Q&A with SIPA Fellow and author Hollie Russon Gilman

Hollie Russon Gilman, a postdoctoral scholar and fellow in technology and public policy at SIPA, is an expert in technology, civic engagement, and governance. Gilman recently published the book Democracy Reinvented: Participatory Budgeting and Civic Innovation in America as part of a series from the Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center entitled Innovative Governance in the 21st Century. She is currently co-teaching (with Ari Wallach) the SIPA course Technology and the Future of Governance and Public Policy, which expands upon some of the themes in her book.

Of all the civic tech innovations that you mention in your book, why did you choose to focus on participatory budgeting?
I focus on participatory budgeting because it’s an example of one of the most evolved democratic innovations occurring to engage citizens in decisionmaking. It started in Brazil—in Porto Alegre in 1989—and it’s been implemented in over 2,500 localities, coming to the United States with $1 million dollars in one Chicago ward. Now upwards of $50 million dollars are decided by this process in the country.

It’s a process to engage everyday people to identify budget needs in their area and work with government officials to draft viable budget proposals for the community to vote upon. The government, in turn, implements the projects decided by people every step of the way. Participatory budgeting is a useful lens for understanding innovation because it is a successful example of creating an infrastructure for civic engagement.

In the book, you discuss a tension between the perceived inefficiency of governance processes like participatory budgeting with the streamlining of service delivery promised by leveraging new technology. How should policymakers reconcile this tension?
At times we over-value things like ease and efficiency in public policy and undervalue the import of effectiveness. Making governance decisions is not like withdrawing cash from an ATM machine. You want your ATM machine to be there, you want it to be quick, and to be efficient, but there are other norms that are important when you think about democratic governance. For example: legitimacy, transparency, trust, and civic engagement can sometimes be at odds with an entirely mechanized or purely efficient processes. We need to take seriously what it means to do democratic innovation and civic participation effectively, and how digital tools can serve as amplifiers, and not the other way around.

Do you see this as a return to a certain ideal of small government? In the book, you mention Robert Dahl’s conception of democracy as a polis.
Absolutely. In the ideal of the Athenian city-state, it was a very small area. People knew one another. They could talk to each other. Perhaps, somewhat counterintuitively, technology holds the potential to enable re-engagement on a more local level.

We’re seeing these trends—people at the same time being more networked and also being hyperlocal, and investing in their communities, returning to their communities, and wanting to be part of them. Thus, there are questions about how technology could potentially amplify these engagements. think it can, but I think it takes intentionality.

Is there a way to objectively prove your thesis, that democratic engagement improves the governance process?
We definitely need more data. We need further research on these kinds of innovations, and their effectiveness. At the same time, we have to be careful about how we determine metrics. What are we measuring? Is it the number of people participating? Who is participating? Is it just the usual suspects? Diversity can also mean a lot of different things. It can mean your civic background. Are you someone who’s participated before? Are you an English speaker?

There is also a certain variable that’s very important, which is hard to measure. And that’s, do you feel efficacious? Do I, as an individual citizen, living in a polity, feel I am a part of my government? It’s very hard to quantify that. Several democratic governments are facing a crisis of trust in governance institutions. People don’t think their institutions are working for them. They’re very disillusioned on the national scale. Given this democratic deficit, we need further democratic experimentation.

Studying democratic innovation is not necessarily about proving people right or wrong. Rather, it’s about studying emergent phenomena, which—even if they are not perfect—can generate momentum to deepen democratic engagement. When you talk to the individuals who participate, they often talk about what a transformative process it is.  Even if they were frustrated or processes were more costly than expected, they were happy to be a part of the process—and that within itself is transformative.

Sometimes we are scared to open processes up to everyday people because they’re too messy or they’re too complicated. People can understand complex issues if you just take the time to explain them; but we’re so worried about criticism. Government is risk averse. Electoral systems make people risk averse, for due reason, but we need to be able to experiment and take some risks. So that’s why many—but not all—of the book’s innovations are on the local level, where people can have a little more room for experimentation.

Civic tech is more than just adopting new tools; it’s about a shift in mindset, right?
Yes. It’s about pushing the envelope of how we typically do things.  This includes greater experimentation, taking risks, and learning from “failure,” which can be difficult in legacy institutions. There are other reasons why it’s difficult too; if you have public funds, you want to be cautious with how you use those dollars. In the book I discuss opportunities for multi-sector actors to catalyze innovations.  For example, there are opportunities where civil society, industry, philanthropy, or other kinds of resources, like university resources—such as smart SIPA students—could buttress taxpayer dollars.

Could you address SIPA’s Tech and Policy initiative? Why is it important for policy students to learn about technology?
Tech & Policy at SIPA is an exciting new initiative, which includes the Dean’s Challenge grant in addition to new courses, convenings, and research. It’s examining several verticals of how technology can impact public policy. I think for tomorrow’s leaders across sectors, who want to effect change and solve important social problems, technology will be an increasingly important part of the equation. Leaders who can understand people, politics, and institutions, in addition to technology, will be very well equipped to catalyze change.

— interview by Lindsay Fuller MPA ’16