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Civic Technology and the Pursuit of Happiness

Government's work should not end with making happy customers. That's where it should begin.

What does it mean for people to be engaged in the work of a city? From land use planning to the distribution of social services, when and how should people interface with government? Government leaders often lament the lack of engagement, the lack of diversity of those who do show up and a general lack of understanding of what people might want from government today.

“Citizens want to trust that government can get things done,” officials say. “They want to be satisfied with the services it provides.” In their view, customer satisfaction should be a central indicator for local government, especially as digital channels allow for more tracking and customization. Satisfied customers are happy citizens.

But therein lies the problem. Within the civic tech community, there is a slow and steady conflation of two distinct discourses: consumer technology and citizenship. Citizenship in the 21st century, the argument goes, demands new levels of customer service with corresponding expectations of government responsiveness; happiness is satisfaction with that responsiveness.

But, happiness, for which the Declaration of Independence guarantees the right to pursue, is not a fixed state. It is a potential, towards which every citizen should have the freedom to aspire. As soon as this freedom is characterized as a specific state of being, it becomes saturated with values and norms, and represents a limiting and manipulative logic. So when government officials ponder the definition of 21st century citizenship, marked by the promise of increasingly usable services through good technology design, they should avoid confusing the satisfied customer with the happy citizen.

What it means to be a citizen (not in terms of legality, but in terms of belonging) is changing. Sociologist Michael Schudson sees the “informed citizen” model giving way to a “rights-bearing” one. Communication scholar Lance Bennett points to a shift away from the “dutiful” citizen, wherein people engage out of duty, towards a “self-actualizing” citizen, wherein people’s motivations are much more personal and self-directed. The evidence is fairly clear that these transformations are taking place, including an increased distrust in institutions of all sorts (especially government), fueled by (but not caused by) new digital channels of participation and corresponding expectations of interaction and responsiveness.

But there is an important difference between a rights bearing, self-actualizing citizen and a happy customer. One is about self-definition and the other is about the quality of a transaction. And while consumer brands try hard to confuse these things (your phone and your clothes define you), government should resist the urge to do so. Citizenship is not simply the sum of good transactions. It is the freedom to compose selfhood, in public and with others, with all the necessary opportunities and capacities.

The role of local government, while necessarily focused on the smooth delivery of services, need also consider the “whole citizen” to whom those services are delivered. Government should facilitate the pursuit of happiness. Put another way, it should provide people the platforms they need to connect with, act on, and generate meaning.

So what does this mean in practical terms? Government leaders and technologists should continue to strive to make transactions efficient -- improving how obligations and services are communicated (i.e. paying parking tickets, clarifying service provision, etc.) and increasing opportunities for co-production (i.e. 311 systems, feedback tools, etc.). Indeed, this will make the user experience of government better. It might even make people happy. But government’s responsibilities should not end with making happy customers. That’s where it should begin. The transaction is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Sadly, one of the unanticipated consequences of the recent popularity of civic technology, and the allure of big data, is a systematic blindness to the responsibility of government to cultivate dialogue, meaning and dissent.

Elsewhere, I have called this meaningful inefficiencies, where government systems are designed such that users have the option to play within and with rules, not simply to play out prescribed tasks. This is distinct from mere inefficiencies, where systems are simply not designed well and users experience confusion caused by poor design or lag in the system (think about the spinning beach ball on your computer).

The work that the cities are doing as part of the City Accelerator cohort on public engagement veers towards meaningful inefficiencies. For example, the City of Albuquerque, in its attempt to better source and provide resources for immigrant entrepreneurs, has launched a series of community “deep dives” with the mayor and several “design-thinking” workshops to harness the collective concerns and creative energy of the population. 

This cohort is focused on building conversations and collaborative design events so as to invent better services, rather than simply picking the most time-efficient means of getting a minimally viable product. The City of Baltimore, for example, is seeking to understand gaps in service delivery and communications impacting people transitioning out of prison. To do so, they have organized peer-led focus groups and design sessions, and are more interested in cultivating community and networks than they are in simply building efficiencies.The city, through its co-design process, has realized that mere efficiencies developed outside of community connections and trust, will go unused.

If government is truly committed to enabling self-actualizing citizens to pursue happiness, then it needs to build platforms, tools and processes that allow for it. Happiness might mean a sense of justice, a sense of community or a sense of place. It is the experience of some kind of perceived resolution. Government need not provide this for people; but it does need to provide the context in which people are able to seek it out for themselves.

I’ll end with four prompts for designing meaningful inefficiencies: 

1. Think beyond transactions.

Some systems need to have opportunities for people to connect, share, and reflect. And if all government is transactional, it is a lost opportunity.
2. Think about how to move good transactions with government services into positive and lasting actions in the public realm.

Voting is a single transaction, but the public discourse around it extends into a myriad of platforms and processes. Can we think about other transactional instances with government, like paying parking tickets or reporting potholes, as openings to generative dialogue and collaboration?

3. Big data is awesome, but don’t forget small data.
Big data can lead to predictive analytics, but in all of our enthusiasm around access to large data sets, we shouldn’t ignore the qualitative and the small data sets – the stuff that provides nuance, narrative, and cultural relevance.

4. Happiness is not about achieving justice, but about having the freedom to pursue it.
Don’t get hung up on technologically enabled outcomes. Democracy is a slow burn and technology can build capacity for long-term goals.

Follow the work of the City Accelerator (#CityAccelerator) to see how five cities are building better government through meaningfully inefficient processes.













Leader of City Accelerator's cohort on Local Government Engagement
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