Five lessons from investing in civic tech

communities / Article

Last year, Knight Foundation profiled the rapidly growing field of civic tech in a report titled “The Emergence of Civic Tech,” capturing $695 million of investments made between 2011 and 2013 to organizations using technology to spur citizen engagement, increase government effectiveness and strengthen cities. Many were excited by the high volume of activity and investment in civic tech and the promise of this growing community.

RELATED LINKS:

• Assessing Civic Tech: Case Studies and Resources for Tracking Outcomes 

• What does the civic tech landscape look like?

JONATHAN SOTSKY

While investment is clear, impact is not. Practitioners and funders alike have lamented the struggle to measure the effectiveness of new civic tech tools, including how they promote civic engagement, social capital and ultimately more participative local democracies.

To that end, Knight supported Network Impact to publish a civic tech evaluation guide. “Assessing Civic Tech” features tips, tools and metrics for measuring important outcomes. We hope this will be treated as an initial step in advancing better measurement in the sector and that more sophisticated approaches will develop over time.

In addition to supporting stronger evaluation of civic tech, Knight also recently took stock of lessons from its support for civic tech over the past five years.  Here are five overarching lessons:

1. Avoid the fallacy of pent-up demand for civic engagement

Knight funded several new platforms which used the following logic: People care about civic issues and want to get involved BUT they don’t know how to engage SO we need to build a new tech platform where people go to civically engage.

The underlying assumption that new platforms would tap into pent-up demand for civic engagement has simply not borne out. Projects framed as generalist platforms for engagement without a specific issue area or target audience largely failed to catch on (Change by Us, Citizen Effect, Citizen Logistics, Jumo, LikeMinded and SoChange). The most successful grantees generally succeeded by either identifying a specific need (e.g., TurboVote focused on simplifying the voter registration process) or targeted a specific audience (e.g., Do Something concentrated on teens).

On the contrary, many projects discovered the thing that attracted users most was the opportunity to meet new people and form social connections, not to civically engage. This was true for Front Porch Forum, which discovered users must connect informally on more day-to-day issues and develop trust before taking more substantial action related to strengthening their community. Others would be wise to prioritize social capital before targeting social impact.

2. Beware destination websites

New civic tech platforms designed as standalone websites generally struggled to attract and sustain users. Most people’s time online revolves around social media sites and websites that generate a lot of fresh content, not sites designed for occasional involvement in civic causes.

Projects that developed sizable Web traffic often did so through referral traffic from partners with heavy Web traffic. For example, Do Something was featured on the sites of high-profile media organizations (e.g., MTV, Univision, AOL and “American Idol”) and also had success capturing referral traffic from banner ads on sites that reached its core teen demographic such as Fastweb, an online scholarship warehouse.

Beyond just generating traffic, Do Something also takes steps to weigh how engaged its users are and only considers as members those who participated in a campaign during the prior six months. Similarly, Front Porch Forum stratifies its members into three levels of activity based on their frequency of posting on the forums. For these and other successful sites, “active” users trump total visitors.

3. Run a strong ground game

Online engagement hardly precludes the need to consider offline tactics. Grantees overwhelmingly emphasized the importance of a strong physical presence in the community for recruiting and engaging residents.

E-Democracy primarily drove registrations of its forums in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., through on-the-ground tactics, including partnering with local organizations (e.g., libraries), attending local events and organizing door-knocking campaigns. These offline efforts ultimately generated a far more diverse set of users than many civic tech platforms have experienced (E-Democracy published insights from its user survey here.

For civic tech platforms looking to scale across multiple communities, forming strong local partnerships and providing partners with turnkey solutions was crucial. For example, TurboVote’s strong collaboration with community colleges has been essential to signing up tens of thousands of college students. TurboVote provided college partners with standardized support that increased the effectiveness of its partners, including an implementation plan and a customized website to track sign-up rates and key metrics for their schools.

4. Convert chatter into conversation

Several online community forums sought to promote more engagement by starting conversation threads in the hope that users would build upon them. While seeding discussion topics on forums in the early days is often necessary, the more valuable role sites have played has been curating conversation between their members. Curating conversation, rather than carrying it, leads to more long-term authentic engagement.

Community PlanIt has successfully experimented with a few tactics for encouraging more frequent and stronger exchanges between residents through social gaming. First, players (i.e. individual residents) are not allowed to see the comments of others until they submit comments, which incentivizes them to participate. Community PlanIt uses visual cues on the game overview screen to color code popular threads (determined by likes and replies), drawing attention to those discussions. It also sends players alerts when someone responds or “likes” one of their comments, which encourages these players to re-engage with the game and seek out the ideas of others.

5. Secure commitments from decision-makers to provide validation

Residents offering their time and feedback through new tools still want to know that their input can make a difference and that local government will consider it. Otherwise, these deliberative democracy-planning tools merely provide “more opinions to ignore.”

Given the importance of decision-maker participation, projects have sought their commitment from the outset. This sometimes has taken the form of signing a contract or memorandum of understanding at the outset, while in other cases this has meant securing financial commitments to the project. Community PlanIt has observed that the size of the financial commitment made by the local institution to fund the social impact game has been a strong indicator of how active the local partners would be during the project. Formal commitment or not, most projects cited the fundamental importance of securing a project champion within local government as a precursor to the effectiveness of their project.

Jonathan Sotsky is director of strategy and assessment for Knight Foundation.

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