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Civic Education is the Civic Technology We Need Most

This essay was submitted to National Academies’ Idea Competition for Symposium on Imagining the Future of Undergraduate STEM Education. You can download a PDF version of this essay here.


Civic technology is an amplifier. It amplifies democracy by applying technology.

Democracy × TechnologyCivic

The technology part of this equation has been doing pretty well. Technology keeps advancing, making certain things easier and more efficient. There are also exciting movements in technology meant to instill public purpose among technologists. Code for America followed by the United States Digital Service and 18F have provided an outlet for technologists eager to build technology that allows governments to be more effective and accountable to citizens. Public Interest Technology, advanced by several prominent foundations, offers a framework for encouraging STEM professionals to engage in politics and policy and more broadly find their bearings by serving the public interest. The National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges Scholars Program seeks to enlarge the definition of the competencies STEM graduates need in order to tackle the world’s most difficult challenges. I celebrate these movements and participate in them.

The democracy part of the equation has been struggling. There is low trust in democratic institutions around the world. Surveys show declines in young people believing that living in a democracy is essential.1 civic engagement at all levels of collective governance. Scholars and journalists have given various reasons for civic engagement’s decline: dwindling enrollments in informal organizations like bowling leagues, the rise of cable television and the internet, newfound awareness of corrupt and racist politicians and policies, and hyperpartisan politics touching every issue and locality. As threats to democracy mount, civic education as a component of primary, secondary, and higher education has gone missing in many schools or, where it still exists, represents antiquated notions of democracy and America.

We are failing to appreciate that civic education is our most important civic technology. While technologists working on civic projects often mean well and make helpful contributions, we will never recover our democracy or realize the true potential of civic technology if we don’t revitalize civic education.

A 2014 study of engineering students by sociologist Erin Cech finds evidence that the culture of engineering seems to weaken students’ beliefs in their professional.2 In 2020, a cascade of headlines points to ways digital technologies are threatening justice, privacy, and democracy, and the political battles over COVID-19 have exposed deep mistrust of experts in science and medicine. Between now and 2040, our need for civic-minded STEM graduates will only grow.

We need a civic professionalism movement anchored in transformative civic education curricula built inseparably into every undergraduate STEM program.

A revitalized civic education acknowledges fundamental shifts in society and democratic practice and expands its definition of where democracy starts—not with voting but with citizen cooperation. Civic education begins in childhood, but STEM professionals also need educational experiences that help them recognize their profound roles and responsibilities as citizens. We need to entwine technical literacy and civic literacy. We need civic professionals in STEM, who think first as citizens, practice their profession in deeply democratic ways, and build civic technology as expressions of the identities they have developed through years of civic education.

Democratic educator Harry Boyte has written and advocated for constructing professional identities like the “citizen engineer,” an engineer who acknowledges the public dimensions of their work, not separating their citizen identity from their engineer identity.3 Democratic theorist Albert Dzur gives us the idea of “democratic professionalism” as power sharing.4 Civic professionals embrace multiple forms of expertise, complementing their specialized skills with the unique experiences of fellow citizens to solve difficult problems. These open and accountable collaborations build public trust in professionals through mutual respect and shared struggle.

Civic professionals must also learn to embrace the political dimensions of their work, acknowledging the ways that technical work is always situated in particular contexts and depends on certain structures and policies that serve some ideas, people, and outcomes well and others poorly. Cech’s research with higher education professional Heidi Sherick has found depoliticization of work to be one of the problematic pillars of engineering culture.5 Science and engineering are not cleanly separable from the rest of society. That mindset robs our democracy of STEM’s public purpose and accountability. Instead, civic professionals should aspire toward what Boyte calls “public work,” committing to models of co-creation, joint problem solving, and shared ownership.6 Public work binds us together in our shared citizenship and represents the foundational elements of democracy as a project of collective governance.

Education scholar Carolin Kreber envisions forging civic professional identities through transformative experiences in undergraduate education.7 A transformative STEM civic education is action-oriented and community-engaged, forcing us to challenge and revise our assumptions, values, and identities. It asks students to practice their profession in partnership with the public at the beginning of their training. Working with citizens outside of the classroom helps cultivate civic-mindedness. A civic professional’s new competencies include being able to frame a complex problem in partnership with community members who may not possess technical knowledge but whose lived experiences lead to the right questions and priorities necessary to setting a research and design agenda.

This is the future of STEM education our world needs most, reclaiming the public purpose of higher education and rebuilding trust in professions. During the next 20 years, society will continue to ask STEM graduates and the technology they create to solve its thorniest challenges. We need civic professionals in STEM who understand and identify with a much deeper sense of their public purpose, who are prepared to amplify our collective effort as citizens.

  1. Foa, Roberto Stefan, and Yascha Mounk. 2017. “The Signs of Deconsolidation.” Journal of Democracy​ 28 (1): 5–16.
  2. Cech, Erin A. 2014. “Culture of Disengagement in Engineering Education?” Science, Technology, & Human Values​ 39 (1): 42–72.
  3. Boyte, Harry. 2008. The Citizen Solution: How You Can Make A Difference​. Saint Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press.
  4. Dzur, Albert W. 2010. Democratic Professionalism: Citizen Participation and the Reconstruction of Professional Ethics, Identity, and Practice.University Park, PA: Penn State University Press. Dzur, Albert. 2018. Democracy Inside: Participatory Innovation in Unlikely Places.New York: Oxford University Press.
  5. Cech, Erin A., and Heidi M. Sherick. 2015. “Depoliticization and the Structure of Engineering Education.” In ​International Perspectives on Engineering Education: Engineering Education and Practice in Context, Volume 1​, edited by Steen Hyldgaard Christensen, Christelle Didier, Andrew Jamison, Martin Meganck, Carl Mitcham, and Byron Newberry, 203–16. Philosophy of Engineering and Technology. Cham: Springer International Publishing.
  6. Boyte, Harry. 2004. Everyday Politics: Reconnecting Citizens and Public Life.Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  7. Kreber, Carolin. 2016. Educating for Civic-Mindedness.New York: Routledge.
Designing Social Impact Metrics for Civic Technology

Designing Social Impact Metrics for Civic Technology

by Alisa Zomer, Erhardt Graeff, and Kelly Zhang

Bringing together partners from the US (POPVOX) and South Africa (Grassroot), we tested a new format to co-develop metrics and civic technology in an iterative design process.

This year’s largest civic technology gathering of practitioners and researchers (#TICTeC) took a hard look at the state of civic technology (i.e. Are we now in the fourth wave? Is it a sea change movement or has civic tech lost its relevance?). Focusing on questions of measuring impact, our team, including Erhardt Graeff from Olin College and Alisa Zomer and Kelly Zhang from MIT GOV/LAB, put together a design sprint workshop with partners POPVOX (U.S) and Grassroot (South Africa). The aim of our session was to kick-start an iterative design process to integrate social impact metrics into platform design from the very beginning, not as afterthought.

What does this mean in practice?

Erhardt Graeff at TICTeC 2019
Erhardt Graeff at TICTeC 2019.

As Erhardt discussed in recent work, impact for civic technology is often measured using basic descriptive data from the platform itself, including number of users, repeat users, time spent on the platform, etc.; however, these engagement metrics mostly fail to speak to the social impact goals at the heart of civic technology. In some cases, surveys are conducted where users rate their experiences on a platform, which can be helpful for troubleshooting user experience design problems. But answering the real question of social impact (i.e. has the platform changed outcomes, either beliefs or behavior) demands a different kind of metric.

In our workshop, we introduced an approach that starts by articulating what change you want to see—do you want to empower ordinary citizens to take a particular action (e.g., petition, protest, vote)? Or, do you want to see local government have a specific response (e.g., budget allocation, new legislation, improved service provision)?

Depending on the intended change, there is often relevant research to help in the design process. A wealth of research exists on what incentivizes or prevents citizens from engaging with their government, how to build strong grassroots movements, and also what barriers or opportunities present on the government side. Building on this knowledge, our goal is to bridge theory with design in a way that aligns with achieving and measuring social impact.  

For POPVOX, a platform to improve dialogue between citizens and government in the US, they ask: How might we measure participants’ understanding of government processes, comfort engaging, and sense that their voice matters? One approach taken by Erhardt previously is to measure perceived political efficacy (or the belief that you can influence or affect political change) in his work with SeeClickFix. He adapted a number of oft-used national survey questions for internal and external political efficacy to examine the context of city residents requesting their local governments fix the things they care about, finding correlations between government responsiveness on the platform and active users’ perceptions that their local governments were listening to them.

Screenshots from Marci Harris’s presentation on POPVOX’s platform
Screenshots from Marci Harris’s presentation on POPVOX’s platform.

Grassroot, which provides low-tech, low-cost tools for grassroots organizers working primarily with low income groups in South Africa, posed the following: How might we measure the ways in which social movement organizations grow and build capacity? Their main design constraints include a consistently unresponsive government and social movement organizations that have strong initial momentum but then steeply decline.

Screenshots from Luke Jordan’s presentation on Grassroot’s platform
Screenshots from Luke Jordan’s presentation on Grassroot’s platform.

Dividing into small groups, we tackled these design prompts to come up with relevant and feasible metrics, explain why they matter, and what data would be needed to measure them.

Sprinting for impact

Design sprinting in 70 minutes is not for the faint of heart, but we forewarned participants and the end results were a good start to a longer process. For Grassroot, some of the suggestions included looking at leadership development within organizations over time, assessing media visibility as a proxy for reach outside the movement, and measuring interactions between organizers across multiple policy issues. For POPVOX, suggestions included design features that notified citizens when officials read comments in order to build in some measure or response and trust-building.

In the coming months, both teams plan to move these pilots forward, building on the outcomes of the TICTeC workshop.

Workshop descriptions and slides available online. For more information, contact the MIT GOV/LAB at mitgovlab@mit.edu or Erhardt Graeff at erhardt@erhardtgraeff.com.

All event photos from Brian David Films

This report is cross-posted at the MIT GOV/LAB blog.

How Silicon Valley Can Support Citizen Empowerment

Link

https://scholars.org/contribution/how-silicon-valley-can-support-citizen-empowerment

Introduction

The 2016 U.S. presidential election stoked concerns about the potential of digital technologies to disempower citizens and erode democracy. Such concerns followed years of promises from tech companies and investors about the democratizing power of the internet. Since their founding, Twitter and Facebook have touted themselves as tools for democracy and citizen empowerment. A closer look, however, reveals that tech company incentives are often poorly aligned with the social goals they espouse and the type of good they promise to do for the world.

A new crop of companies — self-titled “civic technology” companies — are now taking the democratic mission more seriously by designing their platforms and tools with the explicit intention of promoting civic engagement. Some of these companies are nonprofits or ventures with the dual mission of making a profit and providing social benefits. Others are traditional startups financed by venture capitalists. In both cases, these companies need better metrics to ensure that their products and business designs remain aligned with their social missions.

Unfortunately, Silicon Valley companies are often judged simply on their ability to attract exponentially rising numbers of users and maintain user engagement. This standard for “success” encourages companies to work with paying customers who advertise to users and exploit their attention and data — rather than serving users in empowering ways. In turn, such standard measures are what matter to business leaders and investors. Measures of success need to change in order to encourage more tech companies to pursue democratic goals. Industry leaders, governmental and citizen users, and investors — all must create new performance standards to redefine success and hold tech companies accountable. New measures for evaluating company performance should be tied to service to democracy and to citizen empowerment.