Designing Democratic Digital Cities

By Priyal Bhatt | June 29, 2021

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In an increasingly digitized era, where people use online services daily for everything from doctors to dinners to drivers, government entities at all levels need to keep up to meet their people’s expectations. This shift to digital is a challenge for many cities but also presents an opportunity to prove that democracy delivers and use this digitally connected era to increase understanding of community needs, create effective, equitable, and accessible solutions, and build for a sustainable and ethical future. From enabling faster responses to crises, better planning and allocation of resources for public programs, and increased quality of customer experience across departments, technology can be a powerful tool for increasing community trust and confidence in both elected officials and democracy.

However, building new systems to take advantage of the potential of the internet age is not an easy task. Technology projects can be expensive and confusing. Vendors and contractors often make big promises and are unable to follow through. Obsession with innovative technologies can overshadow better, less technical solutions.

And technology can all too often actually undermine democracy. Using the internet to connect government and constituents can worsen existing digital divides for those who do not have access or the skills to navigate new tools. Government technology projects can infringe on digital human rights through increased surveillance, insecure data storage, unethical usage of community data, and the use of unknowable and unaccountable algorithms to make important public decisions.

Leaders who want to help their citizens by modernizing their cities while strengthening democracy have had few resources outlining a better approach to government technology. To address this gap, NDI has developed a guidebook on municipal digital transformation projects. This guide helps municipal leaders think through the “why” of new technology approaches, the “what” of the things your citizens particularly need, and the “how” of successfully implementing a technology transformation project.

Part 1 of this guide provides guidance on overall project strategy for mayors and other government officials, while Part 2 is written for project implementers and provides best practices on project scoping, gathering public input, working with vendors and other external partners, and more. Each topic includes key guiding questions, relevant tools, and other external resources for reference.

At its core, government institutions should exist to help their citizens: to create cities that are better and safer to live in, to provide services that improve our quality of life, and to address shifting community needs, concerns, and values. This guidebook can increase the odds that a tech initiative will help the community, strengthen democracy, protect human rights – and get done on time and in budget.

Link to Guidebook: