Rebooting the Civic Commons

Sustainability is a topic of wide conversation & concern for civic tech startups and the eleven-year old digital #opengov movement.

Sustainability is a focus of Omidyar Network & Purpose’s 2016 Engines of Change- previously in a Dec. 2013 Knight Foundation field report, and an important new Oct. 2017 study on scaling.

Code For America Brigades, decades-old D.C. open data non-profits, and PPF’s civic engagement web apps are all wondering: How do we secure revenue to support our public-benefit work?

I argue that the civic tech field identified a working approach back in Sept. 2010— open-source shareware, as catalogued by the “Civic Commons” project — crucially, liberating open public data for local capacity-building.

Civic Commons, supported by Omidyar Network, Knight Foundation, MacArthur Foundation et al. — “Crunchbase for civic tech”.

As I see it, the Civic Commons community sought to catalogue pilot projects, boosting open-source efficiencies and documenting public-benefit impacts — maybe two years of funding runway wasn’t long enough, perhaps expectations for impacts & metrics were inflated or misdirected. But nevertheless, the potential value remains — for just 1% of the funding made available to commercial #govtech, far more open-source tools could be deployed in U.S. cities & states, for residents to use heading into 2018.

Below are some concrete examples of how the open-source, lower-return-on-investment path was eschewed from 2012–2014, largely in favor of the “civic startup” model of vending to city governments — as is generally featured in the current version of CFA’s product library.

On the more public-facing, civic-engagement-tools side of tools, nearly every major U.S. city government could use tech solutions for the following:

  1. Web front door to city government agencies & services — mobile responsive, supports language translations, explainer text.
  2. Open data portal — customizable, with search & tagging & request features
  3. Official legislative portal and gov’t meetings hub — for open records compliance & public feedback — also mobile-responsive, with advanced search & alert features
  4. FOIL platform — freedom of information requests, proactive disclosure
  5. Urban planning & community development app, w/ crowdsourcing & 311 integration

Assuming the relative maturity of open-source workflows, on the face of it, one would think that the most cost-effective way of procuring & deploying these solutions would be for up to 100 major U.S. city governments (i.e., at least the cities w/ CFA Brigades + What Works Cities partners) to subsidize development and marketing of free, libre, and open-source software, assuming some additional SaaS support.

Ah, 2010, it was a bullish time for #opengov, participation tools & robust public accountability were poised to spread rapidly between cities as cultural changes in government took root, with new opportunities thriving…

A typical civic-tech startup license for a city might aim to start at $25,000 annually. Imagine if instead, the top 100 U.S. cities contributed $25,000 to a Civic Commons fund, allocated among at least five open-source teams with $500,000 annual budgets (three FTE’s, plus infrastructure costs). This would be pretty comparable with PPF’s groundbreaking OpenCongress non-profit team, or the Sunlight Foundation’s accomplished Open States dev team.

To be fair, city government tech departments aren’t typically equipped to maintain & design open-source or agile contemporary web apps, so significant staffing & support costs would need to be incorporated. But if a shareware license was closer to $5k than $25k, a city government could test the above five tools for the cost of one startup license— or way, way less than one major gov-tech vendor contract - avoiding vendor lock-in & enabling code contributions, design research for communities, “build with” practices, more.

Revisiting the above five areas of need, existing open-source solutions:

  1. Cities have now invested user research in accessible digital front doors — NYC design staff, Boston.gov on GH, more good examples in CFA cities.
  2. CKAN or DKAN offers cities customization, for better metadata & tagging & search experience in finding open data sets compared to major vendors.
  3. Open-source Councilmatic, for public comments ahead of city government events — and Open Media Foundation, for media support. With free email notification features for tracked items, and advanced search queries.
  4. RecordTrac, created in Oakland and re-deployed successfully w/ NYC gov’t.
  5. Shareabouts — from the leading NYC non-profit Open Plans, which hosted Civic Commons’ offices for years — the collaborative maps are still used by NYC Participatory Budgeting Program, and their impact still seen in NYC Dep’t of Transportation tools and partnerships in other cities.

To be clear, as an old-timer, for the young heads who weren’t yet around — shareware was (my view of a primary) mission of Civic Commons! Putting open solutions on the same par as #govtech vendors and sharing city resources was the goal of the Civic Commons project & community wiki from its launch Sept. 2010 to its more-or-less retirement in Feb. 2012. Smaller city governments would be free to use the software and every city could benefit from shared improvements in user testing, analytics, advanced alerts, and more. Indeed, in recent years, both major tech companies with civic fellows have worked to re-create the civic tech graph, as have the new non-profit arms of civic tech co-working and event spaces, such as one in NYC’s Flatiron.

Open-source non-profits have incentives and licenses and community to spread best practices, towards networked & evidence-based policymaking. Re-usable tools can reach scale, too, with differences in metrics.

To ballpark the funding need of any one of these five open-source projects, they might be supported by two full-time experienced engineers, one developer/designer or product manager, plus hosting & marketing costs, at around $500,000 annually. (Although, that’s a non-profit core team that’s working for the open-source cause, not startup equity or an exit/acquisition.)

From these five open-source teams, I propose, would result far wider circles of contributors to open code and interoperable data standards — a far larger #opengov community than we currently enjoy, than city residents can use & share every day. Civic Commons wasn’t my project, but if I may summarize: after an initial investment from major foundations, Civic Commons was not continued as a catalogue of open & generally-open solutions. And I recognize fully, a lot of civic tech startups are doing phenomenal & solid work, including from friends’ startups acquired by well-meaning e-gov companies, much of it still open-source and/or open-data. The hurdle has been — behind-the-scenes alert — that if a civic startup charges a city $25,000 annually for a license, a client base of more 10–12 would be needed to show momentum to VC investors. Even with CFA networks in potential client cities, that’s a lot of deals to close for any startup vs. the dreaded procurement process. Hence, exits, in the form of acquisitions by large or mid-sized e-gov companies (who are often really cool & principled & socially responsible).

My point is that if we’re searching for sustainability models for civic tech startups, we might be better served to look to the non-profit model of half-a-million in annual revenue, augmented by custom development. Look, to squarely address the ROI on funding problem here — the issue w/ this level of open-source orgs., of course, is that this is a far less lucrative return for gov-tech VC’s. But at this modest level of investment, solutions could be — hypothetically, somewhat counter-factually — far more widespread across the top U.S. cities and deep into the long tail of localities (and internationally). “2x for impact, not 10x for revenue” would be my typically obtuse mantra.

In conclusion, I think the sustainability model of cities sharing open-source tools (and policies and laws and best practices) is still promising, and I think it’s still possible. I tend to think, very much open to input, that 2x is just not the level of return that pure for-profit VC’s can be persuaded by any actor to pursue — at least, when city governments are still paying towards closed startups & legacy gov-tech vendors.

Karl Fogel has a posse — still — as do a few open standards projects out there, e.g. Open Referral, Open States, Open Civic Data, and Open311.

I have to hold that the idealistic vision of open tech adoption across the top 100 U.S. cities, covering such a significant percentage of the U.S. population and engaging interested-bystander target audiences, offers real social impact and efficient value, just not quite the same ROI of scale. After all, scaling tech for greater participation in representative democracy offers risks and challenges of its own, as seen in commercial civic startups laying off half their staff and social media “filter bubbles”.

Questions & feedback welcome, some of the above is intentionally circumspect and more of it would need better research to stand firmly behind the dev-teams needed for a high level of city-gov’t-client support. Email: david@ppolitics.org. And if anyone would like to fund a reboot of the civiccommons.org domain as a Crunchbase for open-source, please hurry to get in touch. Our non-profit network has the domain, it’s now a Wiki resource.

Note: I’ve put aside campaign contribution disclosure resources — such as the very-good Checkbook NYC — or open311 portals and the standard that power them — as being a related but different issues. I put aside important SMS-delivery services, such as around election deadlines and two-way community feedback, since I’m not closely familiar with open-source performant SMS services and API’s (though our NYC Councilmatic used a local homebrew solution, HeartGov, for easy neighborhood feedback). Similarly, for the following democracy enhancements: easy public questions-and-answers with city elected officials, through AskThem; collaborative legislative drafting, through myMadison; liquid feedback deliberation, through DemocracyOS; collaborative power & influence watchdogging, through LittleSis; and others.