No More Trickle Down Civic Tech

Civic technology is changing the way government & society works.

The question is: For whom?

Spending last week

For years now, we’ve told a story about “civic tech” that made it out to be the hammer we’d use to shape a new world. the tools and approaches that will allow people to organize and engage with each other and with their governments, to build their own power and wield it not just at the voting booth, but throughout everyday life.

That’s the vision,

if there ever was one: That the development of civic technology will enable a new way of being not just in a government system, but in society.

But as the civic tech sector matures and its canon reveals itself, we have to ask ourselves: Are we on track to realize this vision? And, either way, are we being mindful about who is (and isn’t) along for the ride?

Civic technology can’t exist in a vacuum.

To be used for social good (the product of a life’s work, not a campaign cycle or product deadline), technology needs to be directed, and for its greatest, most transformative impact, it needs to be directed by those who will benefit the most from the creation of the social good.

In other words: Transformative civic technology needs to be built “with, not for” a community.

Transformative civic tech is both bottom-up and out-and-out — the output of various combinations of real individuals, community groups, civil society organizations, governments, and sure, the private sector, literally working together throughout the entire process within a shared context towards a shared goal.

But all too often, when translated into “the way things really are”, this process of intentionality and collaboration gets cut short—its value seen as secondary (not essential) to the development of social impact technology, whose constrained deadlines for development make co-designing with communities a mere exercise at best, an abstract afterthought at worst.

The vision of transformative civic tech demands more from us.

We need to prioritize the skills, wisdom, and contributions of our peers and neighbors. Our technical expertise alone is not enough to ensure that the social goods we seek to create are the right ones or that the social transformations we hope to bring about “for everyone” will indeed be distributed equally.

If social transformation is the goal of civic tech, it’s time to shake things up.

http://youtu.be/sbqNkz_mjng

In my talk

at the Code for America Summit, I issued two challenges to civic tech creators—challenges I myself fight daily to live by and am getting better at with time.

CHALLENGE #1: Get literal.

Drill down and outline the individuals, groups, neighborhoods, key players, non-profits, businesses, you name it that make up the “community” you work with or are trying to work with.

Once you’ve identified that “who”, Physically, digitally, otherwise: Find out and show up.)

We’re not doing civic technology right if we are not stepping out of our own contexts and into the contexts of the communities that we work for.

So, go join your community. Take part. Go to the festivals, the street fairs, celebrations and gatherings — the “” that unite people within and across communities—go be part of this existing social space and try integrating your work into it before you ask “people” to leave their context for yours. [Want more helpful advice on how to do this? Check out this case study combining funk music and civic tech in Washington, DC.]

CHALLENGE #2: Build with, not for.

A manifesto, a design principle, and the meme that permeated the Summit:

The status quo of our political, economic, social systems hums to the tune of top-down power. In a top-down world, people take actions, make decisions, and build systems “for” us — most of the time, with either our explicit or structural consent.

But we can build new structures. We can choose to treat each other as partners in our own democratic governance. We can choose to stop working “for people” and to do the legwork it takes to actually start working with them.

“Civic tech” has matured.

At the Code for America Summit this year, we filled a room with over 800 attendees. We (civic technologists) now influence local, state, and federal government spending on technology. We control which projects get the spotlight (literally, figuratively).

In other words, we control the narrative. So, we can choose: either we make room for “community technology” alongside “government technology” in the halls of civic tech — or we don’t.

But let’s not be coy about it. . We need to integrate: In addition to literally meeting folks where they are and being full participants in the cultures we hope to impact, let’s found civic tech development on values of radical mindfulness, equity, and inclusivity. Let’s own that we are in a phase of experimentation and let’s experiment with a broader range of technologies. Most of all, let’s be brave — brave enough to try to work together with our communities, to critique each other and be critiqued when we’ve failed to do so, and to be brave enough after, to try again.

I believe

I believe we have an imperative to identify the real people and communities our work is seeking to impact and to ensure that we are not acting on their behalf, but working together with them (as part of “them”) from day one.

The tech revolution will never belong to us all unless we share it.

So let’s start sharing.

Full transcript of my Code for America lightning talk here, and you can find videos of the talk here and the following panel “real talk”discussion here.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store