Digital civic space – where next?

Highline Park in New York

Image:  Highline park in New York

I am spending the day (and probably the week) wrestling with edits on the NHS Citizen technology paper. I will write up a summary of the feedback for the NHS Citizen website but the combination of this as well as a number of related conversations recently motivated me to capture my current thinking about digital civic spaces. Its a topical issue with this recent article from Jemina Kiss at the Guardian as well as thinking going on within the BBC reminding us that our digital spaces can and should be a reflection of the society we want to live in.

In my research I have identified 5 domains which need to be considered in creating digital civic spaces:

  • Public-ness – in the sense of being a public sense which is open and accessible to anyone
  • Coproduction – participants are able to influence and shape the space
  • Identity – we know who people are while protecting their privacy
  • Information – civic spaces need to be open and information rich with participants having level access to information
  • Self-defined – place and topic to be defined by participants and not by government

The NHS Citizen project has provided the opportunity to explore these different domains by embedding them in the design principles for the system. The NHS Citizen technical architecture document is a first attempt to operationalise these design requirements into something which could be built. If you are interested in some of the underpinning ideas here then you may find this earlier blogpost useful or if you are feeling really determined here in my thesis.

My purpose is developing these principles has been to understand how we might create a digital space which better supports democratic dialogue than the current online environment comprising of both mainstream social media platforms and eParticipation solutions. This post is an overview of where my thinking has developed since capturing those ideas.


System thinking:
Over the last year I have been thinking about the relationship between coproduction and democracy. I wrote about this a while ago in terms of a democratic dilemma :

Can or indeed should we involve people in the design and delivery of services without also involving them more successfully in the democratic process which shapes those services?

I have since developed this idea to describe it in terms of a potential ‘golden thread’ which links coproduction of services to democratic participation. This is a reflection of taking a systems thinking framing for the discussion – a consequence when you consider public services as existing in a digital and networked world. This is not simply a response to the desire for more co-productive forms of service delivery that we see throughout public services but also a response to the emergence of a participatory culture which sees citizens organising themselves in more direct and immediate ways. This golden thread seems to me to be both necessary and desirable however the evidence for the benefit and efficacy of such a link is not yet established. One of my projects for the coming year will be in exploring the potential, and potential evidence, of this link in a more structured way. Two questions are shaping in my mind around this:

  • At what point in a coproductive service design approach does it become useful or necessary to connect this process to the strategic decisions which shape that service?
  • Do greater levels of participation in coproduction or codesign effect levels of democratic participation?

The other area for exploration is how coproduction can be embedded within organisations as well as between public services and citizens. How can we empower individuals within organisations at the same time as looking at how to empower citizens? It seems to make no sense to be to pursue these two objectives in isolation.


Data, identity and privacy:
Shared access to information remains a cornerstone and essential element of informed debate and it is difficult to imagine a digital democracy which does not take advantage of the data rich environment in which it operates. In parallel with this I remain committed to the idea that for a space to be truly democractic AND coproductive individuals must be ‘known’ but also have control over their own data within that space. This data must extend to how they chose to identify and describe themselves.

This principle is fundamental to the technical design of NHS Citizen. However there are considerable complexities with respect to operationalising an approach which combines individual privacy with the idea of that the system has some way to identify that individual. This challenge is compounded if there is also an intent to enable the system to learn about itself using analytical techniques which can be considered together the heading of ‘big data’. This combination requires trust in the system to be developed alongside the technology – no technology solution will ‘fix’ this trust deficit.

The question I want to explore over the coming months is whether taking an open and experimental approach to developing the technology will also encourage the development of trust in the solution. A starting point for this will be a quick literature review into the impact of collaborative design methods on platform development with respect to trust and participation – I have an inkling/vague memory that the literature on online community has some insight on this which I want to dig out.

I believe that there are potential benefits from this approach behind the empowerment of citizens with respect to the management of complexity and information governance – empowering an individual to manage their own data rather than creating an overhead of information governance and exchange seems a pragmatic approach that is worth exploring.


Civic leadership:
Any system is as much influenced by behaviours within it as it is by the technical design. As we consider digital civic space its important to consider civic leadership within that space – we do not make public spaces safe simply with good design – we also need behaviour within those spaces to reinforce what good looks like. I think we need a new debate about how we can collectively uphold standards of behaviour online and not simply demand that laws be strengthened and technology to sift out ‘wrong’ content.


As we discuss the transformation of public services the urgency of shaping our digital civic spaces is growing – public services for the 21st century cannot be delivered on architecture which is a legacy of our past. Adopting an approach which supports rather than undermines citizen participation in service delivery and democratic decision making seems both necessary and desirable. Moving towards this will require a leap in terms of technology approaches which has to take into account the five domains that I have outlined but also a discussion about the behaviours which will shape our digital civic spaces.

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