Joining a Global Discussion of Civic Technology in The Hague

A photo of a waterway at sunrise in The Hague taken by Aaron Bartnick.

An American, an Argentine, an Italian and a Kiwi walk into a bar in the Netherlands to discuss civic technology. “Let it Go” plays overhead. Is this the setup to the world’s most convoluted joke, or the future of global policymaking?

A bit of both, it turns out.

This week, I had the pleasure of representing The OpenGov Foundation at a conference convened by the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy (NIMD), a think tank akin to our National Democratic Institute or International Republican Institute that promotes democratic values at home and abroad. As part of their efforts to promote technological innovation in government, NIMD invited The OpenGov Foundation, along with four other civic technology organizations from Argentina, Iceland, Italy and New Zealand, to discuss our work with elected officials and representatives from numerous Dutch and Georgian political parties.

In bringing civic technologists, elected officials and academics together to discuss the role of technology as one group, our inimitable NIMD host, Will Derks, demonstrated a critical understanding of one the biggest issues plaguing our industry: a lack of meaningful dialogue. Too often, civic technologists adopt a “build first, ask questions later” approach to our work: we see obvious technical solutions to seemingly mundane government problems and use our smarts to come up with a better way of doing things. But we forget to ask our users in government (who, by the way, generally got there by being exceedingly bright) why things exist in their current state. And there is almost always a reason. Meanwhile, public officials are often suspicious of outsiders who come bearing technological gifts and too often try to solve problems internally without taking advantage of voluntary assistance from experienced technologists.

But none of this was on display in The Hague. We were treated to a truly global discussion, with civic technologists and public officials representing five continents weighing in on the future role of technology in government.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the conference was the opportunity to learn from my counterparts at Airesis (Italy), Democracy OS (Argentina), Loomio (New Zealand) and Your Priorities (Iceland). The civic technology community is a truly global one and these organizations are some of many doing incredible work around the world.

A photo of the NIMD conference in The Hague taken by Aaron Bartnick.

Our approaches are nearly as diverse as our office locales. Some, like Airesis and Loomio, focus on group consensus building, in contrast to our emphasis on policy making. Airesis and DemocracyOS, meanwhile, have taken the extraordinary step of aligning with or, in the case of DemocracyOS, launching their own political movements. While we have found our apolitical nature to be a key to our success, it is hard to deny the success which organizations like DemocracyOS have had, even competing in national parliamentary elections.

One thing that set The OpenGov Foundation apart, however, was the number of people inside of government using our tools. Political representatives and academics alike were floored to see Members of Congress engaging in constitutional discussions with citizens on Madison. And mentioning that our Madison platform gets Github contributions from users in Mexico’s federal government certainly didn’t hurt. But the greatest use case to emerge at the conference was decidedly local, when representatives from the Dutch Labor Party revealed that they were actively using Madison to draft their party platform. And not only were they using it, they were loving it. One Labor member summarized the party’s reaction to the change: “Finally, we’re going digital!”

One of the beauties of our open source approach is that our work can easily be adopted by anyone around the world. It has been humbling to see our tools used in places like Mexico, Pakistan, the Netherlands, Guernsey and even at the UN. And as policymakers around the world work to better engage with their citizens, we proudly stand ready to assist.

A civic technologist and a politician walk into a think tank. We’re a long way from figuring out how this joke ends, but thanks to Will Derks and NIMD, we’ve got a great setup.

Aaron Bartnick is the Chief Operating Officer of The OpenGov Foundation.