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DL Seminar | Civic Engagement
  • Digital Life Initiative

DL Seminar | Civic Technology and Democracy

Updated: Jan 8, 2019

By Rongxin Zhang | Information Science Student, Cornell Tech


Illustration by Gary Zamchick

DL Seminar Speaker Beth Simone Noveck

Why is transparency and engagement not enough for political engagement? How can we develop legitimacy within the political systems and what does it mean to participate in a democracy? NYU Professor Beth Noveck and director of NYU’s Govlab explains why civic engagement and modern democracies require more than just transparency and mass-participation along with possible solutions to these questions.


In early 2009, as the United State’s first deputy CTO, she aided President Obama in the creation of a “Citizen’s Briefings Book.” The goal of the project was for the Obama’s transition to be open and transparent. The project enabled visitors of change.gov to submit suggestions on “what Obama should do in the first 100 days”. In a short period of time, 84,000 suggestions were created and over 500,000 votes were collected for various topics. However, after all the effort of collecting this invaluable data, and the dust settled, these suggestions were printed on to paper and stapled into a book which was handed to President Obama several weeks later. It was unclear whether any meaningful actions were taken as a result of this process.


This is an example of where transparency alone is not enough. Without the ability and motivation to act on the data, transparency merely becomes a boiler-plate slogan. Transparency should enable the co-operation between citizens and their governments. It should promote co-create of policies of agendas. An example of this is the “Mapton” project in which people from all over Mexico co-created an open database to help make the public transport networks more efficient and accessible. Therefore, the question isn’t about transparency, its about how the government can connect citizens to real decisions making processes. This is the dream, but as the speaker admitted, it is unclear how one can achieve this at scale.


Citizen participation is closely related to legitimacy and legitimacy creates trust. Students in Noveck’s class still trust platforms like Facebook more than their governments, even with the knowledge of the recent Cambridge Analytics events. So what does it mean for a decision to be legitimate then? In current democratic systems, legitimacy is a procedural matter. For instance, presidential elections are a procedure to find a “legitimate” leader within a democratic state. As long as the process is correct and no foul play is found, people that participated in this procedure should accept the outcome. However, Noveck argues that procedural legitimacy based on voting is a coarse systems. It maybe better to have experts decide on topics such as global warming than for the public to vote. Thus, Noveck argues that legitimacy should be rooted in the concept of effectiveness, where whether something is legitimate should be determined by its ability to achieve its intended goals.


Finally, in the last section of the talk, Noveck explained the importance of experimentation in improving not only civic engagement but also political process in general. There are still open questions on how to develop experimentation framework for testing in the wild. What variables should be measured and what is the role of private enterprises in these issues? In closing, Noveck passed around a large bronze coin. This is a physical copy of a new “civic cryptocurrency” (not the civic identity platform cvc token) that some states are creating to incentives its citizens to participate in political processes. Is this a solution to the problem or are we just digging ourselves into a deeper hole? I think, its best to be pessimistically optimistic.

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