Open Government Needs to Understand Citizens

November 21, 2013  • Panthea Lee, Guest Blogger

Among open government practitioners, “the citizen” is a beloved topic of conversation. We love to talk about how “the citizen” is frustrated, how “the citizen” should be empowered, and — our favorite — how “the Citizen” will rise up to solve “the challenge.” But who are these mythical citizens? And, more importantly, what are they frustrated about, how will they be empowered, and why on earth do they want to rise up to solve this undefined problem?

At FOCAS 2013, Bryan Sivak of the US Department of Health and Human Services (pictured below) advocated for a more nuanced definition of “citizen.”

Indeed, “citizens” and “communities” are not homogeneous groups. Each citizen or community has distinct aspirations, capacities, and constraints. To develop open government initiatives that citizens find useful, we must start with a more sophisticated understanding of those we seek to serve.

The Issue: We Think We Know Citizens

Open government, at its core, believes that citizens care about shaping the processes and outcomes of governance. Is this true?

A study on political engagement in the UK found that 90 percent of respondents believed political processes were in need of reform. Yet, of the reform ideas they proposed, only 16 percent gave regular people a greater say in politics. While people want improved governance, they don’t necessarily want to be involved in improving it.

Around the world, evidence of citizen appetite for open government values is spotty. Recent Globalbarometer surveys show declining support for democracy throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, and the former Soviet Union. Even in Latin America, often touted as a hotbed of civic innovation, surveys found that 54 percent of respondents in the region preferred democracy to other forms of government, and only 28 percent were “fairly” or “very satisfied” with democracy. In many countries, including Open Government Partnership countries Colombia, Peru, Brazil, and Mexico, either a minority or a small majority of people believe democracy is preferable to other forms of government.

Of course, variable faith in democracy does not mean a lack of support for democratic principles. But it does call into question our assumptions about citizen engagement in open government initiatives.

As Frank Hebbert of OpenPlans asked, “why aren’t we building tools that transform the experience of being an engaged citizen?”

Surely plenty of organizations have tried, but often they leave something to be desired.

Take the World Bank, for example, which has been committed to open data initiatives since its first Apps for Development Challenge three years ago. Then-President Robert Zoellick urged entrants to “help change the world by using the World Bank’s data collection to help find solutions to today’s development challenges.” Bank staff wanted to “build really useful applications addressing local problems.”

The winning app produced interactive visualizations of World Bank data. Second place was an app that measures progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and shows how events such as war impact such progress. And taking third place was a tool that enabled people to rank different countries by their personal prioritization of development indicators. While the tools were useful, it’s unclear how they would “address local problems” for citizens in developing countries.

The Bank has tried to improve the accessibility of its tools to diverse user groups. One example is its flagship mobile apps, which lists the World Bank’s portfolio of projects, finances, and procurement data. The app is free, works without a data connection, and is available in nine languages on both the iOS and Android platforms.

That’s the good news.

The bad news? It is 30MB. In Nigeria, a country where more than 60 percent of the population lives on less than $1 a day, the app would cost about $3 USD to download. Accessibility is also limited by the fact that projects are listed by their Bank code, rather than program name. If a user searched for “Fadama,” an agricultural subsidy program with signs all over Nigeria, they would get a blank screen. Only by scrolling through all of the Bank’s listed projects in the country can a user find Fadama. And project finances are categorized as International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) Loans, International Development Association (IDA) Credits, and IDA Grants, and without sufficient granularity to be useful to a budget monitoring activist or a community leader. In short, the apps’ design limits its ability to “transform the experience of being an engaged citizen.”

The Solution: Design for Citizen Engagement

In terms of user segmentation and effective design, the open government community has a lot to learn from the private sector.

No company worth its salt hawking a new product would claim “the consumer” as its market — and with good reason. A company has clear incentives to know exactly which consumers are going to buy which products through which channels. No market intelligence means no sale and no company. Granted, government agencies are obviously without these same incentives, but the absence of market intelligence on the citizens that may use or benefit from an open government initiative yields the same results: no uptake and no open government.

Companies are also skilled in attracting and retaining users. They don’t take any user for granted: they design interactions and experiences that engage and delight, and use sophisticated analytics to ensure their strategies are paying off. When they don’t, they change course. Open government initiatives would do well to learn from them.

Fortunately, open government initiatives are increasingly attuned to citizen needs and behaviors. Outline, currently in beta, is a public policy simulator that allows citizens to better understand how government budgets and policies will impact them individually. For example, a household can visualize how a tax cut will affect its income, or how a new healthcare bill may impact its health insurance costs. Outline pulls data from the Internal Revenue Service, the Census Bureau, and other government agencies, and puts that data in context for regular people.

CivOmega is also trying to make open government less obtuse and more useful for people. This initiative allows people to ask questions about government in plain English — for example, “what bills did Eric Cantor sponsor?” — and provides users with answers, pulled from multiple open government datasets.

It’s no Siri just yet, but it’s a start.

Usability challenges include rigid syntax requirements for user queries. “What bills have Eric Cantor sponsored?” is incomprehensible. But the CivOmega team hopes to change that soon by incorporating natural language processing to enable a more intuitive user experience.

Ideas in Practice: The Public Experience Network

The Public Experience Network (PEN), a concept proposed at FOCAS, is a step in the right direction. The premise: many of today’s problems require collaboration beyond government, and every citizen has some untapped expertise. So let’s bring citizen expertise into government to help tackle public sector challenges.

This idea itself is not revolutionary. More interesting, however, was that not once were the words “crowdsourcing” or “new platform” uttered in the concept development conversation. Rather, FOCAS participants spoke of people they knew who might participate in such a program. They wanted to know why and how they might participate, and how government could keep them engaged.

Mark Meckler of Citizens for Self Governance described a friend who was passionate about mountain biking and would be eager to help design and maintain state parks. Alissa Black of the New America Foundation shared the story of an elderly African American woman in California who had despised government all her life, but when asked to join in a citizen consultation program by her city, she became its most enthusiastic participant. Turns out all she had wanted was for government to ask for her opinion.

Once we understand who the users are, what they care about, and what their lives are like, we can then understand how to work with them. PEN would start by building a network of citizen experts through referrals who would be engaged in specific and discrete tasks relevant to their stated expertise. Participation incentives would be tailored to citizens’ unique motivations. Once the pilot is successful, PEN would experiment with how technology may support or extend existing processes. For example, both government offices and citizens could rate interactions they have with each other so reputations can be a part of structuring assignments.

Going Beyond Citizens?

So we’ve agreed to design solutions that suit citizen needs. But should average citizens be our target user? It depends.

Citizens don’t always have the means, technical skills, or motivation to participate in an open government initiative.

Take, for example, the Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation. Nearly 100 countries have implemented such laws, but their utility and impact have been hard to measure. Filing requests can be cumbersome and time-consuming, meaning citizens often tire of trying. Well-resourced corporations are instead the beneficiaries of FOI. Would resources be better spent helping the average citizen navigate FOI procedures, or would they be better put towards enabling journalists who have the professional motivation to chase hard-to-get data, as well as the technical training to put it into context?

“It’s not enough to give people access to information,” said Evan Smith of The Texas Tribune at FOCAS. “We need intermediaries, such as journalists, to help citizens interpret information, and to enable them to be able to act on information.”

Pierre Omidyar agrees. The eBay and Omidyar Network founder launched the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest after he learned that government agencies routinely rejected journalists’ requests for reports, documents, and other information. The Center provides free legal help to journalists seeking to advance open government. His recent investigative journalism venture — founded with Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Jeremy Scahill — is another vote for the role of journalists in ensuring citizens are able to benefit from open government, and governments are held to account for their promises.

Panthea Lee is a principal at Reboot, a social enterprise working to improve governance and development worldwide.

This is the fourth post in a six-part series from the Aspen Institute Communications and Society program that appears on the Aspen Institute blog. By sharing the conversations at the 2013 Forum on Communications and Society (FOCAS) and the ideas they inspired, we hope to advance a constructive dialogue around open government and a future of more equitable and accountable governance.