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Civic Engagement and Community Collaboration: A New Model on Access to Justice Improvements

Calls for access to justice improvements stress the importance of public-centered, multidisciplinary approaches. We know that in order to make the justice system more accessible, we need to diversify the problem solvers and our approaches. In response to this, The Action Group on Access to Justice (TAG) recently began working with Civic Tech Toronto in an effort to develop work that operates from the intersection of civic engagement, technology and law.

Civic Tech Toronto is a vibrant community-driven, volunteer organization that organizes weekly “meetups” where attendees learn about civic issues, share ideas and expertise, and develop solutions to civic challenges through technology and design. Civic Tech Toronto is part of a global civic tech movement that includes leaders like Code for Canada and its community network and U.S. counterparts like Civic Hall NYC, Code for America and its network of brigades.

The weekly meetups serve as opportunities to learn about organizations working on civic issues, generate connections and provide working space for project teams. Individuals are free to join project teams that are focused on creating products, tools and experiences that address civic challenges. The scope of civic challenges is very broad spanning projects that aim to engage diverse citizens in political debate, make public services more accessible and easier to navigate, and make government data more useful. Related efforts include the following in-progress Civic Tech Toronto projects: Budgetpedia, Bikespace, DemocracyKit, and Women and Colour. As everyone is welcome to be a volunteer member, the community has attracted a wide range of professional backgrounds ranging from technologists, designers, public servants, community activists and everything in between.

TAG’s engagement with Civic Tech Toronto has led to the creation of the Law & Design CoLab which is reversing the roles from traditional pro bono legal work: rather than lawyers donating their services to organizations and individuals, professionals from all kinds of non-legal sectors, as well as engaged community members, are contributing their time, expertise and fresh perspectives to help justice sector organizations advance access to justice initiatives. Over the past few months, a team of 15 volunteers — with professional backgrounds ranging from user experience research and design, marketing, graphic design, coding, data science, consulting, education, law, and public policy — has met on evenings and weekends to work on making incremental improvements to Steps to Justice, a plain language website that presents information about common legal problems in Ontario.

The Law & Design CoLab’s work is focused on enhancing the impact and reach of this important resource which is led by Community Legal Education Ontario (CLEO) and brings together organizations from across the justice sector – a collaboration that was facilitated by TAG. The CoLab is guided by Avery Au and Mari Zhou. Avery is a lawyer and project manager; Mari is a Master’s student at U of T’s Faculty of Information – both have strong links to the Civic Tech Toronto community.

Over the course of the past ten weeks, the CoLab team has outlined three projects to improve the web analytics, marketing materials and mobile user experience of Steps to Justice. TAG and CLEO look forward to supporting this work which brings refreshing insights and critical professional skills – variables that are crucial to ensuring that Steps to Justice is viewed not only as credible but also as a relevant resource to Ontario residents.

How has this CoLab team developed its projects? It began by conducting five hours of interviews with CLEO staff to develop a solid understanding of the organization, the design considerations behind Steps to Justice and to explore opportunities for collaboration. After team members had shared and synthesized the information gained from these interviews, they spent several weeks on brainstorming, scoping, planning and prototyping. The result was three project proposals driven by CLEO’s needs and the interest of the community members and their skills:

  1. Develop insights into user behavior using web analytics
  2. Develop media marketing strategies and materials for Steps to Justice
  3. Investigate opportunities to improve the mobile user experience of Steps to Justice and validate findings via user testing with an interactive prototype

The process for collaboration encourages co-learning between team members and the partner organizations. The motivation of the Law & Design CoLab is to amplify the work of partner organizations and empower their efforts on the front-lines of improving access to justice. This approach – with TAG as a facilitator of collaboration among diverse actors, CLEO as the provider of public legal education and Civic Tech Toronto as the expert on civic engagement and technology – represents a new model for cross-sector collaboration on access to justice issues.

Inspired by the success of groups like the Stanford Legal Design Lab and the UK Ministry of Justice Digital & Technology Group, it is clear there is a large untapped potential in Ontario’s justice sector for this type of interdisciplinary project-based work. It should be noted that while some Ontario organizations have already done excellent work combining legal issues and design methods, participation has been limited to students (e.g. Winkler Institute’s Justice Design Project and Aboriginal Youth programs, Ryerson Legal Innovation Zone’s Bootcamp).

In this new model, a team of volunteers possessing diverse professional talent engages with a non-profit organization with support from a facilitator on short-term, well-defined projects that combine technology, design methods and an experimental ethos. In this instance, projects focus on building, iterating and improving legal information products while learning and implementing new knowledge, skills and paradigms. The CoLab’s ultimate purpose is to support the growth of a rich, cross-sector network of collaborators that fosters citizen engagement, understanding and ownership of justice issues.

While outcomes from this work are forthcoming, it is energizing to be working in formation on a new model of access to justice improvements that elevates civic engagement and community collaboration through the diversification of problem solvers.

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