open lab blog
PhD student Dan Richardson talks about the thin line digital civics walks when working in the context of austerity.
Much of my research takes place as a part of the ‘Digital Civics Agenda’. This post gives a brief synopsis on what Digital Civics is about, and why we as researchers and technology developers need to be aware of how our work can be interpreted in a wider political context.
What is the Digital Civics Research Agenda?
As a result of the economic crisis and resulting austerity measures enacted by the UK government over the last decade, many local authorities have been forced to implement severe cuts to their public services (including–but not limited to–waste management, transport, parks and recreation, education and social care).
Olivier and Wright developed the Digital Civics research agenda at Culture Lab (later renamed to Open Lab, where my research took place) as a direct response to these developments, claiming that as a research group in a civic university (one which is ‘embedded in, and responsive to, its local context’) they were ‘compelled’ to reflect on how their HCI research could be of use and value to the local authorities and citizens.
Prior to the Digital Civics agenda, Culture Lab’s research had been human-centred and participatory, providing systems and services which were both meaningful and helpful. However, they reflected that their work had been detached from the local context—the research often ‘failed to extend beyond the confines’ of their projects, meaning that it frequently could have been done anywhere.
They also realised that they were only working within (and, as a result, proliferating) the status quo of service delivery from institution to citizens: they were giving people some input on the design of products, but in a way which still supported the framing of public services as being something ‘done to’ citizens without providing any alternative models.
Digital Civics moves away from framing citizens as consumers and towards a model where citizens can take an active role within participatory systems, thanks to new forms of relationships between citizens, businesses and local authorities.
Olivier and Wright admit that meaningful, systemic change such as this will take significant amounts of time. Even within the smaller scope of research projects, they posit that the development of long-term relationships between researchers, citizens and local authorities will be necessary if new relational models are to be realised and the potential roles for technology within them discovered.
The Context Behind Digital Civics
Olivier and Wright note that there is also a danger of the Digital Civics agenda being warped or misconstrued as ‘finding ways of making citizens do it for themselves, or dismantling public service provision’. Digital Civics was imagined in the context of a period of austerity.
As a part of this, many changes were put in place by the UK’s conservative government under the guise of localism—part of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ initiative which purportedly aimed to give local authorities the power to undertake local solutions to local problems, rather than continue to centralise power in Parliament. This agenda was ratified in the Localism Act of 2011, which de-regulated and/or removed many of the constraints related to local issues of housing and taxes, and coincided with a number of austerity measures put onto public services and placing greater emphasis on volunteerism.
While the principle of de-centralisation was seen as agreeable across much of the political spectrum, the ‘Big Society’ approach was met with public scepticism. Polls found that over half of respondents thought that the Big Society measures were `just an excuse’ to save money by cutting public services, and that only around 10% thought that Big Society would be a success.
Furthermore, while the restructuring put in place by localism measures relied on more pro-active and engaged citizenship from the public, some argued that not enough resources were allocated to supporting this citizenship actually occurring.
As Ben Rogers argued at the time: “Most of the political problems [the Prime Minister] faces, from cutting crime to reducing obesity, can only be met if residents and citizens play their part. Yet the state has so far invested very little in teaching the skills that could help people make a contribution”.
This lack of support meant that citizens who wanted to take advantage of the powers given by the Localism Act in areas such as town planning had to invest considerable time and effort, as their output was to be judged to the same level as professionals. These expectations of large amounts of free time for research and volunteering would exclude many from the empowerment promised by the legislation, particularly those who had already been most impacted by cuts to social services and were likely to be time-poor.
How I Frame Digital Civics
It is within this context of volunteerism in the stead of well-funded public services that Digital Civics must walk a thin line: between supporting citizens living in the results of austerity and supporting the austerity measures themselves. While in some cases there may be a danger of Digital Civics projects being seen to re-configure the services provided by local authorities to enable a ‘small government’ model, this is is not the intention of the agenda (at least, as I have read it).
This libertarian approach (in the contemporary and primarily American sense) is completely contrary to the motivations behind starting the research agenda in the first place: mitigating the damage done by conservative austerity politics upon public services.
Instead, Digital Civics projects should aim to strengthen relationships between citizens and local service providers: instead of reducing the role government has within the lives of each citizen and relying on a `DIY’ approach, it should aim to empower citizens to have more involvement and agency within their government’s processes.
This key distinction means that rather than designing in preparation for the permanent loss of public services, Digital Civics technologies should work to mitigate hardships inflicted by austerity measures in a way which also implements improvements for when these measures eventually come to an end.
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