Curiosity was the Driving Force: Q&A with Antaraa Vasudev, Founder of Civis.vote
An experimenter in the civic-tech space, Antaraa is passionate about dialogues between citizens and governments through the use of technology. She is the founder of Civis.vote, India’s first platform that enables citizens to understand legislation and share their feedback on laws and policy decisions.
At Civis, Antaraa and her team believe that to keep the spirit of democracy alive, we need to build a bridge between citizens & governments – not just to ensure that people’s voices are heard but more importantly, acknowledged and acted upon by those in power.
Civis is currently seeking active consultation from citizens on 3 policies: Lakshadweep Animal Preservation Regulation, 2021, Draft Rules for Electronic Devices Used by Traffic Officers and Policy Review: Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897.
Could you tell us a bit about Civis?
Civis is a non-profit platform that helps citizens and governments work together to draft laws and policy. The idea that we are working with is that there is a lot of constructive dialogue possible on India’s laws. But it needs to happen at the right time. And oftentimes, there needs to be a translator to take the citizens’ voice to the government and the government’s voice to the citizens. So we work in this process of public consultations, and we are running these consultations using technology. Civis will be three years old in April of 2021.
At what point in your journey as a social entrepreneur did you think about population-scale impact? What was that moment like?
A group of us, social entrepreneurs, (as part of The Nudge Center for Social Innovation) attended a session on scale by Sanjay Purohit. I think it would be very accurate to say that a lot of us didn’t eat dinner that night! We were so wrapped in that concept of how large the potential of impact could be that it got us thinking. It was an eye opener in terms of what is possible. A lot of us weren’t looking at the possibilities of our work to realistically scale to the extent that it could.
It was definitely overwhelming. It was not just about growing, it was about reimagining our work and the way we think scale. It was also thought provoking in how much we’d probably need to go back to the drawing board and to start thinking about things in a different way if we wanted to get there. This feeling of being overwhelmed quickly, at least in our interactions was translated into, okay! what comes first? what comes next? how do we build the blocks?
How did you go about finding answers to these questions..of how to serve citizens of India at scale?
It became tangible to me when I realised that there was a path to get to that population scale. That it wasn’t perhaps just an abstract idea that one could or could not do. But there were steps that we could take to flesh out the work that we were doing and ensure that it engages more. For me personally, that may not have come from a point of intentional thinking, but more from a point of curiosity of how can we do this? How will it work in Civis’s case? That curiosity was also a big driving force in thinking more deeply about this and trying to plan for it.
How did you arrive at this intersection of law & technology?
In early 2014-15, there was a lot of conversation in India about how technology and policy are not two things that go well together. I was curious to understand what are the use cases that can make them go well together. How can we get technology to be an enabling tool, a tool that can basically enable different processes? We knew that the technology existed. Yet, why was it that the policy process was one that was not being enabled, or perhaps being as interactive as it could be? That was the point of curiosity for me.
At Civis, we were keen to understand a model for it to scale. We needed to reach more people for there to be a lot more engagement. At that intersection, we were a bit lost and were looking for a framework for us to fit ourselves in because it was part technology, but very much social. And that’s where the platform concept clicked for us because I realized that there is essentially a platform, a tool that has many different people accessing it, and taking away something from the platform itself. That is what we saw for the public consultation process as a whole – it needed government and citizens to speak to each other. It needed some sort of value to be exchanged. The citizen should feel appreciated, the government should get good feedback.
So does the government really engage with citizens?
It’s interesting. Our role at Civis is to facilitate this back and forth between citizens and government. What we have tried to do is to make that process of, say the 300 suggestions citizens might share, a little less overwhelming and a little more intelligent for the government to process. So that we are enabling the person on the other side to make sense of the feedback that is coming in.
In India, we get large volumes of inputs and there is no dedicated resource to go through them or make sense of them. There is still a lot of gap in being able to match what people are saying and what can be implemented.
But we’ve seen in some laws, for example, recently in the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Rules 2020, there was up to 52% of citizens feedback that was taken into account and a lot of very different provisions of the law were put out at a later stage. When the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Rules 2020 was put out, there was a provision which said that a transgender person has to get registered at the district magistrate by doing a physical verification. Now, a lot of members of the transgender community did not find that very comfortable to have to verify physically. A few months later, we saw that that provision was removed. And now it is a self certification to just say that I am a transgender person, and that is enough to entitle you to get the certificate of a transgender person.
It is early days and I think in some ways, we’re still working on building that hypothesis. There are a lot of times that things don’t pan out. But when it does pan out, it’s very encouraging to see because the impact is on a very, very large population after that intervention.