Civic Hacking

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= a strategy should be state support for what I call ‘civic hacking’, or the development of applications to allow mutual aid among citizens rather than through the state


James Crabtree:

"Networked technology can help representative democracy a little, but it is unlikely to be able to help a lot. It comes down to a basic problem: if someone isn’t interested in politics, and they don’t see the point in taking part, doing it online is not going to help much.

The good news is that there may be a better way. The internet can help to improve the civic lives of ordinary people, but only if it is based on a different principle. E-democracy should not be primarily about representation, participation, or direct access to decision makers. First and foremost, it should be about self-help.

Public investment in e-democracy should be about allowing people to help themselves, their communities, and others who are interested in the same things as them. As I will explain, the centre of such a strategy should be state support for what I call ‘civic hacking’, or the development of applications to allow mutual aid among citizens rather than through the state."


The need for online social reciprocity applications

James Crabtree:


"The opportunity is the construction of a civic space in where citizens talk to each other, rather than to the state. An analogy will help explain this. If you are stuck in a computer game, what do you do? Gamers today – and remember around three in ten people play computer games – will go to a gaming community online, and ask others for advice. They will almost always find someone willing to help them overcome the challenge. Other gamers will help for a variety of reasons: they may get respect for their knowledge; their standing in the community will improve; or they may simply be in a good mood that day. But mostly they do it on the principle of reciprocity.

Common in social capital literature, reciprocity means nothing less than you scratch my back, I will scratch yours. This principle is limited if there are only two people, and only two backs. It works better if reciprocity is distributed: I will scratch your back, because this will create a system in which back scratching is the norm, and when I need my back scratched, someone will do it for me.

In politics, as in computer games, reciprocity means helping someone because, at some unspecified point in the future, you will need someone else to help you out too. It is the rational realisation of ‘do unto others as you would have done to yourself’.

What you definitely do not do when stuck in a computer game (or how to load it, or how to make it work better) is e-mail the software designer and ask them to make the game easier or better. Yet this is precisely the current British government’s strategy for e-democracy. Got a problem? Go take part in an impenetrable consultation exercise that might, in some distant way, improve the system. Not exactly a hot selling proposition.

The game analogy holds because, for most people, politics is like being stuck in a really difficult computer game. Government bureaucracy – the software designer – is a total irrelevance to their daily lives. Citizens rub up against the state in numerous complicated ways: bins need to be taken out, unemployment benefits collected, and doctors visited. But the process of deliberative politics is not part of everyday life.

This is why we have a pluralist theory of democracy. Interest groups, the media, and other functional groups represent the interests of people in a battle of ideas. The basic foundation of democracy – that I should be able to have a fair shot at influencing a decision that affects me (if I can be bothered to) – sits within this framework."


"Network technology is very good at bringing people together, if they have a reason for getting together in the first place. It is, as anyone who has surfed will know, a veritable haven for cranks and obsessives of all varieties. But it is also the most incredible fund of distributed intelligence ever conceived.

It allows the aggregation of distributed and networked knowledge, and makes it accessible to pretty much anyone with a bit of skill and a modem. For computer games players, or financial investors, or stamp collectors, it is a dream come true. It can also be for citizens.

The question is: how can you translate this self-evident quality of the network into an application which can help people overcome life problems, or participate in civic communications with others interested in the same issue? At present, this is the problem: you can’t. Why not? Because no one has developed the application."

The need for a civic hacking fund

James Crabtree:

"The website Meetup is a good example of civic hacking. It is not an application as such, but it is based on much the same idea. The site allows people with common interests to meet up with each other. Let us imagine that Mr Kennedy moved to a new town, and wanted to meet other people who were interested in the works of J S Mill, the principles of social justice, and popular news quiz shows. But Mr Kennedy does not know anyone like that. He could go on to Meetup, and register his interests. When enough other people have done the same, the site sends you an e-mail and suggests you meet for a drink.

Equally, the British website UpMyStreet recently launched a site called Conversations, in which people from a local area can initiate discussions about topics of interest in their street or local area. Both are a simple idea. They will not make anyone a gazillion dollars, but they could become useful tools for the social capitalist and ways of making social connections. And both required someone to develop software to make it happen.

A civic hacking fund could help develop similar ideas. At the moment there is a market failure, in as much as people tend not to make money off these types of application, no matter how socially useful they are. The applications that can help people help each other need state funding to get going.


The internet is peculiarly effective at connecting groups of people together. In fact, this is what it does best.

So, a sensible strategy would start on this principle. But the people it should be connecting are not citizens and parliamentarians, or voters and civil servants. It should be connecting ordinary people with other ordinary people. And there should be applications that help these people to help each other. A programme supporting civic hacking can do this.

This should become the ethic of e-democracy: mutual-aid and self-help among citizens, helping to overcome civic problems. It would encourage a market in application development. It would encourage self-reliance, or community-reliance, rather than reliance on the state.

Such a system would be about helping people to help themselves. It would create electronic spaces in which the communicative power of the internet can be used to help citizens help each other overcome life’s challenges. Most importantly, by making useful applications, it would help make participatory democracy seem useful too." (

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