Public Sector Principles for Encouraging and Supporting Innovation in Democratic Participation

This post was originally published by the Brookings Institution blog TechTank as a series from Hollie Russon Gilman (read part one and part two). A Civic Innovation Fellow at the New America Foundation, Russon Gilman is tracking and studying tech innovations in democratic participation across the country. In this post she observes a set of key principles held by successful government innovators and then explores the modernization of elections as an example of how one might apply those principles. Russon Gilman is a regular contributor to the Challenges to Democracy blog, including pieces on New York’s Talking Transition and Boston’s youth participatory budgeting (updated here).


By Hollie Russon Gilman

It isn’t easy to innovate in governance. Bureaucracy can be hidebound. The private sector’s lean startup model, with its “fail forward” ethos, is antithetical to government as we know it. Electorates are not tolerant of failure, and voter confidence in government is at an all time low. In a 2013, more people listed government dysfunction as the problem they believe is the country’s most serious challenge. Given these headwinds, it’s not surprising that many officials resist the experimentation and risk necessary to innovate.

However, partly in response to this same citizen disaffection, a new wave of participatory policy reforms is springing up across the United States. This includes New Urban Mechanics in Boston and Philadelphia piloting experiments to engage citizens with City Hall to Participatory Budgeting, a process to enlist citizens as decision makers on public budgets. While the civic experiments differ in form, they reflect common principles in action that offer lessons for policy makers considering their own civic innovations.

Don’t Reinvent the Wheel. Instead of thinking about new laws, create innovation within existing institutional structures. For example, the U.S. already has a regulations comment and notice period. Instead of creating a new apparatus for citizen engagement, improve on existing structures such as This requires an investigatory, opportunistic approach to finding areas ripe for improvement and putting new tools to use.

When people apply the lens of innovation to existing structures, even small improvements can lead to more significant shifts by informing a new playbook that officials can replicate and scale.

Take a Hybrid Approach. Government cannot do it alone. Instead, find opportunities for non-government actors to contribute to governance. This can include public-private partnerships or leveraging the talent of universities. Citizens themselves are also a great, and often underutilized, repository of talent and local knowledge.

For example, Adopt a Hydrant is a Code for America project that enables citizens to take responsibility for shoveling out fire hydrants after heavy snowfall.

Collaboration Instead of Competition. The first mover advantage that is so critical in the private sector does not apply to the public sector. Innovation is most likely to spread when governments across localities work together to share lessons learned and best practices.

For example, Chicago is building an open source predictive analytics tool that other governments can use to translate open data to improve service delivery. This approach empowers citizens across geographic boundaries.

Government will never function like a Silicon Valley startup. But each of these observations – building on existing structures, enlisting the private sector, and sharing lessons—helps lower barriers.

What do these principles look like in practice?

Technology has transformed how the two major political parties compete for votes, from how campaigns receive donations to how they target voters. Yet we have not seen a commensurate civic-minded effort aimed at transforming voting processes and elections to empower citizens. Although voters often now tap a screen instead of punching a ballot, the act of voting otherwise remains relatively unchanged over the past several decades—even as technology remakes political campaigns.

As suggested above, governance innovations will be most successful when working within existing institutional structures. Elections, the wellspring of leaders’ and institutions’ democratic legitimacy, could also benefit from tapping into the energy and potential of technology and innovation.

One critical measure of successful elections is whether citizens feel equipped with information. This includes everything from where elected officials stand on key policy arenas to who is running and where to vote. Unfortunately, this information is scattered across many sources. A range of innovations, from open data API’s to new mobile apps are working to more effectively increase access to information.

One example is TurboVote. After signing up, a user will receive customized information on relevant voting rules, deadlines, and forms. All the voter has to do is drop them in the mail. This model suggests that providing easy access to information can reduce barriers to voting.

Even when citizens are empowered with information about elections, there is the further challenge of getting people to the polls. Nations handle this differently. Australia has compulsory voting. Some countries make Election Day a public holiday. Many countries host elections on Saturdays or Sundays. Thirty U.S. states, as well as the District of Columbia, now have the option for a mail in ballot.

Political scientists Donald Green and Alan Gerber have conducted experiments demonstrating that personalized messages are most effective in voter mobilization. Google launched a pledge website for India’s elections. Here people can take a personal pledge to vote and learn about their candidates. These examples suggest that creative and customized approaches can encourage people to get out to the polls.

Finally, the very process of voting can be filled with frustration. Long waiting times, obscure locations, and in some places, questions about the fidelity of vote counting processes can leave people disillusioned about the act of voting. Crowd sourcing mechanisms could empower citizens both during and after voting.

Political scientist Archon Fung launched MyFairElections a crowd sourced platform, based on the success of Ushahidi’s election monitoring, where people can “rate” their voting location. Voters can submit reviews of their polling place. This can capture everything from long voting lines to the number of voters turned away from the polls. The information is then publicly displayed and can create a transparency and accountability feedback mechanism. Further opportunities for feedback could lead to improvements in election processes. This could also enable voters to feel more agency in the basic procedures that determine their governance.

Technology is creating new expectations for how citizens engage with their world. Governments must adapt to keep pace or risk the dissatisfaction of those they represent. The problems are large and complex. Meanwhile, democracy requires free and fair elections to exist. Elections are its sacred rites. There is good reason to be cautious about changing them. Yet there is also a democratic imperative for elections to seize 21st century innovation opportunities.

Civic innovation—done right—can serve as an important part of the solution.


Dr. Hollie Russon Gilman is the former White House Open Government and Innovation Advisor and currently a Civic Innovation Fellow at the New America Foundation.



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