Participatory Citizenship

Assignment: Find and describe 3 digital tools that can be used to promote participatory citizenship. For each tool, describe how it works, and then analyze if it works.

Tool 1: See Click Fix

How does it work? SeeClickFix streamlines the process of citizen complaints, and allows citizens to more easily draw government officials’ attention to problems in communities. Smartphone apps allow citizens to capture problems and send them instantly to the correct place for attention. This is what the interface looks like:

Screen shot of a See Click Fix interface. A citizen in New Haven, Connecticut reports a problem, the Department of Public Works responds, and the problem is fixed.
Example of SeeClickFix being used in New Haven; turning complaints into gratitude. Source: Gizmodo.

SeeClickFix operates under three basic principles: empowerment, efficiency, and engagement. Citizens are empowered to report problems and assist government officials in creating better communities. SeeClickFix is efficient because “distributed sensing is particularly powerful at recognizing patterns,” making it easier for government officials to identify trends and problems. Lastly, citizens who take the time to report issues will be more engaged in their community, which creates a “self-reinforcing loop.” It makes the process of submitting a complaint a more user-friendly experience. As founder of SeeClickFix explains, instead of making a user feel like a narc, SeeClickFix rewards them. “The government wants to talk to you,” said founder Berkowitz. “You’re not being an asshole, you’re actually helping out.”Image from See Click Fix website that describes their process: 1) Capture or document issues you see in your community, 2) report the issues to let the neighborhood know, and 3) communicate with your community and government through the mobile app.

But does it work? SeeClickFix reports that over 2,271,448 problems have been fixed as a result of their technology. Cities like Minneapolis, Decatur, Houston, and New Haven use SeeClickFix. It’s used in almost 300 citizens and according to this article by Gizmodo, its requests see an 86% fix rate. Of course, the power of this tool is limited by (1) the number of citizens who are willing to engage and use the app, and (2) the responsiveness of government officials.

Tool 2: Open Secrets

How does it work? OpenSecrets.org is a website run by the Center for Responsive Politics. This describes the center’s mission:Text block that describes the Center's mission, which is to "inform, empower, and advocate." Nonpartisan, independent, and nonprofit, the Center for Responsive Politics is the nation's premier research group tracking money in US politics and its effect on elections and public policy. OUR VISION is for Americans, empowered by access to clear and unbiased information about money's role in politics and policy, to use that knowledge to strengthen our democracy. OUR MISSION is to produce and disseminate peerless data and analysis on money in politics to inform and engage Americans, champion transparency, and expose disproportionate or undue influence on public policy.

OpenSecrets provides voters, reporters, and others with hard data about money in politics. It looks at spending by interest groups, super PACs, political nonprofits, federal lobbying, “dark money,” and personal finances of government officials. By gathering and reporting data, OpenSecrets works to make government more transparent. For example, they just rolled out an iPhone app (“Dollarocracy”) that tracks spending on campaign ads. Among other things, the Center tracks anomalies in campaign finance, creates easy-to-read fact sheets on campaign finance issues for voters, and offers their data for scholars to use in performing robust academic research.

But does it work? According to the website, in 2012, OpenSecrets recorded nearly 35 million pageviews from 5 million distinct visitors. It has received high praise from news reports and academic sources. According to the New York Times, “The Center for Responsive Politics is a rare thing in Washington. It does the heavy lifting of true research, not just spinning information.” I think the most useful part of OpenSecrets.org is the place where you can look up your own representatives. For example, I looked up the data for 2014 Congressional election in Alaska, and here’s what it looks like:

Screen Shot of OpenSecrets.Org search for Alaska Congressional Races in 2014. It shows that Senator March Begich (D) raised over $10 million, while Dan Sullivan (R) raised $7 million.

If you click on “Dan Sullivan,” it takes you to this page, which breaks down all sorts of information about Sullivan’s spending and finances, such as these two pieces of info:

Chart that shows the top 5 contributors and top 5 industries who contributed to Dan Sullivan's campaign from 2013 to 2016. Screen Shot 2016-07-16 at 12.32.08 PM

Transparency is critical for a democracy, and OpenSecrets.org helps promote transparency in campaign finance. This data can prove invaluable for news agencies and academics, but… given that most Americans probably don’t have their own finances in order, I am doubtful that the average citizen really cares about campaign finance or has the motivation to sift through data and use it to make voting decisions. However, for the motivated citizen, this could be a really valuable tool in terms of making informed voting decisions.

Tool 3: Volunteer Match

How does it work? VolunteerMatch “brings good people and good causes together.” Right away on the homepage, you see a search window like this (obviously adjusted for your particular location).

Screen Shot of VolunteerMatch.Org showing a search bar that allows you to search for issues you care about, or browse major issues like advocacy and human rights, animals, and school development.

This database allows you to search for volunteer opportunities that match your particular interests and skills. You can search options by local/virtual and select any of these causes:

Screenshot from volunteermatch.org that shows the entire list of cause areas available on the website, which include arts and culture, children and youth, community, emergency and safety, environment, race and ethnicity, women, and many more.

For example, I searched near my location and found opportunities to bake cakes for people in hospice, host an international exchange student, teach English as a second language, help a small nonprofit with marketing and communications, and a lot more. However, I do imagine this tool is particularly useful in larger metropolitan areas. You may not be able to find as many opportunities in small towns.

These are some stats on VolunteerMatch’s success:

Screenshot from VolunteerMatch.Org which shows important statistics on the website's success: over 100,000 participating organizations, over 11 million volunteers matched, and over 100,000 volunteer opportunities available.

But does it work?  I like the fact that you can actually find volunteer positions that take advantage of your professional skills– if you’re a marketing professional, you can volunteer to help with marketing; if you’re good with kids, you can find opportunities that will allow you to use those skills, etc. This could actually be pretty beneficial to volunteer as well as service agency, since you are building your own resume/skill set while helping your community.

Too, volunteerism and community connection is actually a critical part of participatory citizenship. Citizens who get involved are more likely to care and get involved in other areas of politics and community (that “self-reinforcing loop” mentioned in the See Click Fix description). Democracy depends on a citizenry that knows how to compromise and communicate, and civil society participation (like volunteering) can help foster those values.

In Summary…

I intentionally chose different categories of civic engagement– civic reporting (SeeClickFix), government transparency (OpenSecrets), and civil society building (VolunteerMatch). Tons of apps and websites exist for each of these types of categories, and more! Hope you have a chance to check some of them out for yourself.

Score: 10/10

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