SeeClickFix Empowers Citizens by Connecting Them to Their Local Governments
[This practitioner’s note, first published by Democratic Theory, is co-authored with Ben Berkowitz – founder of SeeClickFix. The idea that first drew me to this integrated civic platform is that of the “businesses of democracy” – firms that are able to stay afloat financially in the service of x type or types of democracy (e.g. electoral, deliberative, local) in practice. I am writing a paper on this subject (@ 11/05/2021) – DM me on Twitter if you want to join it.]
Citation guide: Ben Berkowitz and Jean-Paul Gagnon. 2017. “SeeClickFix Empowers Citizens by Connecting Them to Their Local Governments”. Democratic Theory, 4 (1): 121-124.
SeeClickFix began in 2009 when founder and present CEO Ben Berkowitz spotted a piece of graffiti in his New Haven, Connecticut, neighborhood. After calling numerous departments at city hall in a bid to have the graffiti removed, Berkowitz felt no closer to fixing the problem. Confused and frustrated, his emotions resonated with what many citizens in real-existing democracies feel today (Manning 2015): we see problems in public and want to fix them but can’t. This all too habitual inability for “common people” to fix problems they have to live with on a day-to-day basis is a prelude to the irascible citizen (White 2012), which, according to certain scholars (e.g., Dean 1960; Lee 2009), is itself a prelude to political apathy and a citizen’s alienation from specific political institutions.
It didn’t take Berkowitz long to realize that he wasn’t alone in his frustration. Several of his neighbors also had their own issues they were struggling to solve, like potholes, broken glass at bus shelters, and uneven sidewalks. Taking up the call of democratic entrepreneurship (Zaalouk 2014), Ben and four of his friends got together to build a digital platform (a website and mobile app) to help facilitate communication between city residents—such as themselves and their neighbors—and New Haven’s city hall. They called it SeeClickFix.
Berkowitz and his colleagues believe that SeeClickFix empowers citizens by giving them a tool to publicly document their quality of life concerns. As this has improved the quantity and quality of data that municipal service providers can receive, SeeClickFix has to date been adopted by many local governments—ones who felt they needed a better way to receive information from the citizens they’re trying to serve.
How SeeClickFix Works
SeeClickFix is an integrated platform for service request collection and management. Citizens submit requests via the SeeClickFix website or mobile app, as can civil servants, who enter the phone calls, drop-ins, emails, and tweets they receive into the SeeClickFix system. Once requests are in the system, they’re routed either manually or automatically based on location and request type to the right civil servant in the relevant municipal office.
City staff receive notifications within their SeeClickFix account (or through an external plug-in) that a job has been assigned to them. The citizen who submitted the job will receive automatic updates as it is pursued and subsequently completed. On top of SeeClickFix’s function as a local government problem-solving service, the qualitative feedback that Berkowitz and his colleagues have received indicates that the service their company provides increases citizen participation levels and positively affects how citizens perceive the quality of the services that their local governments are providing them. SeeClickFix also reduces the costs associated with local service provision, as it lowers the number of phone calls that frontline civil servants receive by introducing automated responses.
“One of our most persistent challenges has been that SeeClickFix needs to both leverage citizens to bring their government to the table and governments to bring their citizens to the table,” says Berkowitz. “We’ve done a good job at tackling that problem by letting citizens use the platform first. But we could make some changes to our product to facilitate what I see as a ‘welcome mat’ into a more citizen-centric mode of governance.”
Berkowitz sees government and citizen-centric governance converging. “If you have citizens and governments who are accountable for their shared public space, it’s not appropriate to just listen to one of them and ignore the other—you have to listen to both sides in order to satisfy all parties affected by, interested in, and responsible for the problem. That is a much harder design challenge.”
Berkowitz believes that “scholars of democracy tend to listen to just one of the groups that are affected by, interested in, or responsible for a public problem.” He says that “there are, for instance, organizations that are incredibly biased toward the opinions and needs of local governments. There are organizations that are equally biased toward the needs of local media or the needs of individuals and their political advocacy.” He feels that it’s important to try to provide “a balanced center for all those actors” associated with a public problem. It’s “really where you have to be in order to make change” and, presumably, where scholars of democracy should try to focus more attention.
Hopes for the Future
SeeClickFix was swiftly adopted by a number of local governments after its release and has received a number of testimonials from city mayors in the United States. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, for example, wrote that he was pleased to “work with SeeClickFix to create new ways to improve service delivery, increase government accountability, and improve the quality of life for all Chicagoans” (SeeClickFix 2017). Berkowitz and his colleagues are heartened by the positive response SeeClickFix has received from local government officials. “They showed us that SeeClickFix could be helpful for them.” Most notable in Berkowitz’s experience was realizing “that the problems local government officials were having intersected with the problems their citizens were having.” The capacity for real change, says Berkowitz, lies at this point of intersection.
SeeClickFix’s success has gained traction in the media, too. For example, journalist Jessi Smith (2017), writing for 83Degrees, reports that SeeClickFix now operates in “thousands of towns and neighbourhoods across the U.S. and internationally.”1 Glen Zimmerman, chief information officer for Sarasota County’s information technology department, told Smith that he sees SeeClickFix as “a citizen issue management … system.” The service, says Zimmerman, “empowers citizens to take their issues directly to [the] county,” and citizens’ issues need to be quickly addressed by the county as problems are reported, and acted on, in an open social media context. A lackluster response to the problems that citizens report could be enough cause to punish local politicians at the next municipal election.
Berkowitz shares that new players are approaching his company off the back of this publicity. “We’re finding that there are many other service providers, from homeowners’ associations to public and private companies, who affect environments and individuals.” These other actors “are coming to the table to interact with affected and interested citizens to get some real change happening at the intersection of their shared concern.”
In closing, Berkowitz says that he “wants anyone in the world to feel empowered to improve the environment around them,” be it “built, cultural, or social.” He places his faith in the internet’s capacity to combat citizen frustration with the way democracies function. And he has good reason to do so given SeeClickFix’s positive track record. It has, after all, thus far been successful at connecting engaged citizens with their local governments.
1. Smith does not provide the data to sustain the claim that “thousands of towns and neighbourhoods” are using SeeClickFix. Our own research points to SeeClickFix’s claim that their company has, as of 2016, developed partnerships with hundreds of local governments. Given that some of these partners include major cities like Chicago, which has more than 50 community areas (i.e., neighborhoods), it’s likely that Smith’s claim is in the ballpark.
Dean, Dwight G. 1960. “Alienation and Political Apathy.” Social Forces 38 (3): 185–189.
Lee, Yoonkyung. 2009. “Democracy without Parties? Political Parties and Social Movements for Democratic Representation in Korea.” Korea Observer 40 (1): 27–52.
Manning, Nathan. 2015. “Feeling Politics: The Importance of Emotions for Understanding Electoral (Dis)engagement.” Pp. 107–130 in Political (Dis)Engagement: The Changing Nature of the ‘Political,’ ed. Nathan Manning. Bristol: Policy Press.
SeeClickFix. 2017. “Mayor Testimonials.” 10 January. https://gov.seeclickfix.com/mayor-quotes/.
Smith, Jessi. 2017. “New Technology, Web Apps Engage Users in Making Local Streets more Accessible, Safer.” 83degrees, 10 January. http://www.83degreesmedia.com/features/apps-engage-users-in-road-safety-011017.aspx.
White, Patricia. 2012. “Making Political Anger Possible: A Task for Civic Education.” Journal of Philosophy of Education 46 (1): 1–13.
Zaalouk, Malak. 2014. “A Human Economy: A ‘Third Way’ for the Future of Young People in the Middle East and North Africa.” International Review of Education 60 (3): 339–359.
Reference guide: 2017. Berkowitz, B. and JP Gagnon. “SeeClickFix Empowers Citizens by Connecting Them to Their Local Governments”. Democratic Theory, vol 4, iss 1, pp. 121-124.
Further reading: What is democratic theory?