I’m excited to talk about a new project. This description was written with my colleague Jesse Baldwin-Philippi. The Design Action Research for Government (DARG) project is a partnership between the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston and the Engagement Game Lab at Emerson College. The goal of the DARG project is to advance the capacity of local governments to foster civic engagement through technological innovations. Its mission is to provide a conceptual framework and evaluative capacity to guide city-level innovations that create opportunities for the public to meaningfully engage in the creation and study of public life.
The DARG project is a model for collaboration between governments and universities. The project employs techniques of action and design research to source, create, and study civic technology projects. It seeks to build strong collaborations with communities in order to increase the effectiveness of civic experimentation and to maximize learning opportunities. Undertaking a research program that goes beyond traditional measures of engagement, the DARG project also aims to improve the way research concerning civic media in governance takes place. Ultimately, the DARG project aims to transform common practices of government innovation from a model of top-down intervention and evaluation to one of participatory design and research.
What follows is a description of the current research that falls under the DARG project umbrella. Most research projects have a design component and include both traditional research outcomes and digital tools or new processes. Findings and process documentation will be disseminated in blogs, video summaries and academic publications.
New Digital Tools
Government tends to think about civic participation as transactional—citizens receive information and provide feedback to decision-makers through town hall meetings or web portals. These transactions then become the primary indicators of successful civic engagement strategies; baseline numbers such as meeting attendance, unique hits on a government website, and number of online transactions are the primary markers of success. But online interactions such as deliberation and sharing information are foundational to local community and organizational outreach, and should be considered when evaluating how and why people engage in public life. Through the DARG project, we seek to experiment with and evaluate tools that move civic engagement from a merely transactional process with government to one that is interactive.
Through a series of case studies, we evaluate civic engagement in a networked context. We assert that digital technologies do not simply increase government efficiency, but in the context of civic engagement, actually can create what we call meaningful inefficiencies. Month-long games around planning issues, social networks layered on top of service request apps, or social media competitions—can be both meaningful and productive. Through empirical, exploratory, and design-based research, the DARG project will provide a rigorous framework for conceptualizing and evaluating networked civic engagement. Below is a description of our active research projects focused on new tools.
Citizenship and Mobile Reporting
In an attempt to provide citizens with faster, more accessible, information and services, civic innovators in cities all over the world have produced a sizeable cache of open data and apps delivering fast and convenient services. While committed to these efforts, the DARG project seeks to expand upon them by understanding the affordances of making service delivery a social experience. More than just a process that can be productive on an individual level, service delivery in a networked context can also improves citizens’ feelings of connectedness to local community and levels of both personal and collective efficacy.
Citizens Connect is a mobile reporting tool developed by the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics in 2009. We are conducting a study that looks at how the unique peer-to-peer qualities of the mobile app increase feelings of collective efficacy and neighborhood cohesion. We are currently surveying users and non-users (people who have reported via the city’s telephone hotline) to understand the specific affordances of the mobile application and whether or not digital and networked connectivity through Citizens Connect changes the quality of engagement.
Civic reputation systems and online relationships
Street Cred is a civic badging API being developed through the DARG project to test the value of reputation and social interactions within service delivery. Street Cred adds value to everyday civic transactions by allowing citizens to earn badges, compete with friends and neighbors and share civic accomplishments. The software is currently in development and will be piloted within Citizens Connect in June 2013. After the initial pilot study, which will include analysis of user data, online surveys and focus groups, we will iterate the design and expand the API to other apps used in Boston, including Community PlanIt and Street Bump, as well as offline engagements such as neighborhood meetings and public forums. A larger study of Street Cred is planned for September 2013.
Collective Efficacy and Planning Games
The problem of civic engagement is often understood as a lack of participation. People do not show up to meetings, they do not engage in their civic institutions or communicate with decision-makers. Engagement strategies often involve a lot of bean counting, where the quantity of people participating is more important than the quality of participation created. Through the DARG project, we seek to change this discourse. We seek to deepen engagement by creating opportunities for what we call distracted engagement. Distracted engagement allows for small-scale civic activities that are short, but also ongoing, and which habituate citizens to civic practices. Reciprocal discussion and deliberation results in a system where citizens get feedback, rather than simply voicing their ideas. While encouraging these behaviors, and assessing their prevalence we also ask two larger research questions: Do civic habits lead to civic learning? Does going through the motions in one aspect of civic life lead to a more reflective engagement with another?
Community PlanIt (CPI) is an online mission-based game that connects local communities around planning issues. It was developed by the Engagement Game Lab and has so far been played in Boston, Detroit, and Philadelphia. The goal of CPI is to earn coins that can be pledged to real life causes. The three causes with the most coins at the end of the game win real money. The general mechanics include individual questions that can be answered individually and visualized collectively. CPI encourages reciprocal, ongoing discussion and deliberation amongst players. Preliminary research on CPI has indicated that it successfully fosters ongoing deliberation that is viewed as directly beneficial to both institutions and citizens. Further research will focus on the game’s ability to produce civic learning, which we define as the effect of combining participation with the opportunity to reflect.