Chatting With a Political Consultant About Civic Tech

For a little over a month now I’ve been researching and exploring the field of civic tech. If you haven’t heard of it, you’re not alone. Even the people working in the field can’t quite describe what it is. The best description comes from a non-profit group, The Knight’s Foundation, “any type of technology that enables greater participation in government affairs, or assists government in delivering citizen services and strengthening ties with the public.” And even that doesn’t quite cover the full extent of it.

But this weekend, I was lucky enough to speak with a political consultant and campaign manager about civic tech. I hoped to learn more about the field and how her work tied into it.

For the purpose of this blog post, she asked to remain anonymous (didn’t want to tip her hand to any potential competition out there). When I asked what name she would like me to use, her eyes lit up and she said, “go with something exotic and beautiful…like Madge”, then burst out laughing. Jokes on you “Madge”, that’s the name I’m going to use.

“Madge”

Madge has worked off and on in politics for over a decade. She’s managed campaigns at various levels of government and worked briefly as a lobbyist. Currently, she’s heading up an effort to get a bill passed in Oakland.

I started broad and asked her what her conception of civic tech was. At this point, I knew that pretty much everyone had their own definition of what it included.

“You mean the tech for voter data and polling, right?”

That one sentence wound up framing most of the conversation. Her main exposure to civic tech was related to her job and how to get votes. She told me that if a campaign used any tech at all, that was what it was focused on.

“We’re not interested in a lot of what’s out there, because it’s too big of a risk. It hasn’t been proven to work before. And campaign managers are entirely judged by their win rate. We have to go with the sure thing. And getting voter data is something that helps get wins.”

Madge said that most government and local campaigns are practically luddites. Things are largely paper hardcopy and microfiche. Yes, apparently microfiche does still exist.

She says that keeping up with the times is a big problem, and lack of tech innovation and adoption is putting our government at risk.

“Most local government offices still have computers running on Windows 95. They’re really vulnerable to hacking. And that’s where voter data is kept. And not just that, I mean, the majority of voting machines out there haven’t been updated for 10 years. ”

When I told Madge about what else civic tech includes (information for voters, community organizing, etc) she had mixed feelings. She felt that it would be useful for small organizations and private ventures, but that it would be a huge effort to get government to start using any of it.

But there are areas of movement. Politicians are starting to use social media, which is helping to create lines of communication with their constituents. Madge says it’s a small thing, but at least a step in the right direction.

Around that time Madge got a text and told me that she had to head out to meet with her client. It was an interesting conversation, getting to see how this field interacts with the real world. I realized that I wasn’t too surprised about the lack of awareness. Civic tech is still a young field, and needs time to prove itself to the establishment; to show that it can be reliable. Until then, private ventures and non-profits will have to be the standard bearers and lead the way.