it. Otherwise, it will create more problems than it solves.


This article was originally produced for Democracy Technologies online magazine. As an expert contributor and a proud partner, we support Democracy Technologies in providing people working in politics and the industry of Democracy Technologies with in-depth information about new developments and technologies in the field of digital participation. We are excited to bring our participation and civic tech expertise and support them in creating a knowledge base around the best practices not only from the Czech Republic, but elsewhere in the world.