Civic Tech as a Tween

Cyd Harrell
Sep 10, 2018 · 13 min read

The civic tech community in the US is about 10 years into a 5 year project. I’m counting from the Apps for Democracy contest hosted in DC by then-city CTO Vivek Kundra in the summer of 2008. While there are arguably other catalyzing events and there are certainly previous government modernization efforts, it’s a good point to benchmark the open-source, open-data, agile-development driven version that calls itself variously, civic tech, govtech, or (less so these days) government 2.0. Apps for Democracy was the first volunteer civic hackathon with government-released data, and such events were an important practice of the first wave of civic tech.

From its beginnings, civic tech has had ambitious goals to make government at multiple levels more responsive to constituents, more judicious in its use of technology, and less apt to squander taxpayer dollars on failed procurements. From its inception, #civictech has also expected to achieve its goals on a Silicon Valley timeline. (Lest we forget, even Silicon Valley timelines aren’t always as fast as we tend to perceive. Amazon Prime launched in 2005, 11 years after Earth’s Biggest Bookstore. Google was a search engine with a successful targeted ad business until Gmail launched in 2004.) An enormous amount has been achieved in the last 10 years, especially in establishing modern technology work as an appropriate function of government. If you’re the average person, though, the cumulative effect on your interaction with government has likely been small so far.

I’d like to suggest that the current civic tech project is really a 50-year project, intended to change institutions that we hope will last hundreds more. We’re not doing badly for 10 years in, but at this stage we urgently need to consolidate learnings, see ourselves clearly, and set up for the long haul. After 6 years of working exclusively in this subfield of technology, at multiple levels of government, I have a few thoughts about how we should do that. In this post, I’d like to do just two things: outline what “civic tech” comprises in the US in 2018 and identify some of our greatest needs. I promise you a more analytical follow-on piece in <checks recent pace stats> a few weeks to months. In both the categories of “what it is” and “needs” I’m sure I will miss things and I encourage comments.

A little context

Government in the United States is made up of towns or cities, counties, states, and the federal government (in itself one of the largest organizations in the world). I’m not going to discuss regional transit, park, and utility authorities, though they’re also part of it, because there’s plenty to think about with just those 4 standard levels. All fifty states inherit from the federal government a 3-branch model with executive, legislative, and judicial powers separated. In some states, there are municipal courts, and in most there are county-level units of a state court system as well as a system of appellate courts including a state Supreme Court. Nearly all cities and counties have an executive (mayor or county executive, plus all the departments they manage) and a legislature (usually called a council but sometimes a board). With me so far? OK.

Across all four levels, civic tech work is concentrated heavily in the executive branch, which delivers more services directly to the public than either of the others. The executive combines an elected headship (at least one and sometimes multiple offices) which has the power to set policy and appoint department heads, with an explicitly nonpolitical labor force that bridges administrations. When you think of civil servants or bureaucrats, you are thinking of executive branch employees (but law enforcement, park staff, IT workers, and many others also count depending on the level). The executive’s budget is set by the legislature. Almost any time you interact with government, unless you’re going to court or dealing with your elected representative, you are interacting with an executive branch agency. (Elections, by the way, are administered by county-level executive agencies under the supervision of state Secretaries of State, in most of the US.)

All of that background is important context for how the field currently called civic tech came to be. Executive agencies keep records and deliver services; the benefits of computing and eventually networked computing for such tasks have been clear for decades, and governments have been investing for decades. It is a very small government indeed that doesn’t have an IT staff in this day and age. Executive agencies have also had communications staff charged with informing the public using the methods of the day, for many decades.

Two major things and one small thing brought about the coalescence of nerdy constituents interested in better government into civic tech. One was the insight to apply the Freedom of Information Act’s broad directive (and its state-level analogs) that all government-created information can be made public upon request unless there’s a reason for it not to be, to government-produced data. (This insight is generally attributed to a convening of people by Tim O’Reilly and Carl Malamud in 2007, a critical precursor to civic tech.) Once the records kept by government agencies were computerized, they became data usable by computer applications, assuming the programmers could get access. The second critical piece was the development of the web as a customer service medium in the private sector, and the rise of a set of technical and design subdisciplines associated with that. Among many reasons the web matters in the private sector, its direct interface between customers and systems gave companies more immediate information about needs and desires while its relative ease of change (compared to, say, retail environments or mainframe systems) allowed quicker responses…which resulted in more cycles of data and response and, when things went well, better service, greater satisfaction, and higher profits. The factor I’ll call minor (and I’m sure some will disagree) was the idea, related to data being public by default, that if all government publications are in the public domain by default, then all government-produced code should also be in the public domain, i.e. open-source, by default — crucially, making it available for the public to review and contribute to. I should probably throw in the rise of a social media ecosystem that allowed people to gather and talk about all of this across regions and levels of government.

At the Apps for Democracy hackathon in the summer of 2008, a bunch of geeks (and I mean largely engineers here — to my knowledge, no designers were at the event), supported by willing city officials, had a great time writing prototype apps based on municipal datasets, and felt like they did good into the bargain. Prizes were awarded. There was press. People told their friends around the country. As word spread and similar events began to take place in other cities, Vivek Kundra was tapped as the first federal CIO by newly-elected President Obama. One of Obama’s first acts in office was to sign a federal open-data memorandum. Mayors began to follow suit, under pressure from open data groups. Something was under way, and both the federal and municipal threads of it would continue to unspool, eventually joined by (or sweeping under the “civic tech” banner if already running) county and state efforts.

…and here is elided a decade of history, about which we all deserve a book or hopefully several from different perspectives. What I’ll offer as a poor substitute is a timeline I started last year, from a civic design perspective — I’ve made this a public Google doc, so please feel free to add and edit the milestones that are important to you. If anyone wants to turn this into a Github repo or another format, you have my blessing — I’m too busy to do it myself anytime soon…

As of now, in the late summer of 2018, civic tech includes thousands of people at hundreds of separate organizations large and small, working toward broadly aligned goals of making it easier for public servants to do better work for the public, although there are differing views about priorities. Those goals themselves and the practices used to advance them have come under sharper scrutiny, and rightly so; as has the movement’s mediocre record of inclusion and frequent uncritical acceptance of the values of Silicon Valley. We must address these important critiques. At the same time, I am asked constantly “how can I get into civic tech?” and there is useful work (though not necessarily well-developed structure) for thousands more people. So here, with the proviso that no one should enter the field without reading Josh Tauberer’s great 2015 post, is my imperfect and incomplete outline of the civic tech ecosystem at this point in history:

1.Government employees:

The extent to which forward-thinking officials and staff have advanced government’s use of technology to serve the public is one of the secrets of civic tech, and one of our greatest shames is how little we acknowledge it. Nothing below would be possible without the active partnership of governments. Civic tech efforts that ignore or disdain the domain knowledge of civil servants rarely succeed; going forward, we need to make long-time public servants founding members of any effort.

2. Innovation Labs:

The most famous of these are federal: the US Digital Service (modeled on the UK’s slightly older Government Digital Service), the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, and 18F — but they weren’t the first. Boston’s Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, and SF’s Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation may have been the earliest, but today there are too many to count. Denver, San Jose, Baltimore, Minneapolis, just to name a few. If you live in a major city and you search for “city of X innovation lab” or “city of X innovation team” you will probably find yours.

Innovation labs are an early play, and it’s interesting to see some of them spinning out structures more integrated with the rest of government such as San Francisco’s Digital Services Team and Boston’s Digital Team.

In addition, there are local innovation labs housed outside of city halls, in close partnership with them, as with Atlanta’s Center for Civic Innovation, Chicago’s CivicLab, or Boston’s District Hall.

3. Non-profits (examples):

Code for America is the grandmommy of them all. It partners closely with state and local governments on issues of benefit access and safety and justice, and hosts the largest conference for the field, the Code for America Summit.

Center for Civic Design focuses on “democracy as a design problem”, researching & designing best practices for on-the-ground aspects of US elections — ballot & voter guide design, polling center materials, voter registration, etc.

OpenGov Foundation is one of the few civic tech organizations focusing on the legislative branch, primarily with Congress. It does research, prototyping, and policy work.

Human Utility could have been in this category or civic startups, but given that mutual aid is its focus, I’m putting it here. It recruits donors to pay the water bills of people facing water shutoff in Detroit and Baltimore.

SmartChicago Collaborative houses a number of civic technology efforts including the CUTGroup, which brings ordinary residents togethe to learn tech skills and give feedback on civic tech efforts.

4. Civic Tech Startups:

There are very many of these and if I produced a list, it would lean heavily toward those I know from my time at Code for America, when I helped with the Code for America Accelerator. Instead, I’ll give a couple of starting points for finding them.

There is a venture fund, the GovTech Fund, under managing partner Ron Bouganim, that invests specifically in civic technology companies. AngelList also has a civic tech category. Remix, started by several 2014 Code for America fellows, took a traditional startup route through Y Combinator and Sequoia. But many such companies are bootstrapped as well. Datamade came directly out of a weekly civic tech meetup in Chicago

Knight Foundation’s 2017 report on the ecosystem, “Scaling Civic Tech” discussed its status in depth.

While not exclusively, much of the startup ecosystem is focused on city and county governments. This is a substantial market, as there are about 3,000 counties and some 20,000 cities and towns (more than 300 with more than 100,000 population) in the US. Products or robustly maintained open-source projects are useful strategies given its size and diffusion.

5. New School federal contractors:

These are also new companies, but I made a separate category because these all have roots specifically in the rescue and share a mission to bring more modern technology services to the federal and state level.

Ad Hoc, NAVA PBC, Layer Aleph (which also consults for large private-sector organizations).

5. Big Civic Tech:

A few larger companies are often spoken of as part of the civic technology world. Granicus, ESRI, Socrata (recently acquired by Tyler Technologies), Accela, NIC. Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs would certainly put itself in this category; and Microsoft has also been making a case for itself the last few years.

6. Volunteers:

Hackathons and community events have shifted from the “throw out some data and see if people come” days of the early 2010s, but they are still important. I recommend local volunteer groups as one of the best ways to meet other people in your area interested in civic tech. I don’t think I can do better here than link Kevin Curry’s recent thread on the history of the Code for America Brigades, as well as the Brigade Network itself.

7. Foundations:

Of all the components of this ecosystem, this is the one I personally know least well. But there are important independent funders of grants, research, and non-profit initiatives in civic tech:

No description of civic tech would be complete without mentioning Knight Foundation, Omidyar Network, New America Foundation, Sunlight Foundation, Bloomberg What Works Cities .

8. Conferences:

The Code for America Summit is the largest annual gathering of people who identify as civic technologists. It’s usually more than 1,000 people, with a broad program and a very active hallway track.

Many people in civic tech also attend the Personal Democracy Forum .

And you can find quite a few state and local government technologists at NAGW, the National Association of Government Web Professionals.

That’s the world, or a lot of it — I’m eagerly awaiting your additions — and there are many ways to join and contribute. Historically, local efforts have come from an ethic of volunteerism — helping out in one’s spare time — and national ones have focused on Service with a capital S, i.e. joining an institution, usually for a term. More and more though, there are simply jobs, with listings you can find like any other.

What do we need in civic tech?

We need product managers, ideally as long-term government employees. Not just people who can manage a backlog, but people who can align government teams around a product or service vision, and coach and teach. 18F’s Product Guide reflects this in the emphasis on coaching partners, and Nikki Lee has been leading an effort there to develop materials to grow product management skills in career government staff.

We continue to need senior people, with incredible communication skills, in all disciplines. We need mid-level people, with incredible communication skills, in all disciplines too. It’s a tough field for juniors, and that doesn’t say great things about us, but in spots where strong seniors have the capacity to mentor not just in technical disciplines but in critical last-gen professional work skills, come on in!

We need many more under-represented people — more non-white people, more people who aren’t monolingual in English, more and more women and people of other non-male genders.

We honestly don’t need a lot of new ideas. There are excellent ideas lying around unimplemented (or tried once or twice with a learnable failure) all over the place. And while new perspectives are useful, good ideas in this space need to be informed by history and regulation. So much of the work is applied, and persuasive. We need many more people to take a turn doing what Josh Gee did in Boston — the not-especially-innovative-but-critical work of making friends, developing repeatable processes to move things forward, documenting the work, and supporting others to take it on. Honestly, if we had a cohort of a few hundred diverse people funded to turn bad paper or PDF forms into good web forms for 3–5 years, that would have more direct public impact than all the innovation efforts currently running. (If well coordinated, it would lead to a deep shared understanding of government business processes too.)

At Code for America, Mike Migurski and I used to talk a lot about how civic tech has to earn its way deeper into the stack. (Which typically corresponds to bigger budgets and more entrenched vendors.) Every civic tech org I’ve joined has been, at least initially, dismissive of websites as a vehicle for change. And yet, the standing to work with the big databases with nightly maintenance that means the dependent websites “close” (find link) — that comes from succeeding at lower stakes things that communication departments have more sway over than IT. And making friends with IT in the process. And with contracting departments. Websites may not be especially innovative, but as Erika Hall says, they can be thought of as a highly flexible material for serving people.

We need people who can use the web as a material to serve, and who can open their practice so that partners also come to understand how to make use of it, and can apply those skills to better approaches for major tech procurements and implementations.

One of the tangible things we could use most is better, more granular data from utility companies. It would be much easier for officials and technologists to make good decisions if we had current, up-to-date local data on how people are accessing the internet in their area. (Or aren’t, either by choice or because of barriers.) The Pew Internet and American Life Project is a tremendous resource for national data, but doesn’t do local breakdowns. California, at least, has an interactive map, but it’s a year behind and doesn’t get into nuances.

And more than anything, we need to figure out better ways to coordinate. This is a problem across levels and (if you will) instances of government.

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