Advocating for Users, Engaging Citizens: Analyzing the Rhetoric of Civic Engagement in the Digital Services Movement

Jeffrey M Gerding, Purdue University


This dissertation examines the digital service movement, a global effort to improve government services for citizens by importing best practices and talent from outside government, including private sector technology companies, the open source software community, and civic technology nonprofit organizations. More specifically, I focus on the digital service movement as it has developed within the United States Federal Government during the second term of former president Barack Obama. By studying the processes, methods, and tools through which federal agencies have created space for more active, transparent, and multidirectional citizen involvement, my dissertation contributes to an ongoing conversation about the role technical communicators, service designers, and user researchers can play as advocates for what Robert Johnson (1998) terms “the user as citizen” (p. 46). Recognizing users as active and engaged citizens allows professionals within the federal government to advocate for spaces in which citizens are empowered to contribute to the decision-making processes that directly impact their lives. Located at the intersection of public rhetoric, professional and technical communication, and experience architecture, this study seeks to understand how user experience design, usability research, service design theory, and principles of human-centered design have been institutionalized within the United States federal government. I theorize that the digital service movement has achieved success, in part, by circulating a rhetoric of civic engagement comprised of the values, methods, tools and technology, and best practices necessary for sustaining the movement both within and beyond individual institutions, which contributes both toward short-term adoption of digital services practices and the long-term goal of transforming government/citizen interactions.




Salvo, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Technical Communication|Rhetoric

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