By Kate Gasparro • November 8, 2018

Rising levels of urbanization in the United States are putting demand on new and existing infrastructure. As cities grow and local demographics change, it is becoming more difficult for local governments to make timely decisions regarding the built environment. Infrastructure, including transportation, water/sanitation, energy, and civic projects, requires increasing local government attention. In the face of so many decisions, traditional engagement opportunities like public hearings cannot meaningfully capture citizen input. They have been criticized for being inaccessible to the public (held at times and locations that conflict with work and family responsibilities), too late in the process, and attended by only extreme opposers or supporters. As a result, these engagement opportunities can create more distrust with impacted citizens and reinforce existing biases or preferences. Given local government budget and capacity constraints, the lack of engagement can lead to inefficient resource allocation and citizen opposition to projects.

Since the 1990s, local governments have increasingly used information and computer technologies (ICT) to improve public service delivery. As part of the suite of tools, local governments are also using eParticipation, ICT to support democratic decision making, in an effort to improve democratic decision-making. Instead of only hosting public meetings, local governments have the opportunity to increase their reach and improve engagement opportunities with eParticipation, made possible by increasing investment in civic technology. This presents an opportunity to improve citizen engagement for local infrastructure delivery.

The civic technology space is fragmented and addresses eParticipation to varying degrees. At a very basic level, civic technology can facilitate voting processes or capture citizen feedback via online comment banks, increasing local government efficiency, transparency, and accountability. On the other end of the spectrum, civic technology can provide meaningful engagement opportunities, improving equity among citizens. Despite recent studies of civic technology, city officials have had trouble translating academic research into action and establishing recurring participation among citizens.

We expand on the eParticipation research by providing a deep dive look at one slice of the civic technology sector: civic technology for local infrastructure delivery (planning, design, construction, and operations/maintenance). To do this, we first categorize and map relevant civic technologies and then provide a detailed overview of three civic technologies.

How can Cities use Civic Technology?

By mapping the landscape of civic technology, we can see more clearly how eParticipation is being used to address public service challenges, including infrastructure delivery. Although many scholars and practitioners have created independent categories for eParticipation, these categorization frameworks follow a similar pattern. At one end of the spectrum, eParticipation efforts provide public service information and relevant updates to citizens or allowing citizens to contact their officials in a unidirectional flow of information. At the other end, eParticipation efforts allow for deliberate democracy where citizens share decision-making with local government officials. Of the dozen categorization frameworks we found, we selected the most comprehensive one accepted by practitioners. This framework draws from public participation practices and identifies five categories:

  • eInforming: One-way communication providing online information to citizens (in the form of a website) or to government (via ePetitions)
  • eConsulting: Limited two-way communication where citizens can voice their opinions and provide feedback
  • eInvolving: Two-way communication where citizens go through an online process to capture public concerns
  • eCollaborating: Enhanced two-way communication that allows citizens to develop alternative solutions and identify the preferred solution, but decision making remains the government’s responsibility
  • eEmpowerment: Advanced two-way communication that allows citizens to influence and make decisions as co-producers of policies

In applying the categorization framework to civic technology for infrastructure delivery, we also wanted to consider the specific needs of citizens and functions of infrastructure delivery. Infrastructure delivery includes a series of phases: planning, design, construction, and operations/maintenance. At each phase, different stakeholders are included in decision making. In early phases, citizens can play a larger role in decision making through engagement opportunities. As project details become more concrete, there are fewer opportunities for citizen engagement. For example, decisions made during the design phase must be locked in as the project moves into construction, ensuring the project progresses in a timely manner.

After surveying the civic technology space, we found 24 tools that use eParticipation for infrastructure delivery. We map these technologies according to their intended use phase in infrastructure delivery and type of eParticipation. The horizontal axis divides the space into the different infrastructure delivery phases and the vertical axis shows the five eParticipation categories. Together, we can see how civic technology is attempting to include citizens throughout infrastructure delivery. The majority of the civic technologies available operate as eInforming and eConsulting tools, allowing citizens to provide information to local governments about infrastructure issues. This information is then channeled into the project selection and prioritization process that occurs during the planning phase. A few technologies span multiple infrastructure phases because of their abilities to aggregate many eParticipation technologies to address the functions of each infrastructure phase. Based on this cursory map, we see that there are spaces in the infrastructure delivery process where there are only a few civic technologies. This is often because there are fewer opportunities to influence decision making during the later phases.

eParticipation chart

To understand the benefits and implications of using eParticipation in infrastructure delivery, we take a deep dive look at three civic technologies. Neighborland embraces eCollaboration capabilities to offer local governments a customizable portal to communicate project details and initiatives with citizens during project’s early phases. Ioby allows local nongovernmental leaders to create projects and get them crowdfunded by employing eCollaboration strategies with citizens during the planning and design phases. SeeClickFix is an eInvolving platform that allows citizens to send infrastructure maintenance requests to local government. We selected these civic technologies because they offer different functions and have been used in a variety of settings. To understand how these civic technologies are impacting specific communities we spoke with the CEOs and reviewed their technology offerings.

Neighborland

Neighborland’s communication platform allows local governments to “collaborate with their stakeholders in an accessible, participatory, and equitable way.” Local governments craft project pages that include interactive mapping tools, comment capabilities on designs, surveys, donations to projects, and built-in participation metrics. These capabilities have allowed partners to reach 10 to 100 times the number of citizens and the tool has already reached 3 million residents in the United States and Canada. In 2017, Neighborland’s CEO Dan Parham explained, “we allow organizations to listen at scale, it does empower people to say what they want.” Neighborland’s platform helped 67,000 citizens in Mesa, Arizona propose, build on, and vote on ideas for the city’s strategic planning and budgeting process. In the same year, the San Francisco Planning Department developed the Central Waterfront/Dogpatch Public Realm Plan. By engaging with residents in highly participatory workshops and online with Neighborland, residents were able to support and critique projects for investment in their neighborhood's public spaces. Early outcomes include streetscape improvements, the Dogpatch Arts Plaza, Tunnel Top Park, and the renovation of Esprit Park. Neighborland’s community-centered approach helps local governments and residents collaborate and make decisions in a new way, leading to more effective urban planning and better outcomes for the communities they serve.

ioby

ioby — “In Our BackYard” — is a civic crowdfunding platform that allows citizens to submit and fundraise for local projects. ioby’s founder, Erin Barnes, is dedicated to building community through these projects to counteract distrust between neighbors. “We want to leverage those that are interested so that people are engaged and have a positive feedback loop and do something to make change, meet face to face, that process is the meaningful part of that,” Barnes said. Unlike other civic technologies, ioby is focused on building local leadership and capacity outside of the local government. Therefore, the projects proposed on the platform are led by individuals and nongovernmental organizations. For example, the Hampline Protected Bike Lane project was proposed by the Broad Avenue Arts District, Livable Memphis (now BLDG Memphis), and the Binghampton Development Corporation. Together, these three organizations worked to raise more than $70,000 from over 450 individuals to design a protected bike lane in Memphis, Tennessee. ioby staff members worked with the project sponsors to develop online and offline engagement opportunities to build support for the project. Since this project’s success, ioby has built a stronger presence in Memphis and encouraged other local leaders to develop and crowdfund civic projects. Similarly, ioby has developed a presence in Cleveland, Detroit, and Pittsburgh. As a result, ioby’s power comes from supporting local leaders and building direct engagement with citizens. Recognizing this, local governments, including the City of Los Angeles, have partnered with ioby to provide matching funds for projects. Through these types of initiatives and one-off projects, ioby has facilitated 1,677 projects and raised over $5 million.

SeeClickFix

SeeClickFix is a web-based app and platform that enables citizens to directly participate in maintaining city infrastructure. Over the past 10 years, citizens have reported over 4.2 million issues, ranging from potholes to graffiti to illegal trash dumping, in nearly 200 cities in the United States. In 2012, Ann Arbor, Michigan officials sought out a tool to incorporate citizen feedback into maintenance processes and customer service. They found that a tool like SeeClickFix could reduce service costs from $4 to $2 per issue. SeeClickFix was able to expand the capabilities of the city’s Cityworks technology and in doing so improved city asset management. SeeClickFix’s CEO, Ben Berkowitz explained how similar cases exist in many cities: “SeeClickFix is one part a management solution and one part an engagement solution, but what we’re finding is most of the cities we talk to are looking for a better version of both.” SeeClickFix addresses perhaps the most frequently overlooked phase of infrastructure: operations/maintenance. For most citizens, participating directly in the project planning, design, and funding might be confusing or intimidating. However, there is a unified frustration in accidentally stepping into a pothole while crossing a major street. In this way, SeeClickFix might be the most approachable option as well as offer the most immediate, observable results.

Is it all Good?

Civic technology is offering more engagement opportunities during infrastructure delivery. But, implementing civic technology for infrastructure requires deep considerations by local governments. Similar to past issues with public engagement, civic technology is still vulnerable to issues of representation. Lack of internet access and literacy can impact who is able to use these new tools. Also, the availability of these technologies might continue to highlight viewpoints from extreme support and resistance to the project in question. With more transparency and citizen involvement comes more accountability between citizens and local government. If eParticipation is used for specific projects without follow-through, there is a potential for challenges and frustration from expectant citizens. Not only is it important to acknowledge this increased level of accountability, but the technical capacity needed for deploying civic technology. Many civic technology platforms boast customizable and easy-to-use interfaces. But, once the technology is transitioned to the local government, there must be adequate training and process reform to ensure the technology is adapted successfully.

The field of civic technology is relatively new. There are limited strategies to measure effectiveness of these tools. Scholars and practitioners are eager to communicate benefits, including improved efficiency and transparency. But, platforms and cities are having difficulty measuring the impacts of civic technology on infrastructure delivery. Even though civic technology platforms write case studies and provide anecdotal information to market their tools, this information does not communicate the challenges and failures that local governments face when implementing these new technologies. At the same time, the nascency of such tools means local governments are still trying to understand how to leverage and protect the enormous amount of data that civic technology tools acquire.

Despite these challenges, civic technology can streamline project delivery and better communicate citizens’ preferences for projects. And, looking forward, we see opportunities to integrate multiple civic technologies and provide full service for infrastructure delivery, from planning through operations/maintenance. With future research, we hope to discover new possibilities for using civic technology to improve local governments’ capacity for engagement and infrastructure delivery.

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Note: This research is supported by Stanford’s Center for Integrated Facility Engineering and is based on previous work by Tyler Pullen. The positioning of the civic technologies was calculated using the scoring mechanism provided here.