Civic Tech’s Act III is beginning.
The lights are dimming. It’s time to return to our seats. The third act of civic technology is about to begin.
It’s been a hell of an intermission.
Earlier this year Code for America pulled back its support for the national network of Brigades. The Center for Effective Government (formerly OMBWatch) shut down. Democracy Fund paused their grant-giving to rewrite their playbook. And this week the Sunlight Foundation announced the end of their technology work.
Daniel X. O’Neil, who had been at the center of civic tech in Chicago and as a Sunlight Foundation board member led its (failed) search for a new executive director, previously expressed deep dissatisfaction with what civic tech became:
“Yes, the civic tech movement should be shelved. It has run its course. The models of hack nights and civic apps and techno-determinist solutions have proven ineffective.”
The institutions that lead civic tech before this transition period — what I see as the “Act II” of civic technology — won’t be the ones leading civic tech in Act III.
(lots more below the fold keep reading!)
Act I was our origin story.
The story of civic technology is the story of communities. There has always been civic technology.
But that’s not our story.
Our story is one that begins in the 1990's. It is a story about mostly young, mostly elite technology geeks taking a new interest in government and, by the end of the Act, wielding a power that we perhaps didn’t deserve. We came, we hacked, and we changed policy. We made open data the buzz word it is today. President Obama’s open government initiatives in 2009 were for us. Things were good. The sky was the limit.
And then we moved into Act II… (That was an unreasonably short summary of a 15-year period, apologies, but moving forward — )
Act II was just a dream.
Naïve as some of us may have been when we started, no one ever said solving civic problems with technology would be easy. We knew that.
Tom Lee, as director of Sunlight Labs, captured the problem of civic tech in a post in 2012:
[T]he dream of writing a cron job that moves misbehaving lawmakers smoothly from office to prison was never likely to come to pass.
A “cron job” is tech-speak for an automated program that runs on a schedule. Tom’s point was that government accountability cannot be solved by computer alone.
Tom was also warning of unreasonable expectations — “the dream.”
(So were others: e.g. Yu & Robinson.)
But the dream swallowed reality. Unreasonable expectations were waiting in the wings as Act I reached its climax. Act II (from 2010 to about 2014) was riddled with endless promises by politicians and funders who wanted to ride the train but not make any stops.
At the same time, our actual successes reached new heights.
To take one example — In 2010 Sunlight Foundation found $1.3 trillion of misreported government spending. An advocacy campaign ensued to fix it. The campaign was successful, reforms have been enacted, and government agencies are now on the road to better reporting. Kaitlin Devine, who spearheaded Sunlight’s project in 2010, is now spearheading the implementation of the solution from within government. The circle will be complete in a few years.
Closer to home, I’ve been proud to be a part of the opening up of DC’s (municipal) legal code and the launch of Code for DC, and I’m proud of what GovTrack, my main focus, has achieved. I’m excited by the new Legal Hackers movement. So much has gone right.
Act II was the tragedy of the dream eclipsing a very real reality.
The successes of civic tech didn’t register for Sunlight’s board, the foundation’s funders, and other disappointed stakeholders. They only see unmet expectations. I don’t know why.
Act III begins soon.
There will be an Act III, and the curtains will open when the spotlight is put back on what civic tech actually does.
The good and the bad.
We will come to terms with our history, that our collective privilege allowed us to ignore and possibly displace other movements while we were building apps. We did some things wrong. I am following Laurenellen McCann and hope to be a better listener, participant, and co-collaborator with others in Act III.
We will recognize the value of our work, all the same. Magic happens at hacknights. We did good. And we need to pivot. Those aren’t contradictions. Our work must at times be wonky and elite, without losing sight of broader goals, as Nathaniel Heller has written. I’m also following Luigi Ray-Montañez here, who has a vision for the future of CfA’s Brigades.
So much has gone right. Let’s do more of it.
There is more I’d like to say about how to begin our Act III, but for now —
— Places please. —