How civic tech volunteers should engage government staff

Jesse Biroscak
Jun 18, 2017 · 7 min read

If you’re a civic tech volunteer, does the following story sound familiar?

I was meeting with a city employee to talk about simplifying the city’s reservations system for city-owned plazas, meeting rooms, etc. We chatted, I immediately saw an opportunity to improve things, and I said I’d follow up with her in a week or two with more specifics.

“Great!” she said. “See you never.”

Taken aback, I asked her what she meant. She half-smiled and said, “I’ve seen three of you guys come up here over the past 10 years with ideas to solve all my problems, and nothing ever changes.”

I had a few encounters like that before I took the hint and realized I wasn’t God’s gift to civic product management. Since then, I’ve seen civic tech projects succeed and fail from the perspective of a volunteer (as captain of Code for San Francisco) and since 2015 as a product manager in government. I hope sharing this perspective will help like-minded civic tech volunteers to work more constructively with government staff.

First, put yourself in the govvie’s shoes

When you’re reaching out to someone, think about their context. It’s really important and will probably determine whether you’re successful or not.

  1. Your govvie may have been doing their job a long time and been asked exactly the same questions you’re asking… by someone else… a few times. Your job is to expect that they don’t think you’re for real and earn their trust.
  2. Your brilliant idea? Your govvie may or may not have thought of it already. Or they have their own idea. Turns out it doesn’t matter. Don’t walk in there and start talking like you have all the answers. It’s condescending and annoying. Instead, listen and take notes like there’s no tomorrow. If you’re lucky, you’ll get stories and insider knowledge that’s worth its weight in civic tech volunteer gold.
  3. How was your day? Long? Yeah. Turns out your govvie, working to help your city, had a long day, too… every day for the past 15 years. So when 6:30pm on Wednesday rolls around and you’re excitedly kicking off your evening of civic hacking, they’re probably settling down to spend time with their family or justifiably relaxing after a day wrapped in red tape.

Just keep all that in mind as you wait for a response to your initial email outreach.

Requesting permission to approach

All right! You’re ready to talk to someone!

Do your homework

No really. Do it. A little research goes a long way. Maybe one of the other civic tech volunteers wrote up a little documentation about how the city government is organized. Maybe Wikipedia has something. Maybe the city has done the documentation itself! (Hint hint — budget books or even a budget website.) Most importantly, you’ll ask better questions. Govvies respond better when the questions show you care enough to do basic research. “Err… the Parking Clerk is in the Transportation Department, right?”

Check your urgency at the door

Guess what someone who has worked at the Parking Clerk for 24 years is feeling. I have no idea. But it’s far, far away from “I need to move fast or the world will end”. Govvies may have been in their jobs longer than you’ve been alive. Their timeframe of reference may be very different from yours. If you set your expectations properly, choose not to rush someone, and listen attentively, that patience will work out in your favor. Govvies will see you’re not trying to be a smart alec, steal their job, or criticize them. They may even choose to make your project their sole focus for a while.

[update — thanks amenity!] Checking your urgency doesn’t apply only to pushing your idea — it also applies to creating something sustainable. In my experience, the bulk of the costs / troubles with software comes after you launch. Helping your govvie to maintain their new toys after you leave means you’ll always have an insider to help you navigate the system.

r-e-s,p-E-c-t

Let’s say you design logos. How long have you been doing that? Six years? Great. Imagine that someone random reached out to you, told you about their 60-days-of-doodling sketchbook, and pitched you on switching to their new way of designing logos. Or imagine they told you that your way of designing logos wasn’t what a true human-centered Agilista practicing Xtreme Scrum-ban would do. What would you say? If you’re feeling charitable, you might say “Ok… are you sure you have any idea what you’re talking about?” If you’re feeling like a normal human being, you’d tell them to f*** off.

Instead, what if someone came to you and said, “You work on logos, right? I’m really interested in that. Can you share your experiences with me?” What would you say? You’d probably be more willing to start talking.

On a related note, don’t assume a government employee is going to be some luddite using an abacus who doesn’t want to change anything. That’s a stereotype that in my experience is rarely true. I’ve worked with 35-year veterans who were super-excited to replace their bulletin board with a 50” digital screen and an RSS feed because it’s a better service experience for constituents. Some of my favorite govvies have worked with MS-DOS tax software since 1982 and been stuck wishing for a (now deprecated) upgrade since the fall of the Soviet Union. Sure, some govvies aren’t tech savvy…but if you walk in with the attitude that they are the problem to be solved, you’ll put them on the defensive. Don’t let their door hit you on the way out.

Listen like your life (or at least your project) depended on it

Since you are coming in knowing next to nothing about an area of government work, it’s best to ask an open-ended question that gets someone talking and focus 100% on how fascinating what they’re saying is to you.

“How does this all work, anyways?”

Oh, and take some notes, too. It keeps you focused on what your govvie is saying, it shows professionalism, and it serves as documentation for volunteers picking up the project (or something related) later on.

Remember that this govvie is giving you insider knowledge of government bureaucracy. You and I both know that’s exactly what you’re looking for: little nuggets of improvable operational inefficiency, opportunities to open and visualize data to display never-before-seen trends affecting thousands of people, or perhaps just the chance to digitize a popular paper form.

They are giving you insider knowledge of government bureaucracy… and you and I both know that’s what you’re looking for: little nuggets of improvable operational inefficiency.

The only way to get those tidbits is to have someone on the inside tell you. It’s hard to hear what someone else is saying if you’re already speaking. So listen carefully and learn what they find to be annoying or stupid. Then ask them how they would fix it. Oh? Their solution requires a way to scrape PDFs? Oh! Oh! You know how to do that. Now’s your chance to…

Deliver

Deliver for them. Deliver for them because they’re the best thing since sliced bread in your opinion. Don’t over-promise and under-deliver. Just deliver. They’re a celebrity in your world. That celebrity just asked you to get them a Perrier. Deliver it to them on a silver platter with an optional slice of lemon. Put your own ideas on really cold ice and deliver whatever they need. Your goal is to gain trust, and you get MAJOR trust points if you’re exclusively a helpful person. Soon they’ll be asking you for your ideas and you’ll finally get to build-a-thing.

Jesse. You’re a liar. That didn’t work.

  1. Hold up. Did you REALLY listen? If not, stop whining. Stop trying to save the world by yourself and learn how to listen. Ask a friend, “Am I a good listener?” If you interrupt them, you’re not. If you spent your conversation with the govvie waiting for the chance to tell them what your revolutionary idea is, then you missed the point.
  2. If you actually listened, you can probably be flexible, patient, and persistent, too. Thank you for being awesome! That said, there are some unknowns that come with engaging a govvie. It’s possible they’re just not that into you, they’re legitimately busy, or they don’t use email (I wish I was joking here). You may need to put this meaty problem you want to sink your teeth into aside for the moment. That’s ok! The nice thing about being a civic tech volunteer is that there’s no shortage of problems to work on. Hooray for tons of work to do… I think… right?

The hard thing about hard things®

Changing a system designed to be slow-ish moving and resilient to rapid change is… hard. Hard things are, in the words of bhorowitz… difficult. Set your expectations properly (don’t expect attempts 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 to work at all). With a positive attitude and drive to make government better, you won’t be deterred by the people you will inevitably meet telling you:

  • “It won’t work.” Translation: I don’t want to change my comfortable and established habits.
  • “It’s illegal / We aren’t allowed to do that.” These are often myths that may have been facts once, but have since changed. They are perpetuated by people who don’t ask, “Have you verified that fact?”

Pro tip: Make friends with a creative City lawyer. Some of them are absolutely stoked to improve how government works.

  • “That’s just how things are, so give up — stop trying.” This is a time when you’ll need a supportive group around you. Someone just asked you to give up. What do you do? Things don’t change overnight, and you shouldn’t expect them to.

Hint: Don’t give up. Persist! Just keep showing up and delivering whatever you promised.

That’s it. Rinse, repeat.

Let’s do more of this.

I have a feeling a lot of people have govvie or civic tech stories they want to share, but they don’t write about them. If you want to get something about civic tech out to the world, let me know! We’ll asynchronously and iteratively collaborate — no Xtreme Scrum-ban required.

Code for America Blog

Writing and thinking about government that works for people, by people, in the 21st century.

Jesse Biroscak

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Practical thoughts on government. #CivicTech #ServiceDesign

Code for America Blog

Writing and thinking about government that works for people, by people, in the 21st century.