Let’s talk about talk in Civic Tech

“Civic Tech,” once a niche term, is now a topic of speculation and investment worldwide. Non-profit organizations, governments, and grassroots groups are using the term to describe their work. In light of this continued interest, Hana Schank and Sara Hudson recently revived a definitional debate on Civic Tech with their post, What We Mean When We Talk about “Civic Tech?Given that I’ve just finished an introductory book on Civic Tech, I’m offering some reflections about the importance of talk and the limits of the term.

“Civic Tech” has been notoriously difficult to talk about. Some have taken a broad definition. Micah Sifry suggested that he thought Civic Tech “ought to be seen broadly as any tool or process that people as individuals or groups may use to affect the public arena.” Philanthropies, by contrast, have preferred definitions based on technologies and areas that they are interested in funding. For example, the Knight Foundation defined Civic Tech as uniting multiple fields, such as government data, community organizing, and social networks. However, in 2014 Emily Shaw noted that there was little uniting these definitions, or a movement as a whole. When we talk about Civic Tech, are we referring to a set of problems, or a way we reach out to the public?

In “How We Talk About How We Talk,” Robert Craig argued that this “metadiscourse” is never “just talk.” Rather, talk-about-talk invites us to examine how we think communication can impact social problems. In this case, talking about the way we talk about Civic Tech is to engage in difficult debates about how communication, technology design, and politics are entwined.

Admittedly, it is not always easy to see what we are talking about with Civic Tech. It is a field full of wonks and geeks grappling in specific and very personal ways with the stakes of organizing politically around technology. Everyone I’ve spoken to has also been inspired by a wide range of progressive concepts, like John Dewey’s pragmatism, informational transparency, and participatory design. In many ways, Civic Tech as an idea acts as a platform for talking about ways to improve civic life.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Before we talk about how we talk about Civic Tech — and my reasons for arguing we should embrace its vagueness — we need to talk about why this talk has emerged at our particular historical moment.

We lack civic institutions for technology design

Think about what the phrase “political participation” means to you. It probably elicits images of voting and going to city council meetings. These are vital forms of political engagement in a representative democracy. Voting enables people’s voices to be heard, and bureaucracies to be responsive to needs of constituents. In the United States we have many public institutions — like libraries and education — that are the result of a liberal democracy making conscious decisions to invest in residents. These institutions were brought about by civic leaders we elect opting to put funding towards the public good, often in response to public pressure. Typically technology is designed by outsourced contractors without much oversight.

We lack civic institutions for technology design that increase equality.

Over dozens of interviews with techies over the last three years, I’ve found that they are motivated the most by a desire for equality (or equity). For example, Candace Faber, then Civic Technology Advocate for Seattle, argued that the very reason Civic Tech is needed is because technocratic approaches have failed. “I think the reason Civic Tech exists is because, so far, technology has not fulfilled its promise to make society more equitable,” she said. “In a lot of ways, technology has made it harder for people to access information and services.”

By this measure, Civic Tech is necessary right now not because technology will solve all our problems, but because throwing technology at a problem has rarely improved people’s lives in a straightforward way. Making technology work for people is never simple. We may be at peak “bad tech” — technologies that exacerbate inequalities and appear out of control. I think about organizations like Code for America as proto-institutions for integrating technology design with broader reforms, and gaining momentum inside of government.

Private tech companies are having some… issues

For the last ten years I’ve watched as Civic Tech moved from a message of “we’re bringing private tech skills into the public sector” to thinking that public sector tech design might be something entirely different… even better. I think this is a worthwhile realization, since it is not particularly healthy to put tech corporations on a pedestal.

Companies like Facebook extract data about behavior, which is analyzed by behavioral analytics and complex algorithms. As the comic above suggests, Facebook is foremost a mobile advertising platform. Working in the tech industry can be unrewarding and even unethical. In light of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, whether we want to treat Facebook as a civic institution should prompt reflection. Not all problems are best solved by throwing a social network at big, complex social problems. And not all “technology” is a social network.

I think the question is not whether Facebook is terrible. The question is more, why do we convince ourselves that a mobile advertising platform is a civic institution?

This speaks volumes to what we lack in the public sector: the capacity for integrating technology design with broad policy and process reforms that civic leaders can get behind. So Civic Tech is tackling tough organizational problems, not just technological ones. While there is surely much more to say about both the downfall of civic institutions and the rise of tech companies, this might serve as a bookmark to signal some of the issues at play.

Techies want to participate in meaningful ways

We have a surplus of designers, programmers, and community organizers. It is not surprising to me that people have gravitated to Civic Tech as a mode of political participation. Techies do what anyone does in moments of crisis: find fulfilling work that makes best use of their skills and has an impact on issues they care deeply about. Take Jazmyn Latimer’s well-known work on Clear My Record, which connects individuals with resources to remove minor offenses from their criminal records. A significant barrier is removed for them to participate in society. For example, they can get a job. I find her work important because it clarifies communication and increases participation between government and a very specific group of users. It puts legally-entitled rights into action, and can be scaled up and customized across geographic regions.

In my opinion, Civic Tech shines with efforts that combine communication practice, design research, cultural sensitivity, and tapping of existing expertise. I am not anti-private tech companies, but as I recently argued in a podcast, we should lead the discussion without giving them the keys to the city (looking at you, Amazon).

It is okay that we may never have a clear definition

Sometimes we talk about things in vague ways because being more detailed is less likely to productively mobilize people. Think about politics — you probably don’t agree with every position of your chosen candidate. And on many issues politicians are evasive, because their platform needs to mobilize a broad base of support. Similarly, it is organizationally strategic that “tech” and “civic” part of “civic tech” can mean different things to different people. Their very undefined nature makes civic tech an effective platform for communication. I mean, how else are you going to get republicans to work with socialists in an era of political polarization?

Civic Tech also taps into intractable debates that are less about technology, and more about how politics works: are we “all in it together” or should we “have our voices heard”? Can administrative work be a form of political participation? How should we foster participation in improved design of shared infrastructure? These questions will never be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. If they were, the movement would splinter apart.

This is why Civic Tech is defined by ambiguity.

The idea of organizing around technology design is powerful, but needs to be rather nebulous. Getting too specific would risk pushing some techies out, or isolating partners and funders. Progressively improving systems and fostering public ownership requires a lot of different forms of expertise, which is always in motion. Right now techies are iterating on their ideas and learning from their mistakes. They are motivated by problem-solving and political participation over anything intrinsic about technology. This is helpful for civic problem-solving, even as it makes organizations walk a difficult tightrope in terms of messaging.

Let’s keep talking about talk

What matters is how we organize and collaborate to improve people’s lives in tangible ways. To me, the remarkable part of Civic Tech is that it has coalesced tens of thousands of techies worldwide to confront systemic public problems. This is an organizational achievement. In turn, they have advocated for community partnerships, open government, and progressive improvement of government services — all ideas I can get behind. But this “big tent” of ideas enables certain types of collaborations, even as it stands as a barrier to other types of organizing. I’m looking forward to the Code for America Summit. We need to keep talking.

Because communication — talk, images, and stories — binds and organizes communities in ways that technology alone cannot.

If you liked this, check out my book Civic Tech: Making Technology Work for People, available for purchase as a paperback and a free download.