Civic Tech as a Public Utility

Moving us closer toward a civic operating system

Over the past several years, I’ve been obsessing over an idea. It’s called a civic operating system and these ruminations can be traced back to October 2012 when West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon dropped the term in his TEDxSacramento City 2.0 talk (begins at 12:45):

Interesting fact: I’m a volunteer videographer for TEDxSacramento and filmed this talk.

Around the same time, I was getting Code for Sacramento off the ground. And ever since that day I’ve been thinking about what a civic operating system would look like, how it would function, and, most importantly, how to get from here to there. While I think we’re still a few years away, it’s going to happen much sooner than people believe. So here are some hypotheses I want to test and validate with you — not simply a person who took the time to read this, but someone who I hope will take an active role in shaping the platform.

Open Data as a Precursor

We’ve been doing the open data thing for a while. Well, not super-long, but long enough to create the expectation that cities and counties of sufficient size ought to publish data about finances, crime, and building permits in an open, machine readable format.

When governments publish open data, that data is typically accessible via an application programming interface or API. APIs are awesome because they enable different systems to “talk” to each other. In other words, an API might allow open data from two different cities to benchmark their respective performance. Yet, the irony is that a lot of this data isn’t as useful as it could be.

Open data is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for civic innovation. Citizens don’t interact with data, they interact with interfaces that are designed around user needs and powered by meaningful data that may or may not be openly accessible. So it turns out that an open data strategy is what makes this critical difference. That is, strategies that align data with opportunities for public value creation are what make the difference between open data for the sake of checking off a box and open data for the sake of impact.

A More Refined Emphasis on Service Delivery

I know I just stated as if it were some immutable doctrine that citizens interact with interfaces, not data. Well, that’s not exactly right, either. Interfaces are are an intermediary between humans and the problems we’re trying to solve. Or, in the context of government, the public services we expect.

Google? Is that you?

And so with the meltdown of HealthCare.gov, Mikey Dickerson and team came to the rescue. In parallel with the Presidential Innovation Fellows, the creation of 18F and the U.S. Digital Service, we’ve merged open data with agile development, user centered design, and many other buzzwords that would get in the way of the message I want to convey (Hint: shipping code is visually depicted at the end of this article). And I’m just as happy to let Debs and Jack to the work for me, summarized in a single tweet:

Jack Madans may or may not have stolen this quote from me on Thu Dec 19, 2013

All this open data stuff has been just that: a Trojan Horse for changing expectations around citizen-government interaction. So the irony surrounding open data and digital public services is that we’ve seemingly omitted a critical component, namely that citizens don’t care which level of government, particular agency, nor contract entity is responsible for the taxes we pay, the services we receive, and the outcomes those services ultimately influence.

If you disagree with the preceding statement, you should stop reading this right now and get out of the building and go talk to some people on the street about civics.


No, seriously. I’ll stick an oversized image right here to serve as a symbolic demarcation line between those who believe civic literacy is an issue of personal responsibility and those who are willing to acknowledge the reality that we fail to make civic information easy to comprehend.


Okay, glad you made it to the other side

The Civic Operating System is a Relatively Easy Problem to Solve

Here’s the deal: there’s nothing magical about the civic operating system’s source code. Because it operates at a high level of abstraction, the primary focus of attention should be on developing APIs, data models, and an overall information architecture. To be explicit, the civic operating system will solve the following problem:

Citizens lack a single interface from which they can access civic information that spans across levels of government and arbitrary jurisdictions that directly or indirectly affect their quality of life.

For example, a rational line of inquiry might comprise the following user journey:

  • Quality of Life Outcomes: Is the crime rate in the City of Sacramento getting better or worse? How many murders due to gang violence occurred within a 5-mile radius of my home? How does the crime rate in my neighborhood compare to other neighborhoods? Other similar cities?
  • Responsible Entities: Who’s responsible for improving public safety? What’s the difference between the Police and Sheriff’s Department? How often does the Sacramento Gang Prevention and Intervention Task Force hold public meetings?
  • Public Expenditures: How much money are we spending on public programs to reduce the crime rate in the County of Sacramento? Of the City of Sacramento’s Police Department budget, how much money goes toward officers on the street versus benefits for retired officers?
  • Revenue Sources: How much money does the State of California provide to the City of Sacramento to combat crime? How does that compare with the amount that comes from local property and sales taxes?
  • Current Issues and Tradeoffs: What do experts believe can be done to reduce crime in the State of California? Is there any pending legislation that I should be paying attention to?
  • Opportunities for Impact: Okay, but I’m just one person. How can I make a difference? Is there a local nonprofit that I can donate money to or volunteer for? How do I get involved with my local neighborhood watch? Does a neighborhood watch even exist in my neighborhood?

Now this sounds like a complex set of queries. And that’s sort of right. Google might eventually get you to a quarter of those answers. Yet, such questions would be easy to answer if there were a standardized civic data schema that would make this information uniformly accessible. The painful frustration and unprecedented opportunity is that all of this information is available today. Yes, right now. You just need an M.P.P., J.D., or Ph.D. to find it and organizing that information is probably your full-time job.

A possible data model for the object class Program, i.e., a program administered by a public agency

Civic information is just content. So the civic operating system is really a content management and curation engine. It relies on basic CRUD operations, allowing content owners to Create, Read, Update, and Delete both quantitative and qualitative data across a distributed network of open API endpoints. The operating system consumes and aggregates this data, and reorganizes it into semantic categories and topics that people actually care about, rather than by siloed agencies and departments with obscure names.

GOV.UK shows what’s possible with curated civic information and semantic user journeys.

GOV.UK is nothing short of amazing and is perhaps the best instance today of what the civic operating system might look like. However, as a portal for the UK’s central government, it omits critical information from local government. While we have a federalist system of government in the U.S. where power is primarily distributed to the states, the reality is that citizens perceive government as a monolith. They don’t care whether a particular human assistance program is funded by a share of federal dollars that are matched by the state and then passed down to counties that contract out to thousands of private and nonprofit resource providers to administer direct services; but, a curious individual should be able to quickly find that out and easily understand who’s responsible for what if merely for the sake of accountability.

The civic operating system must account for what Steven M. Teles refers to as kludgeocracy. He states:

You can’t solve a problem until you can name it. We have names for one axis of our politics — right vs. left, big versus small government. But voters and politicians have no name for what should be an equally important set of questions that cuts straight through those ideological divisions, which is complexity versus simplicity. The name, for a lack of a better alternative, is kludgeocracy.
The dictionary tells us that a kludge is “an ill-assorted collection of parts assembled to fulfill a particular purpose…a clumsy but temporarily effective solution to a particular fault or problem.” The term comes out of the world of computer programming, where a kludge is an inelegant patch put in place to be backward compatible with the rest of a system. When you add up enough kludges, you get a very complicated program, one that is hard to understand and subject to crashes. In other words, Windows.

The civic operating system will surface the currently opaque kludge and provide us with better tools to refactor this complexity, rendering society to achieve better outcomes through greater clarity around policy choices and by enabling frictionless collective action.

The ‘How’ is More Important than the ‘What’ or ‘When’

Okay, so how are we going to get there? Before offering a bold solution, let’s be clear that we’re talking about infrastructure — specifically, civic infrastructure. According to Stephen Patrick and Sheri Brady,

Civic infrastructure is the foundation on which ordinary people participate in ordinary civic life — from joining neighborhood watch groups to entering the voting booth. It is the places, policies, programs, and practices that enable us to connect with each other, define and address shared concerns, build community, and solve public problems.

The civic operating system is not a silver bullet, but it is a critical platform for improving connectivity among myriad nodes of civic infrastructure. After all, an aspiring change agent cannot volunteer for an organization she doesn’t know exists. That is to say, a citizen cannot engage with a system they don’t understand.

A salient analog to the concept of a civic data and technology utility service

A Modest Proposal: Civic Tech as a Public Utility

I want to suggest that the civic operating system ought to be developed by a new type of public utility. This public utility would be structured as a regional joint powers authority and the model could first be piloted in the six-county Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG) region. The entity could be created with a sunset date five years out, allowing for potential renewal if the pilot succeeds or dissolution if it demonstrates insufficient impact.

The City of West Sacramento and SACOG hosted Code for America fellows in 2015, which lead to conversations about a potential regional open data portal

While the creation of a civic data and technology utility service would require initial seed funding, it could sustain itself through a cost-recovery model similar to 18F. The utility would deliver services by using interagency agreements as a contract vehicle.

All of 18F’s content and code is open source, so there’s not much to reinvent. How cool is that?

So why a public utility? Utilities exist to manage the infrastructure required to deliver public services such as water and power. These are industries where natural monopolies occur due to high capital costs and large economies of scale, resulting in barriers to entry for potential competitors. Interestingly, because software has close to zero marginal costs, it does not resemble a typical natural monopoly. Rather, the natural monopoly comes into play in the context of data standards. In other words, the only way a civic operating system creates value for users (much less works in the first place) is if it operates on a single set of standards that can be uniformly applied across the system.

Therefore, a major function of the utility is to facilitate the standardization of civic data across jurisdictions and resolve conflicts when they occur. It’s a conduit for the exchange of data between data publishers and data consumers.

A more important question, however, is why public? Why not create a private utility, a nonprofit, a company, etc.? A couple of year’s ago, I received an email from a prominent local elected official’s staff member that included the following line:

“To the extent that private citizens can retool the delivery of public services by posting data from their phone, I think there’s risk of a class of civic activists usurping the authority of an elected body. As well-intentioned as these activists are, they are not accountable to the voters for how their innovation turns out. Nor could such activists be accountable, even if they tried, because they didn’t earn anybody’s vote.”

As founder of Code for Sacramento, an organization built on the sweat equity of volunteers who are passionate about using technology to improve their communities, I was heartbroken by this email. And yet, there’s a real user need being expressed here. It’s the need for trust and accountability. An idea as big as a civic operating system has potential implications on the distribution of political power. Making more information freely available and accessible will correct existing asymmetries, but such a correction may change the current composition of winners and losers in the status quo.

As an entrepreneur, it’s not lost on me that the civic operating system might make Delivery Unit obsolete. Yet, I recognize that it could just as easily lead to the development of even better products that solve even bigger problems and result in even greater impact. Similarly, an API First strategy will maintain the focus on data and infrastructure, creating opportunities for the development of alternative interfaces that are focused on more specialized use cases.

The Sacramento region’s window of opportunity is wide open

Mustering the Political Will

It’s not a question if, but when and where. I believe that the Sacramento region has an unprecedented opportunity to leverage it’s civic institutions as a distinct competitive advantage and co-create the future of citizen-government interaction. I believe in you, Sacramento.

I’m sure the person who created this would be pleased to see it here

What say you? Hit me up @Roughani.


Ash Roughani is founder of Delivery Unit, an enterprise software startup that’s simplifying cross-sector performance management. He also spends a non-trivial amount of time volunteering in the community. So if he comes off a bit brash, you might consider taking a moment to appreciate his commitment to making Sacramento better. He’s 33 years old, going on 34, and would really like to see Sacramento seize the moment before the current window closes. #JFDISac