Secure and fair democracies need engaged and informed citizens. One of the many benefits of the internet has been to make it easier for people to get involved in political processes and engage with organisations like their local councils.
A key facet of this is what’s been christened ‘civic tech’ – using the internet to help people connect with government (national and local), hold their politicians to account, help local councils deliver better services and importantly, help citizens engage with what’s going on near them as well as in the wider world. In a nutshell – civic tech helps people to be active citizens.
Civic tech isn’t a fringe activity. Our services in the UK are visited by over 10 million people each year, becoming increasingly vital to how society works, and providing routes to participation that simply couldn’t have existed thirty years ago. With internet use now nearly ubiquitous (90% of households in Great Britain have access to the internet according to the ONS, and Ofcom says 78% of us have a smartphone), civic tech smooths the path for those who want to be active citizens.
Take FixMyStreet as an example. This service allows anyone to report an issue like graffiti, fly tipping, broken paving slabs or street lighting that’s not working. People can report through the web site or use a smartphone app.
FixMyStreet collects thousands of reports from citizens each week, and these are sent to the right people in each local authority for them to act on. After ten years of running the service we know that the best way to get a problem fixed is to ensure the whole process is as automated as possible. So our FixMyStreet Pro service integrates with all of the important council back end systems, reducing call volumes in some cases by over 20%, minimising failure demand and saving everyone lots of time and hassle.
Or how about WhatDoTheyKnow. Through this website anyone can submit a Freedom of Information request. There have been more than half a million requests made through the site, to more than 23,000 public bodies. All of the requests – and responses - can be browsed by anybody, putting information that’s been made available through FOI at everyone’s fingertips.
Recently we’ve been working on a Freedom of Information management system for councils, to help them better manage their handling of requests made directly to them through their own web sites and to improve the quality of those requests to make it easier to respond with exactly what’s been asked for.
This is up and running at Hackney Council’s website. The system flags up similar request to citizens so that they can see if their question has already been answered. If citizens find what they need, they might choose not submit their request, and this reduces council officers’ workloads. Workloads are further reduced if the suggestions flag up already existing public information that can be used to respond to requests. And we’ve designed the data capture forms so that requests go straight into the council’s case management system, so there’s no need for any re-keying.
These are just two examples from our own wide portfolio of services. There are many others, some of which we explored in our recent TicTec Local event in Manchester, and the sector is constantly growing both in the number of services on offer and the breadth of areas they cover.
Civic tech can enhance civic participation for millions of people, making it possible for them to collectively participate in the policy and practice of governments, and ultimately contribute to a more equitable, democratic and sustainable society. In the current climate, where council budgets are increasingly tight, civic tech can often achieve what seems to be an impossible goal - giving both citizens and councils better outcomes.
Mark Cridge is chief executive mySociety