Can We Turn Local Government Into a Game?

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

When I served as co-president of the Glboal Forum on Modern Direct Democracy in Rome earlier this fall, I was impressed by ideas from all over the world. But none more so than Gianluca Sgueo, a thoughtful and interdisciplinary scholar at the New York University campus in Florence.

In a paper for the Global Forum, Sgueo noted all the way that cities around the world are bringing citizens into municipal decision-making via game-like platforms. He wrote:

Residents of Santa Monica, in California, can swipe left or right on a Tinder-like
website, to approve or dislike municipal council’s proposed changes to the
neighbourhoods where they live. Citizens of Boston share information on traffic, criminality,
Wi-Fi availability and waste management with the office of the Mayor. In so doing, they
help to evaluate the performance of their city, which is rated on a graded scale, and
shared on a publicly accessible digital dashboard. Across the pond, Dubliners receive
vouchers up to 200 euros if they help the city council tracking public toilets and fountains
located in the city parks. If you live in Madrid and have ideas on how to improve your life
and that of your neighbours, you can share it with them, online. Upon receiving a sufficient
number of likes, the municipal council may vote on your idea, and make it happen.
Heading east, we meet Muscovites that are rewarded with points every time they cast a
vote on a dedicated e-voting platform. Points can be redeemed to pay parking tickets and
metro fares, or to enter contests to win opera tickets.

Such gamification—defined as using elements of games like badges, points or rankings into non-game contexts– is a strategy being used by many young entrepreneurs and civic non-profit types in California. It’s usually designed to get people more engaged in governance.

But Sgueo argued that we haven’t thought deeply enough about all its ramifications. We could be in for unpleasant surprises as such gamification mixes with artificial intelligence and biometrics in the local government sphere.

“Almost no empirical testing has been done on the number of municipalities interested in this phenomenon, and to identify what kind of capabilities local administrators must develop to leverage the benefits of gamification and deliver public outcomes effectively. There is no research that has attempted to determine if and how gamification strategies differentiate across policy stages and areas.”

California is the natural place for such research, given our abundance of local government and technologists. And the new governor, Gavin Newsom, has pushed such community-minded experimentation for years, including in a book.

Sgueo, for his part, sees promise for gamification in building trust among citizens, and in adapting policymaking to regulatory changes, to budgets, and to citizens needs. But there are risks too—from lost privacy to implementation costs to the problem of nurturing a very elite concept of participatory democracy, in which the game-savvy and the tech-savvy know more and have more influence on their local governments.

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