Menu Close

Investing in people not tools: how to fulfill the promise of ‘civic tech’

No tech here… Stack of hands image via

Foundation essay: This article is part of a series marking the launch of The Conversation in the US. Our foundation essays are longer than our usual comment and analysis articles and take a wider look at key issues affecting society.

Can the internet be used to improve how democracy is practiced around the world?

Micah Sifry, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, issued the latest salvo in this lively debate with his provocative book, The Big Disconnect: Why the Internet Hasn’t Transformed Politics (Yet). He argues that despite optimistic predictions at the dawn of the twenty-first century, the internet has failed to transform politics and shift power to ordinary citizens. Meanwhile, thousands of social activists around the world–from Loomio to SeeClickFix to ActionPath to mySociety–are trying to develop what they call “civic tech,” or internet tools that enable citizens to more easily influence the public arena.

Missing from many of these conversations about civic tech is a fundamental truth about the tools that do enable change. Tools are at their most powerful when they transform people’s agency, or their capacity to act to achieve their goals. Having this capacity depends on a complex mix of competence, motivation, and autonomy: people have to know how to act on their goals, want to act on them, and have the space to be able to do so.

Too many of the civic tech tools available today simply enable participation by lowering the costs of engagement for people who already have the capacity to act. They do nothing to build that capacity among people who do not yet have it. Civic tech, therefore, is limited in its reach. Why does does this matter? Three stories from the world of business, health, and politics, illustrate the importance of transforming people’s capacity to act.

Why are some companies more profitable than others?

In 1982, Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr. first published their book, In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies. The book became an immediate best-seller, and has since been named “one of the top three business books of the century” by NPR, one of the “greatest business books of all time” by Bloomsbury UK, and was republished in a new edition in 2004.

The book distills lessons Peters and Waterman learned from studying forty-three of the most successful for-profit companies in America. What did they learn? At the heart of their argument was the notion that the most successful companies invested in developing the capacity of their workers. These companies would “foster many leaders and many innovators throughout the organization,” and “treat the rank and file as the root source of quality and productivity gain.” These companies succeeded, in other words, by transforming their employees’ capacity to act: they worked to create happy environments, to give employees voice throughout the organization, and to equip them with the skills to develop their own strategy. By developing the competence, motivation, and autonomy of their employees, these businesses improved their bottom line.

How do HIV-positive individuals learn to manage their illness?

For the past several years, sociologist Celeste Watkins-Hayes at Northwestern University has been studying a racially and economically diverse group of HIV-positive women in the Chicago area to understand how they manage both their health and economic situations.

Among one group of thirty HIV-positive African American women, she finds that they learned to transition from a sense that they were “dying from” AIDS to the sense that they were “living with” HIV. The crucial factor in making this transition Watkins-Hayes argues, is the existence of organizational ties that helped them develop their capacity to cope with their illness.

Many of the women in Watkins-Hayes’ study had struggled with homelessness, joblessness, and other deprivation in their lives. For them an HIV-diagnosis “was not the worst thing that had ever happened to me.” In fact, ironically, it was the HIV diagnosis that enabled them to turn their lives around and develop previously elusive stability.

Three-fourths of the women in Watkins-Hayes’ study reported “not only surviving but thriving despite being HIV positive.” Their HIV diagnosis made these women eligible for a host of institutional supports – bus passes to get around the city, housing communities for people with terminal illness, health support to manage diet and addition – that gave them the skills and autonomy they had previously lacked. Women who had previously lived in unstable neighborhoods moved into more stable environments and learned to manage their health. These institutional supports, in other words, helped these women develop the skills, motivation, and autonomy they needed to manage their own health.

Why are some organizations able to develop more activists than others?

The lessons learned from Peters and Waterman’s study of business or Watkins-Hayes’ study of health translate to politics as well.

In my recent book How Organizations Develop Activists: Civic Associations and Leadership in the 21st Century, I discuss the results of a study comparing the organizations in the United States best at getting people involved in health and environmental politics to those that are not as good.

Some people would argue that inspiring activism depends on having a charismatic leader, a catchy message, or better capabilities to harness big data and technology to target likely activists. While all these things matter, I found what really differentiated the high-engagement organizations from their low-engagement counterparts was their ability to transform people’s motivations and capacities for engaging in activism.

Everyone’s a leader. Jason Reed/Reuters

In the same vein of inquiry, Elizabeth McKenna and I wrote a book examining why the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns were able to engage more people in their campaign than any other in history.

What we found was that the Obama campaign, unlike those that had preceded it, invested in developing the leadership of volunteers who were interested in getting involved. Thus, in the months leading up the election, the campaign did not just hold its organizers responsible for the number of doors they knocked or voters they called. Organizers also had to attest to the number of people they recruited to leadership positions and the number of people they trained.

Whether we are talking about a campaign to elect the president, or the effort to build a social movement around climate change, what united these political organizations was their ability to transform the motivations, skills, and capacities of their activists.

So what?

Whether you want to build a successful business, improve people’s health, or engage people in activism, a fundamental truth about people emerges: people are more likely to succeed when they have the tools that develop their agency or their capacity to act on their goals.

Stated so simply, the truth seems self-evident, but civic tech often underestimates its importance. In the age of big data, it is often more efficient to find people who already have agency – because they grew up in politically active families, because they had role models, because they are part of other transformative organizations – than it is to do the hard work of developing that capacity in people.

For civic tech to transform politics in the way that many hoped at the dawn of the twenty-first century, it will have to learn how to develop tools that develop people’s agency in the same way that successful organizations in business, health, and politics have.

It turns out that, regardless of the tools we use or the sectors within which we work, people are people are people.

Civic tech would be well served to invest not only in developing the tools themselves, but also the people who use those tools.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 185,600 academics and researchers from 4,982 institutions.

Register now