Overturning the Dark Side of Tech

Can legislation transparency and communications platforms reverse the corruption problem that technology has created?

by / December 28, 2016
The iCitizen mobile app. ICITIZEN

Editor's note: This story is part three in a three-part series on the role of technology in tackling government corruption. Read part one here. Read part two here.

Technology is heralded as a savior in many causes because its reach is so vast and its capabilities seemingly unending. But technology enables corruption, said Russell Reeder, CEO of iCitizen.

"Back in the day, an elected official would ride his horse out to different communities," Reeder said. "Today, it doesn’t make a difference what your track record is — if you have more money than a better-suited candidate, people aren’t going to the town center and listening to the person on the horse. They’re watching a TV ad and they’re listening to all the BS. Technology has created this problem."

Services like iCitizen aren't a quick fix to the problem, Reeder said, but once they begin building trust and people see that there's something they can do besides stand by, they'll start using these tools to communicate, to organize and to help the politicians who want to hear the people's voice get the information they need to do their jobs.

"It’s really hard to get the data to do your job," Reeder said. "I was on a community council in Los Angeles. I was an elected official, we had 200 people underneath the city council and all we did every month was we had a board meeting and everyone in the community came and yelled at us."

Reeder's now committed to a quieter, more dignified approach. And the user base for iCitizen is growing. Reeder reported hundreds of thousands of downloads and more than 60,000 concurrent users in a 30-day period. It's a good sign for this corner of the technology market, he said.

"Last time I checked, the people is who they work for. We pay the taxes, we put them in office, but yet it seems like we’re really nowhere in actually [getting] them being re-elected," Reeder said. "Technology helped create the problem today and I think we can use technology to solve the problem, as well."

Countable, another legislation transparency and communications platform, reported progress in growing its user base, too — the service had 100,000 registered users after one year, said Bart Myers, company CEO.

"There’s definitely a hunger among Americans at better understanding their lawmakers," Myers said. "There’s a very strong desire to make this process work. Tools like Countable make that much easier, make that much better. It’s not going to happen overnight and the influence of money is always going to be there, the influence of party politics is going to be very hard to budge, but over time as you have an easier on-demand, in-your-pocket way to follow the process, engage in the process, it will make a dent, it will start to matter, and it will become more and more the way that people directly engage with democracy."

Once these platforms become popular, presidential candidates will need to use them, Myers predicted, just as the popularity of Twitter and Facebook demand politicians pay attention to those platforms.

"And those candidates who get in are going to have much more of a two-way conversation with their constituents," Myers said. "That’s how this is going to start to change."

Making obvious the connection between action and result is the key to today's popular games and apps. People crave instant feedback. They want intellectual satisfaction that their actions produce a result that has meaning within the context of their daily life. ActiveGiver, a platform that allows people to find, track and contribute to causes, keeps this narrowly-focused human desire in mind.

"We focus on causes," said ActiveGiver Co-founder Saar Safra. "And the reason we focus on causes is that we believe that government is all around us. People don't always realize that government can help us achieve the things we as citizens are passionate about."

Local causes, in particular, demonstrate impact that people can easily relate to, he said. If someone can smell the waste wafting off a lake near their house, he added, that person will be motivated to solve the problem if they think there is a way they can do so.

"We hear a lot about the police shootings, and Black Lives Matter, and we hear a lot about gun control and pro-life and pro-choice and, realistically, if you think about everyone's day-to-day lives, these things affect us at 8 p.m. when we watch the news and read news online," Safra said. "But if I were to wake up every morning and it stinks outside around my house, that bugs me every single day and that might be a little higher on my priority list, unless I got shot by a policeman. But we all have issues that are happening to us all the time and most people don't know how to approach these issues."

Like other platforms that attempt to rally citizens, ActiveGiver caters to data-hungry politicians, too. These platforms intend to both rally the people and integrate the system.

"If they see there's a protest, they know people are concerned," Safra said. "They might get a few letters from concerned citizens, but it's hard to put that into context. But if you log into the dashboard and see that 351 people donated to you around a specific cause which is in your jurisdiction and that represents a significant amount of people and a significant amount of dollars, then there's real hard, cold numbers around it that you as a politician can take action on."

Civic Tech Takes on Corruption

Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between corruption and incompetence. To the people, it makes little difference why things aren't working properly. Beyond democracy tech, there is a broader upward swing called civic technology, a space where government has acquiesced to invite community members into the fold and participate on government problems, often through technology. Code For America was one of the groups that precipitated the movement as it's recognized today.

And a recurring problem in government that civic technology is trying to repair is that of agencies sending mixed messages — saying they want to serve the people in some fashion and emphasizing the importance of that service, and then doing a poor job come execution time.

Code For America founder and Executive Director Jennifer Pahlka explained that this is a big part of what her organization does.

"We work a lot with food stamps," Pahlka said. "When someone applies for food stamps, it's a really, really difficult process. It wastes their time, it makes them jump through a lot of hoops, it asks questions that are kind of vaguely insulting, often intimidating. The impression you come away with from that is not one of respect. You come away feeling disrespected and put upon and harassed. And then they say, 'OK, now come and do this civically-engaged thing,' and I'm being asked by the same potentially large entity that just disrespected me."

Voter turnout is low, but it's particularly low amongst the poor. At the 2012 polls, 80.2 percent of those making more than $150,000 voted, and 46.9 percent of those making less than $10,000 voted. It's the reception they get from government that's partially to blame, Pahlka said.

"They do try to engage with government," she said. "They try to access government services and we don't treat them well when they do that. … It's not that the people who create those systems intend to alienate, it's that the sum total of the experience is really alienating because it's disconnected and really complex."

While the civic tech movement nudges government toward a more cooperative and welcoming operational mindset, others demand big changes to the legal system. Some groups, like Brigade-partner Represent.us, blame legal forms of corruption, especially campaign finance policy. The system is so generous to those who would exploit the system, in fact, that it makes little sense for a politician to step outside the law, argued Mansur Gidfar, the group's senior communications strategist.

"To get busted for corruption, you have to be kind of a moron," Gidfar said. "Because the vast majority of behavior that most Americans would identify as corrupt is perfectly legal."

The strategy proposed by Represent.us is legal reform via a piece of legislation it created called the American Anti-Corruption Act. The act proposes new rules around how funds for campaigns are raised, such as making it illegal for lobbyists to make financial contributions or for politicians to negotiate for lobbying jobs while still in or having recently left office. The act also calls for greater transparency and reconfigures the role of political action committees, theoretically bestowing smaller donors greater influence.

The group's plan is to begin passing the law at the local level with the hope of someday affecting state and then federal reform. Starting locally has the added benefit, Gidfar postulated, of quelling corruption at its source since most politicians begin at the local level. This technique was used successfully by minority groups — most recently the marijuana and gay marriage movements. This is the process Johnston calls "increasing pluralism." Many diverse, politically active self-interested groups are one of the requisites for deep democratization.

Some version of the American Anti-Corruption Act has been passed in 17 cities, townships and counties since the act's first victory in mid-2014, including in Seattle, San Francisco and Portland. Another nice thing about this approach is that it's cheap, Gidfar said.

"We passed our first municipal anti-corruption act in Tallahassee, Fla., in 2014 and it passed in an overwhelming two-to-one margin, and we didn’t have to spend a dime on advertising," Gidfar said. "People just seeing it on the ballot and understanding what the law would do was enough."

People often think initially that these issues are impossible to solve because they're too big and too different, Gidfar explained, but then once the issue begins to gain popularity, people see that legalizing marijuana and two men marrying each other isn't so crazy, and approval ratings on those issues rise beyond what anyone thought possible just a few years prior. The same can happen with campaign finance reform.

Gidfar's group has no illusions that they might eliminate corruption, he said, but there needs to at least be an attempt to outlaw the reprobate practices acted out by the nation's leaders and would-be leaders on a regular basis. As of Oct. 19, Donald Trump had raised $795 million and Hilary Clinton had raised $1.3 billion in pursuit of the White House. That is a huge amount of money, Gidfar said, and estimated that those figures could attract the extra attention needed to promote their legislation and to give America a chance.

"The way I figure, this country has gotten out of worse with a fraction of the technology we have now," Gidfar said. "If Teddy Roosevelt could go trust-busting without the Internet, I think we’re going to be fine."

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.