Guns and Civic Tech: How Students Disrupt the Government

September 7, 2018 | By Itay Weiss, Graduate Student Analyst

Many of our most celebrated institutions now face historically low levels of public trust. From colleges and universities to Congress itself, the institutions best poised to drive impact at scale appear out of touch with society and hamstrung by partisan divides. Researchers fear these conditions will cripple American democracy even further, as disillusionment leads to apathy — and in turn, to disengagement altogether. But if civic participation among our students is any indication, these researchers might not have much to worry about quite yet.

This past summer, high schoolers visited over 80 communities in 24 different states to advocate for safer gun laws. They took traditional approaches to civic engagement, like rallies, town-halls, and voter registration drives. But they also availed themselves of the best technology had to offer, using consumer-centered design to improve the ways the government serves its constituents. 

March For Our Lives, March 2018

On the one hand, take the survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas. After an 800,000-strong March for Our Lives, they mobilized supporters to convene over 120 “Town Halls for Our Lives” across 34 states. Strategically, if members of Congress declined to participate, local organizers would invite their opponents to attend in their place. They even launched the “Road to Change” tour to mobilize their peers even further, this time with the goal of making sure that people are registered to vote and will vote for candidates who support stricter gun-laws.

Traditionally, town halls symbolize direct democracy, allowing constituents to engage their elected officials face-to-face. But the 21st century town hall, whether online or in person, comes with its own challenges. These gatherings have increasingly become forums for protest, with opinions and emotions often overpowering facts and expertise. And with little signal amid the noise, translating public conversation into meaningful policy solutions has proved challenging. It’s little wonder, then, that lobbyists exert as much influence as they do, curating pre-packaged legislation packed with one-sided views of private interests — and taking credit for doing so while they’re at it. The news cycle forces legislators to stay relevant and ready to respond, and these kinds of products help keep things moving. But at the end of the day we don’t need policy-based evidence stacked in favor of a privileged class. We need evidence-based policy that serves the needs of all Americans — and that’s where tech can play a vital role. 

Elected officials lack a sustained stream of objective expertise from a disinterested third party. The stand some of them take on guns, for example, is motivated by the same incentives that make them turn to lobbyist legislation: it’s accessible, supported by so-called experts, and will yield campaign contributions. Organized differently, means of civic participation like town halls can amplify the constituent experience and enable elected officials to better represent their constituents. Rep. Rick Crawford, a Republican from Arkansas, calls for the creation of a new platform independent of ad-buys that allows for evidence-based discussion. Along the way, he is also asking constituents simply to text him with questions and suggestions — allowing his team to easily collect information, identify key issues, and respond with meaningful reform. CrowdLaw similarly promotes online participation in lawmaking with 25 case studies detailing the best avenues for engagement. 

Notably, the Beeck Center recently hosted an inspiring young leader working in technology and governance — Chris Kuang. Chris and his team founded Coding it Forward, “a student-led 501(c)(3) nonprofit empowering computer science, data science, and design students to create social good by breaking down the barriers to entry in social impact spaces.” They offer the Civic Digital Fellowship, a first-of-its-kind internship for students aiming to use technology to reform practices in federal agencies. 

Looking to the leaders of March For Our Lives and Chris Kuang as examples, what would it take to implement similar reform at the legislative level — minimizing information asymmetries and improving constituent participation across the board? We’d love to hear your thoughts, so go ahead and comment to continue the conversation! 

Chris Kuang (second from right) visits the Beeck Center