Mere weeks before the recent violence that has broken out in Kiev, we had the opportunity to spend 10 days there working with local NGOs doing anti-corruption and good-government work thanks to a generous donation from [PACT Ukraine](http://www.pactworld.org/country/ukraine). Since the [Euromaidan protests that began in late 2013](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euromaidan) and culminated in the [2014 Ukrainian revolution](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2014_Ukrainian_revolution), Ukraine has been a tale of two cities: a groundswell of enthusiasm for government reforms with a backdrop of war and continued tensions with Russia in the east.
Many of the groups and projects with which we were able to collaborate have only started in the last year; with this fresh energy, we saw a prime opportunity to take some of Sunlight’s experience in using technology to make governments more open and apply them to these new efforts. Among the organizations and causes with which we consulted are:
* [Chesno](http://www.chesno.org/), a project of [Centre UA](http://centreua.org/en/): Chesno focuses on informing citizens to help them make better decisions in local and parliamentary elections by bringing greater awareness to corruption, nepotism and other misconduct among candidates.
* [The Anti-Corruption Action Center (AntAC)](http://antac.org.ua/en/): AntAC has a number of projects to make information available about the networks that connect government officials and members of the private sector, with a particular focus on politically exposed persons.
* [Transparency International Ukraine](http://ti-ukraine.org/en): The initiatives on which we consulted with TI Ukraine focused on its whistleblower efforts, both in encouraging whistleblowing as well as providing legal and other support to whistleblowers.
* [Reanimation Package of Reforms (RPR)](http://www.rpr.org.ua/en): RPR’s mission is to advance a reform-oriented policy agenda through the Ukrainian parliament. We consulted with RPR on specific efforts to score proposed reform legislation and allow members of the public to track its progress.
Interestingly, we found a couple of common themes emerged in working with these groups. They’re things that generalize beyond a Ukrainian context, and feel relevant to us both as we’ve tried to take them more seriously in our own work, and as a renewed reminder of their importance in our projects going forward.
## Think about your users
Sunlight Labs has been [trying over the last couple of years](https://sunlightfoundation.com/blog/2014/02/03/human-centered-design-open-congress/) to incorporate more ideas from the philosophy of [human-centered design](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User-centered_design) (also called “design research” or “design thinking”) into our process for building tools. Briefly, this is a methodology for ensuring that we build tools that actually meet user needs, focusing on actually talking with members of the target audiences in question rather than relying on our own instincts.
With some of the groups, we walked through the full design research processes we might use in a large project, but we recognize that not all teams have the resources to commit to extensive user research efforts in advance of project execution. Still, many key ideas in this methodology can be distilled down to a few key questions, such as:
* Who is going to use this tool?
* What for?
* What concrete problem of theirs does this tool solve?
* Is the plan for the tool tailored to helping those users solve that problem?
* Does it couch the problem and solution in terms those users will be able to understand?
* On the opposite extreme, does it patronize?
Ideally teams would answer these questions by talking with users, but even thinking about them is often a useful step. It’s so easy for technologists in the policy space to have tunnel vision about what things are actually useful or interesting to people, and what things average users might or might not understand. We have to remember that people use tools to solve problems — not just because they’re there — and we’ll only get our tools adopted if we identify those problems beforehand; an “if you build it, they will come” mentality is unfortunately common in the civic tech space, and [Sunlight has been](http://sunlightfoundation.com/tools/180-degrees/) [as guilty](http://sunlightfoundation.com/tools/inbox-influence/) [of that](http://sunlightfoundation.com/tools/politiwidgets/) [as anyone](http://sunlightfoundation.com/tools/sunlight-health/).
Fortunately, many in the Ukrainian civic tech space are already starting to grapple with this kind of thinking in their approach to building tool. We hope the conversations we were able to have around these issues will help move that thinking forward.
## Civic engagement
As a new government in Ukraine tries to rebuild their government while fighting an ongoing battle with hostile neighbors, we also observed demand from practitioners, funders and government for resources on how to engage citizens with corruption and encourage political participation. We repeatedly heard concerns that citizens are inundated with news stories that expose corruption and everyone understands that it is a widespread problem, but this knowledge only increases cynicism among Ukrainians and deepens the belief that corruption is part of life. Trying to foster citizen interest in these issues is a challenge that we, and many others within this space, have contended with. Political finance, corruption and freedom of information laws are high-level issues that can sometimes be difficult to grasp without prior subject knowledge. Although the impact of these issues on citizens is huge, it can be difficult to draw their effects on the daily lives of citizens directly.
While we certainly face the problem of reaching average citizens with these issues in the U.S., we also benefit from a longstanding culture of civic participation and a civil society ecosystem that includes both high-level advocacy groups and organizations dedicated to grassroots activism. Citizens have the expectation that they should be able to contact their representatives, and elected officials are accustomed to this (as evidenced by the fact that they all have constituent affairs offices dedicated to facilitating this very correspondence). The U.S. has a more personality-driven election process, while Ukrainian elections seem to be more party-driven, and therefore the expectations for this kind of communication may be very different. In addition to the country’s history and context, the process of building this culture in Ukraine will depend heavily on confronting these obstacles.
Despite Ukraine’s unique circumstances, we’ve heard about some of these challenges echoed by civil society organizations globally. The questions of whether or not civic tech tools are meeting needs and are actually having an impact — be it on an increase in citizen engagement or on policy — are part of a growing conversation being had as this field matures. We are excited to contribute to these conversations going forward and hope that the insight that we tried to impart in Ukraine is useful to them and others working in global open government initiatives.