Using civic tech for environmental governance: Lessons learned through models of civic engagement

By | June 02, 2023

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Enviromental Tech

Editor's Note: This post was authored by Alan Finlay.

How can we harness the power of technology to improve environmental governance? In this blog post, we explore the insights and best practices gleaned from a global review of civic technology projects that are working to encourage citizen participation in governance processes. Civic technology is defined broadly here as technology that enhances engagement and participation of people in government and political processes, communications, or service delivery.  By examining these successful approaches, we aim to identify scalable and adaptable methods that can be applied locally for more effective participatory environmental governance at the national level.

A useful framework to classify civic tech projects aimed at strengthening environmental governance involves assessing their impact across three key dimensions of governance: seeing and knowing, interventions and actions, and participation and engagement. Within these dimensions, several models of engagement were identified and are explored below. The most effective projects appeared to impact at least two of these dimensions at the same time while offering ways for citizens to participate in environmental governance. 

Seeing and Knowing 

Seeing and knowing models collect actionable data which can then be utilized to hold the larger governing body accountable and for decision-making. These models, which often use open data, community media, or involve government tracking, leverage technology to gather and share information and data with the larger public with hopes of an actionable response. Two examples of such models are the Media for Justice Project and Tracka.

The Media for Justice Project, based in the oil-rich and exploited Niger Delta area in Nigeria, focuses on accountability and awareness-raising through participatory citizen journalism. This project works with young people, marginalised communities, and social movements by helping them use media and communication technologies to “inform, organise, and mobilise”, with the aim of sustaining interaction between these groups and the government. It shows the various uses of low-cost digital technologies accessible to communities for community-driven media production. 

Tracka is a project that aims to create a community-driven mechanism for accountability. It has a particular focus on transparency and citizen oversight in government spending. Tracka allows communities to track progress in government projects in their area through interactive tools, like mobile apps and SMS, linked to an online platform. It also uses ‘community champions’ to post updates about projects online, leveraging both the governance potential for ‘seeing and knowing’ and ‘participation’ in civic tech projects.

Interventions and Actions

Interventions and actions describe a dimension where there are specific measures being taken to address identifiable problems. Through active engagement of citizens, models under this dimension allow a degree of citizen oversight in the implementation of government policy with the help of communities. 

Several projects use simple crowd-sourcing tools to create momentum for change. For example, U-Report has been used to poll the opinions of young people across the world on climate change and other environmental issues. Another project that has not yet been used for environmental advocacy but could easily transition into the space is Amandla Mobi in South Africa. The project links up young people across the country using WhatsApp and SMS, allowing participants in the network to “take action with others”. This has created a system of direct advocacy which has had concrete outcomes,  including helping to get VAT removed on sanitary pads by crowd-sourcing prices and using the data to persuade regulators. 

Interesting examples of the ‘interventions and actions’ dimension can be found in what are referred to as co-management models, where citizens work with governments to co-create solutions.  For instance, in response to Indonesia’s massive domestic waste management problem, technology was used to   streamline  the work of  “waste banks” that had been set up in the country. One initiative supported by World Vision introduced a mobile app to manage the process, letting residents know where the nearest waste bank is, allowing them to check on their 'savings', and allowing waste bank co-ordinators to keep up-to-date data on processed waste. This has the added benefit of allowing the government to better track the processing of domestic waste. 

Participation and Engagement 

Participation and engagement models describe those that empower individuals and communities to realise their own agency to affect change. This involves prioritizing the inclusion of different communities and individuals within communities. For example, several civic tech projects create systems of training and verification which build the capacity of community members and are crucial to the functioning of projects. Examples also include communities using civic tech to create solutions in the absence of government services or even market reach. 

Training project monitors or volunteers is a good way to build capacity in communities and to ensure that the data flowing through civic tech projects is reliable. For example, the SEEDS project in India has trained volunteers to provide information on environmental disasters occurring in their communities. The data they collect is logged in a mobile app which the government can then respond to properly. In South Africa, in another example of a co-management model, CitySpec encourages citizen involvement in ensuring communities have access to water. Fieldworkers use a mobile inspection tool to inspect faults reported by the community, and, if necessary, upgrade the fault for municipal attention. The impact of limited municipal resources is maximised, and the field workers are able to attend to minor faults themselves if they do not require expert municipal intervention.

Other civic tech initiatives can be used to meet community needs in their local context and engage traditionally ‘off-the-grid’ groups in systems implementing environmental initiatives through community networks. A fascinating example of an ‘off-the-grid’ civic tech initiative in Kenya involves what are referred to as community inclusion currencies. Using technology, Grassroots Economics has created a traditional bartering system for low-income (or “cash-less”) communities - places where there is not enough money for individuals to buy essential goods. This involves a mobile phone app linked to a management platform to issue electronic vouchers for products sold or labour needs, such as planting trees, which can then be spent elsewhere in the community using the same system. This system, which has been shown to have an significant impact on the economies of communities, is being used by Grassroots Economics to drive their concept of sustainable ‘food forests’

What does this tell us? 

Think local 

Although we might sometimes think of ‘environmental governance’ as being operational at the national level, many civic tech projects engage specifically at the local or community level. This is important given that marginalised and remote communities – whether in the inner cities or rural areas – are the most likely to feel the impact of environmental destruction and climate change first, and have the least access to resources to deal with the shocks they may encounter. 

Adapt to the context

Although there are commonalities in the approach of many civic tech projects, they occur in unique socio-economic, political, cultural and environmental contexts. Civic tech projects need to respond and adapt to this context, even if they borrow tech tools developed elsewhere.  

Surface the politics

Civic tech projects are by their very nature political – whether in their stated objective, through their institutional arrangements, or in the way they seek to organise communities. The overt or underlying ‘politics of a project’ can be evident in how similar projects with similar objectives orientate themselves differently. This is the case with many open data projects, which may seem on the surface to be ‘neutral’. In the end, whatever the overt or hidden politics driving a project, it will affect and shape how it engages a community and how the community responds, and can determine the benefit of the project in achieving inclusive environmental sustainability outcomes.

Build capacity in a community

Civic tech projects offer an excellent opportunity for community capacity building, knowledge creation and change, and for direct participation by community members in environmental governance. It is also important to think of the ‘community’ beyond the immediate community of the civic tech project. Civic tech projects can be the core from which associated community projects emerge, creating a valuable interlinking of initiatives that all contribute towards community resilience and sustainability. 

Train monitors to strengthen the data collected

Systems of data verification using trained community monitors or field workers can be important, and allow for more credible data to be collected at the grassroots level, which is one of the challenges of community-led data gathering initiatives. It also allows for a process of direct intervention and action being built into a project.

Step in where the government can’t

Civic tech projects also have a strong potential to catalyse action in the absence of government interventions, whether through improving service delivery through co-management models, or creating ‘off-the-grid’ interventions where government services or the market do not reach. 

Think simple

Effective solutions do not necessarily have to be complicated: citizen media projects can function as effective monitoring and oversight mechanisms, polling and crowd-sourcing can be effective in producing policy shifts. Simple WhatsApp or SMS systems may be all that is needed to empower, and to bring about change. 

Going forward: Applications in NDI programming 

NDI will apply the lessons learned from this research to considerations of the use of civic tech in strengthening environmental governance programming. As part of the Institute’s current work to evaluate the successes, challenges, and opportunities in policy processes for participatory environmental governance, NDI will support country stakeholders through a human-centered design approach to developing innovative responses to identified gaps in policy implementation or sustainability. The Institute and country stakeholders will consider case examples and best practices from this landscape analysis to inform the exploration of how civic tech approaches may be scaled or adapted to respond to needs identified at the country level, and to democratize civic engagement for more inclusive, accountable, and participatory governance.