Speaking at Your City Hall About Technology Policy. Some Possible Whys. (Part I)
Making use of short time for the long game
This post is about using the format of short (3–5 minute) public presentations to city committees (they’re called deputations in Toronto) for political engagement on tech policy, in any city. Deputations are great tactically, but not necessarily in the way they are classically used or understood. More on that to come.
Deputations have a defined container/package in which to work (always helpful). And they tether political learning and action to specific — and contextual — pieces of the longer tech policy and advocacy work that so many of us are doing in cities everywhere. The package is either a short speech or a letter. Deputations are one way to help us learn together about the tech being used by any city. By participating in decision-making by making a deputation, you get to learn about local governance, how tech issues are handled, who makes decisions about what, when, etc.
In Toronto, the unit size, so to speak, for a deputation is called an item. When an item goes to a committee, you can request to speak to it/about it. These items could be about the city budget, the award of a contract to tech vendor, the design of a policy (in Toronto, the Digital Infrastructure Plan, for example). There are hundreds of items going to committees every month.
In Toronto, during the pandemic, making these short (3–5 minutes) scheduled public presentations to elected officials about any policy matter is done remotely. This means either joining by phone (what I do) or using a platform called webex. Setting the significant digital divide issues aside, this remoteness has increased accessibility and participation in some ways. The alternative, the standard, is to make these presentations at City Hall in person, which presents barriers related to travel time, ability to take time off to do so, etc. Neither format addresses general access issues related to taking time off to attend, language, etc. But the format is not intended to be the everything of a democracy, just a tactic among a bunch. Aside: in 2017, a group of us shared some ideas to improve municipal governance in Toronto, and wrote a bit about deputations there, see pages 32/33.
The main idea behind these presentations that we can deliver is that they give the public a chance to speak to elected officials about a policy topic that they are currently making a decision about. After you give the speech, the elected officials can ask you questions, so sometimes the speech opens up an exchange, an actual direct and public dialogue, an on the record public conversation.
I have made a handful of deputations over the last few years. At the beginning, this process included Mark Richardson of HousingNowTO having endless patience with me, (and through me, other civic tech people) as I would message him the same questions every damn time about logistics because the process is inaccessible and not intuitive. Every time you go to do something, you realize you don’t know something else procedurally, and on it goes. Thanks as ever Mark. This week, as I considered whether to sign up to do a deputation, I had a conversation with myself about whether it made sense. Would it be a good use of time? Below is the start of a list of things I thought about. This list is not exhaustive, it will see additions/edits over time.
Aside: Gabe Sawhney (fellow Civic Tech Toronto crew) recently posted an update to a tool called Tabs Toronto which is excellent. It allows you to enter terms that you care about watching at City Hall and will send you notifications by email when items with those terms are going to a city committee. As he wrote about the tool’s history: “Tabs Toronto is inspired by a project of the same name which ran from 2012–2018, created by Bill Cowen, Christian Muise, Jayme Turney and others. This original project won first place after being initiated at a hackathon hosted by Random Hacks of Kindness Toronto (RHoKTO) in December 2012. It was later lovingly incubated by the now defunct Toronto Public Space Initiative.”
This tool is sometimes why I wake up and think about doing a deputation. So thank you Gabe.
We’re going to share a post in the next month or so over at Tech Reset Canada about the practicalities of doing a deputation on tech policy in Toronto — how to know when to do it, how to sign up, logistics, etc. There we’ll point to good practical advice and programs from others, such as Progress Toronto, on deputations. There is also a lot of organizing and mobilizing mechanics related to the work you can, or should, do with elected officials prior to doing a deputation. And the political calculus you have to consider there. But not today. Too much.
Considerations for Making Deputations on Technology Policy Items
- Don’t consider the immediate political outcome of the item (ie: how it gets voted on/changed etc.) the main or only point of being at city hall, it’s not. Consider the deputation as a long-term investment in public tech power. There is a well-earned cynicism about this exercise because it can feel pointless on a range of levels. From the idea that elected officials have their minds well made up prior to you being there, to the sense of detachment you feel when you are speaking and elected officials are looking at their phones. That’s just two, there are lots of other reasons to question this use of our time. BUT. The core idea here, which is why this one is first, is that we can use these minutes and hours — both private and public time — for ourselves, for our work. We can see them as a part of creating an operational discipline in claiming public power over public technology. This opens a door to that constant question of “what can I do, today, tomorrow, etc?” when everything feels so overwhelming. When you engage at the local level, you start to get your head around the documents, the reports, the city divisions, the people in power, and how their status quo functions. You get to know the city as a political space, and you learn how the tech issues you work on are formally related to all of it. You sometimes want to run very far away. But then you cool off and get back to it.
- We don’t have an adequate handle on what is even going on with publicly-funded technology: what assets exist, how much they cost, how they are both managed and governed, etc. Consider engaging with city hall through deputations as a mode of what lawyers call ‘discovery’. When lawyers have a new case, they go through a process at the beginning called discovery where they go out on a mission to collect information to understand what they are doing. Emails, reports, documents, research on the city, conversations with city staff, city councillors, etc. This is a good way to think about the work we have ahead in the short-term to get a cohesive picture of what our municipal public technology looks like. We need a map of what we have, what it costs, which companies are involved, how they are contracted, etc. We need to do this same exercise at other jurisdictions too, but today we’re looking at the city. The reason discovery is a good way to think about this is because there is an immense amount of work to do here for any of our public engagement to matter a damn. If we don’t know where we are starting, we can write all the “in the future we will do x” kind of tech policy we want (hello Digital Infrastructure Plan), but where are we starting from, and how do we transition from there? How do we shift from closed to open source software? How do we remove software that is doing a bad job or making public service delivery a problem for staff or residents? This is also a critical element of tech procurement — it’s not just what we are or aren’t buying or building, it’s how do those opportunities to talk about tech infrastructure create gating mechanisms for changing what we already have, for maintenance? Gating means a trigger or a flag here. We don’t have to show up to challenge a 43 million dollar five year software license, but it’s helpful to make sure we, and our political leadership, understand what we’re buying and the path it commits us to. This is a basic feature of public oversight in an area that has seen very little sunlight over the last few decades.
- There is a need for deep and strategic pragmatism about ownership vs. control of public technology. We need to understand where ownership is not possible, unlikely, or the wrong site of battle, and where infrastructure minimization or abolition is the right tactic. This ties to deputation purpose — what kind of things can we learn when we show up to ask about pieces of the public technology system? There is a need for some (not all) good faith engagement with the decisions a city has made to date about purchasing and infrastructure. Not only do we need to understand the state of the information, we need to understand a common term in city documents — the “decision history”. We need to understand why, as Ana Brandusescu asks, contracts for tech terminations occur? What are the lessons learned? How are these decisions made? Or as Toon Dressen asks, “How often is a contract underway, and continued simply because it’s easier to do so than terminate and restart?” The procurement mechanism of government sets in motion a series of steps that generally deliver technology purchases as policy. The stage where these things surface are for now way too late in the cycle for them to be democratic. Despite the problems with this, which will take a while yet to address, purchasing does trigger items to go to committees which then opens them up for deputation. Which brings us to the power of the question. But before we go there, a final thought on ownership vs. stewardship and picking the right fights. One element of point two and three here is using deputations to learn more about the status quo of our local tech systems. Preparing to depute gets you reading reports and asking questions of staff sometimes. One of the things I’m currently grappling with is the extent to which our public technology infrastructures are private infrastructures. When the City of Toronto undertook a cloud strategy (which I’m reading about), what started to happen? What does this mean for our access to and shaping of everything from hardware (which can be more like a commodity) to software that defines workflows (which is how public service operations occur) to finance (where is the City and its residents being offered up as as a base for financialization through transaction fees?) Seda Gurses and Martha Poon have long been drawing attention to the endless appetite for the supply-side data management that cloud computing companies have — how are we to intervene? The first thing we need to understand is how these things are set up today. And when we depute on any item, when we show up to speak, we can change the frame that we use from “we should do this because x” to “what are we doing, exactly, please help me understand?”
- We can use speaking at city hall to exercise the power of the question. In tech policy advocacy work, it makes a lot of sense to include elected officials in these discovery acts. I’ll end here, the birds are chirping a lot, the coffee is stone cold, it’s getting lighter, and I’ve come full circle to the reason for this post. I have, like anyone who has done a few deputations, done some good ones, one pretty bad one, and a few meh. I’ve usually been pretty prepared, sometimes scrambled with changes at the last minute, etc. So understand that what I’m sharing here is something I’ve done well and done poorly. At the heart of where I’ve done well and poorly, both, is my ongoing journey to adequately channel anger. Aside: I was recently instructed to read Ursula K. Le Guin’s “About Anger” and this was a good idea in case you’re on this journey too. Back to the three to five minutes of talking we can use at city hall. The impactful part of the power of the question is something that applies broadly to interventions that any of us try to make politically about technology: governments have been doing a lot to direct the path of technology and society without us. As Ursula Franklin described it so well, this is an act of disenfranchisement. While big tech and the private sector take most of the heat, the government has been fully complicit in the funding, commercialization, and implications of technology on society. Their role now is not only to regulate (which, be careful what power gets entrenched there), but also to, in the model of abolition, fund, with our public money, other approaches to problem solving well beyond technosolutionism. This is a big swoop that we can tie all the way back to small little bits and pieces of the field we’re trying to understand, the map of our current digital infrastructures. When we show up to city hall, we don’t have to say what to do, we really don’t. And this should feel and be understood as freeing. Seeking accountability for past and current conditions does not require knowledge of what to do otherwise, it simply asks for an accounting of what is. Here, in our cities, what is is highly private. What is has been decided often by staff. What is is not well understood by elected officials either. And what is seeks to reduce the power of elected officials, and through them, us. This is where elected officials and residents can explore constructive discovery of our hardware and software and all of its implications together, out of mutual interest. Software privatizes governance and can also privatize revenue flows. Software privatizes things called workflows that impact how public services are delivered. So rather than expecting political officials to have some emotional connection to public power over technology we have to step further back and engage them in the work of figuring out where exactly we are right now.
This is an incomplete post written in the spirit of continuing work midway that lots of us are doing and seeking to start to hammer out specific operational ways to do these public moments at city halls everywhere. More to come, for this post offers several places for scaffolding, and there are lots of others to engage in this with. Sometimes the sheer size of this problem, of how what should be public infrastructure has been constructed in such a non-civic way, is overwhelming. Dealing with where to start can feel too much, and can make one angry about how we’ve gone about our tech policies to date. It does that to me sometimes. But there are lots of small steps to take to continue to get this situation under more of our control. To that end, here’s a quote from About Anger from Le Guin:
“Anger points powerfully to the denial of rights, but the exercise of rights can’t live and thrive on anger. It lives and thrives on the dogged pursuit of justice.”
Doing some homework and learning the ins and outs of city hall does require a bit of doggedness. It shouldn’t, but it does. And to close, to always do what I lament we need to do more of, we have to be able to tie this seeming tangent back to ongoing colonialism and slavery. If you consider the need for truth before reconciliation, you can also understand the need for understanding the shape of each space or field in clear terms. In this case, the public monies and social impacts of city technology not only cause ongoing harm though the administrative violence of systems, but also in the opportunity cost we pay when we fail to invest and build otherwise. Let these tangents be something you practice so their declaration isn’t heavy or contentious, simply a statement of fact that informs the daily practice of seeking accountability, in small units, on a daily basis, in concert, alone, and in shared purpose.