‘doing good’ Open Gov vs. doing ‘good Open Gov’

Earlier this month  Aspen Institute hosted a new edition of its Forum on Communications and Society (FOCAS), where a lot of bright minds reflected on the new oGov tools and platforms that encourage an informed citizenry to engage in self-governance at all levels of government.

Last week Panthea Lee reflected on her blog about this event, identifying the most important barriers to open government. She proposes several ‘next steps’ which should bring us ‘towards a new phase of the Open Gov’. The post is very much worth reading.

Among the recommendations made by Panthea there is one that is specially relevant for me: her demand for Open Gov initiatives to have a solid design which is rooted in a sophisticated understanding of their user’s specific needs.

It is not enough just to think in terms of a ‘generic citizen’ or ‘public official’. It is needed to go further and segment the characteristics and requirements of the different target users, to maximize the utility each of them gets from the tools. Panthea demands that the initiatives’ designs “empathize” with the situation and the context of its users.

Panthea’s reflections are fully aligned with the principles that drive our project to create CitYsens and also the conclusions of the PhD I presented at UAH last year. Precisely its last chapter, entitled Collaborative construction of civic software systems [es] calls for the design of Open Gov tools to be truly participatory, beyond bare rhetoric.

“As researchers we must therefore adopt a critical disposition and recognize that it is much more difficult to implement “user centricity” and make it work than just preaching about how good it is. Documents and presentations from NET-EUCEN network [1] emphasize that the “user centricity is about a mindset” [2]. Based on the results that they have achieved and the difficulties they encountered, for example, to extend their own user networks, it is clear that in this area, as in many other human affairs, the desire to have a certain attitude does not guarantee to achieve it or to have any success exercising it.

The truth is that researchers and design professionals nowadays lack sufficient methods and tools to successfully tackle these problems [3]. Projects are set up with a huge imbalance between the power of the development team, which commonly manage calendars, calendar, collaboration methodology and allocation of resources, and the users groups, which usually become an “unwanted guest” as soon as they try to overstep the boundaries established for their contribution. A project manager tends to think that users are at the service of his design, of his project, and not vice versa.

Too often designers prefer “doing good” collaboration rather than doing “good collaboration” [4], which would require them to put themselves at the service of the system’s users’ needs [4,5]. This conflict of interest causes that, for example, in projects with a strong academic component, more emphasis is put on their capacity to produce publications than on their impact on users [6]. And thus, exploratory, one-off projects and the study of concrete use-cases is priorized over long-term assessments and the study of “emerging” systems’ uses [7].

As you know, collaboration with the user groups is the cornerstone of our work:

Our collaborative model puts the interests of our users before those of the “core team”. For example, three months ago it became apparent that the social movements in Alcalá urgently needed a ‘collaborative self-managed agenda’ that would allow them to spread informations more easily. Thus, we decided to momentarily neglect our original plan, to immediately create the Agenda del Henares, the system we presented in our previous blog post. Providing technical support for this initiative is going to drain part of our scarce resources and time in the future. But it is important to persevere and be part of the initiative, because it is precisely through such engaged collaboration -which puts user needs before our own convenience- that we will get a good understanding of the users’ needs and we will earn their trust and support for CitYsens.

Unfortunately, most Open Government initiatives are born without a real connection nor a deep understanding of its users or the social and political context the system aims to affect. As Panthea’s post pointed, ignorance of “what works and what doesn’t” leads to repeat many times the same mistakes and to create systems that ultimately do not work.

One last thing. After commenting Panthea’s post on his own blog, David Sasaki lists the various funds, competitions and incubators that have been recently launched for the area of Civic Innovation. He concludes that “there is no shortage of money or experimentation happening right now” in the field.

The truth is that our civic organization has been trying to advance our initiatives with our own resources for a long time. Although we have requested funding through a variety of channels (funding programs from Spain, UE, OAS, Knight & Ashoka foundations, Avina’s Fund…) we have never been successful. One of two things: either our project is really bad, or we do not know how to explain it well, or … maybe part of the problem is that the selection criteria applied by these initiatives are not working very well, and thus many of the things that are funded are finally not as ‘cool’ as they seemed to be.

A part of my doctoral research analyzed EU’s innovation support policies in the eDemocracy field [8] and showed how several hundreds of millions of euros invested ended up generating little knowledge or impact worth mentioning.

The “techno-civic incubators”, Open Gov competitions and the new funds endowed by foundations like Omydiar clearly seem to have a greater impact and innovation capacity than the EU programs, but… are they really running optimally? Do funds really reach there where they will fructify into true sustainable social utility, or are they perhaps funding legions of “do good” apps and initiatives which, at the end, barely achieve their goals?

As Panthea wrote and David Sasaki stressed: “We need to understand what works and what doesn’t” … “to ensure that the wheel isn’t continuously re-invented… whether it works or not”. Something that applies to civic initiatives as well as to the mechanisms used to support their emergence and spreading.

[1] Network of European stakeholders for enhanced [sic] User Centricity in eGovernance.
[2] Berntzen, L. (2011). “User-Centric eGovernment”, Presentado en User-Centric eServices Workshop. Bruselas: Comisión Europea.
[3] Gidlund, K. L. (2012). One for All, All for One – Performing Citizen Driven Development of Public E-Services. In E. Tambouris, A. Macintosh, & H. Bruijn (Eds.), LNCS 6847. Proceedings of ePart 2011 (págs. 240-251). Springer.
[4] Davies, T. (2009), Doing Good Solidarity, Chiapas Update (pp. 1-2). Oakland: Chiapas Support Committee. Davies diferentiates, actually, between ‘doing good’ solidarity  and doing ‘good solidarity’.
[5] Akkermans, H., Gyan, N. B., Bon, A., Tuyp, W., Grewal, A., Boyera, S., & Allen, M. (2011). Is (Web) Science Ready for Empowerment? Proceedings of the ACM WebSci’11 (pp. 1–7). Koblenz, Germany.
[6] Kyng, M. (2010). Bridging the Gap Between Politics and Techniques: On the next practices of participatory design. Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems, 22(1).
[7] Heyer, C., & Brereton, M. (2010). Design from the everyday: continuously evolving, embedded exploratory prototypes. Proceedings of 8th ACM Conference on Designing Interactive Systems. Aarhus, DK: ACM Press.
[8] Prieto-Martín, P., de Marcos, L., Martínez, J.J. (2012) The e-(R)evolution will not be funded: An interdisciplinary and critical analysis of thedevelopments and troubles of EU-funded eParticipation, European Journal of ePractice, 15, 62-89

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