Process vs. Product: Civic innovation beyond open data and civic apps
On the need for sustainable, citizen-driven innovation networks to ensure today’s innovation in government doesn’t deprecate or become tomorrow’s status quo
When Open Savannah’s Core Leadership team met for the first time a little more than 10 months ago, I’ll admit that I, as the de facto Brigade Captain, didn’t fully grasp the broad, cross-sectoral nature of the movement we’d need to cultivate and nurture in order to catalyze transformative change in the community.
I knew our mission of improving government services through open data and iterative technology would require us to mobilize human capital around a shared civic vision. I also knew that achieving such goals in a city as deeply steeped in tradition as Savannah wouldn’t be easy, and would require leadership, team building, and other ‘soft-skills’ that too often elude many tech-related organizations. But my focus during our first leadership meeting centered (myopically, I’ll admit) on how we could recruit more of a certain type of person (a specific ‘technology’ persona), so that we could build out an impressive set of project deliverables, get some quick wins, and cultivate an impressive Github portfolio. The underlying assumption behind that line of thinking, however, is that technical capital alone — rather than broader community or social capital — is the prerequisite to achieve the vision of civic-technology.
If you’d asked me 10 months ago what I viewed then as our ultimate goal for Open Savannah, I might have likely said something to the effect of ‘an accessible and comprehensive municipal open-data portal’ or ‘web 2.0 government services that actually work.’ While these both make for fine and noble goals for which to aim, a goal isn’t the same thing as a vision for the future. What we needed was a vision.
Articulating a ‘process-centric’ vision for civic innovation at scale
Civic-tech as a mode for collective and personal empowerment
Any successful and sustainable effort to innovate existing civic institutions or structures at scale almost always will require community backers (or, as we might call them, active users), political support, and public-sector buy-in. Just because you build it doesn’t mean they’ll come — much less keep coming and innovating in the future, not to mention funding it for the long haul.
When we started Open Savannah (which, again, was still less than a year ago but feels like so much longer!), I never envisioned myself regularly attending neighborhood association meetings, leading workshop series, or speaking at community events to evangelize the power of open data. I didn’t anticipate us interfacing with a host of nonprofit organizations to talk about issues such as criminal justice reform and poverty mitigation.
I didn’t anticipate spending months planning, fundraising, and promoting almost everywhere the city’s first-ever weekend-long civic hackathon (which, after being postponed in the wake of Hurricane Irma, we quickly pivoted topics to ‘disaster response’ and ‘coastal resiliency,’ holding our National Day of Civic Hacking event a month after the rest of the country and on the same weekend as Code for Miami and Code for Orlando, whose events also were postponed).
I never envisioned our leadership team developing close, mutually-beneficial, and productive working relationships with dedicated public servants and influential elected officials (gratuitous shoutouts here especially to Saja Aures, Cam Mathis, Lizann Roberts/Tara Jennings, Chelsea Sawyer, Travis Schuff, Mayor Eddie DeLoach, Chatham County Manager Lee Smith and Alderman-at-Large Carol Bell, among many others!). Nor did I have any remote clue just how many Open Savannah brigade members would drop by my desk during office hours to brainstorm ideas and solutions (I’ve honestly loved every minute of it, though!).
I definitely didn’t see us conducting interviews with local radio stations about Open Savannah, making the pages of the metro daily newspaper on one too many occasions, or myself being dubbed (far, far, far too generously) as a “civic cyberhero” in a rather amusing piece in the city’s main alt-weekly.
Among the most unexpected things I would never have foreseen myself doing as part of Open Savannah took place last month during our final Community Launchpad event of 2017. Over the course of two hours, I sprawled across a cold tile floor painting by hand lollipop charts and nested treemaps on analog canvas paper, with acrylic paint splattered on my new trousers and a paintbrush — not a laptop or a mobile device — clutched in my hand (if you know me at all, you know just how rare this is!). You can also see from my sketched diagrams in this post that I’m not the world’s best when it comes to drawing in physical contexts — outside of Sketch or Adobe Creative Suite.
What we’ve learned during this first year of Open Savannah is that civic-tech isn’t at all just about building civic apps or scraping interesting datasets. Rather, at its core, civic-tech is about building a community, a movement, a sustainable, scalable, longterm citizen-driven network of actual humans to support bottom-up innovation and experimentation in government services and technology — with the ultimate goal of restoring public trust in our local institutions, marked along the way by milestones of improved outcomes along the way.
Civic-technology (or ‘civic innovation,’ or ‘civic entrepreneurship,’ or whatever other nomenclature you wish to use) is about connecting people together with people as much as it is about connecting web apps with APIs. It’s about organizing relationships as much as it is about organizing files in a GitHub repo. Not even the most impactful, technologically-impressive, or outcome-changing civic-tech app can on its own accomplish the imperative of building a grassroots, sustainable movement for civic innovation at scale. That takes, well, getting our hands dirty, and taking action out from behind the glow of a laptop screen.
‘PRODUCT-CENTRIC’ CIVIC INNOVATION THEORY — You create change by building stuff.
… as opposed to …
‘PROCESS-CENTRIC’ CIVIC INNOVATION THEORY — You create change by building community.
Restoring trust in our civic institutions — and, in so doing, working to make local government more responsive to user needs — is not a project spec or a deliverable. It’s not something you can achieve in a sprint; it’s more like a long, continuous marathon that may or may not have a clear finish line. No doubt, improving the design, accessibility, and the efficiency of government services as volunteer civic technologists is a crucial part of what we do, and an important value proposition that civic-tech brings to the table in helping shape policy around innovation and open data. But perhaps the most effective way we’ve found to transform the status quo at the top is to start at the bottom by rooting ourselves in the community and co-creating solutions with fellow residents.
Such a bottom-up approach to change speaks to the larger point I’m attempting to make with this post: Certainly, I’m proud of the projects we’ve developed. But I’m more proud of the citizen-driven, community-centric processes that led to those projects. Lasting change requires people, not just technology; it takes communities, not just one-off apps.
I’m more proud of having helped cultivate a diverse, civic-minded group of volunteers from different backgrounds, skillsets, ethnicities, races, age groups and socioeconomic backgrounds to unite around a shared civic cause than any project we’ve built.
I’m more proud of the fact that we’ve had dozens of residents show up at our bimonthly Community Launchpad events, many of whom lack basic digital literacy, and at how our Leadership Team and other volunteers have, without hesitation, stepped in to act as mentors to train participants to carry out tasks using low barrier-to-entry tools such as Google Sheets to build interactive maps and WYSIWYG editors to create text and image content.
I‘m more proud of the fact that the winning teams from our first-ever civic hackathon (pictured) had a nearly equal female and male representation, and represented at least five different ethnicities (FYI: I’m the stereotypical pale white guy in the red t-shirt and glasses kneeling awkwardly with the participants!). As Jill Gambill, our keynote speaker for the event –– who serves as a senior researcher on Coastal Resilience at University of Georgia –– poignantly stated in a post on Facebook after the event, the diversity of the winning teams “encompasses the root of resiliency — building cross-sectoral and inclusive engagement.”
None of our community-centric outcomes in Savannah has happened by accident. Our Leadership Team has strategically scrutinized the words we use, the audiences we target, the mediums we use to communicate, and the codified messages we may consciously or unconsciously send to the community. Recognizing the need for a diverse range of actors to rally behind our grassroots efforts, we have sought radically to push the limits on inclusivity and technology.
This has meant “building with, not for,” as Laurenellen McCann so aptly describes it, which requires “a mindset shift” characterized by “listening instead of leading.” Whether via our recently launched SMS ‘neighborhood ambassador’ campaign, or by cross-platform digital and analog communication methods, or just by attending neighborhood association meetings, we’ve made a conscious effort to engage in two-way dialogue with residents, not just to amplify our own messaging.
We’ve been inspired, advised, and propelled forward consistently in those efforts by the tremendous support from across the Code for America Brigade Network as well as from Code for America staff. From Jill Bjers of Code for Charlotte — who traveled five hours by car to Savannah with only a week’s notice to help judge and speak at our hackathon — to Jen Pahlka, Erie Meyer and Leila Brenner at Code for America, who spent two days in Savannah last month meeting with our leadership team and helping us bolster support with local elected officials.
Interestingly enough, we’ve encountered no small amount of untapped tech and design potential and a diverse range of skills in the process of building Open Savannah. So, in addition to recruiting the already technologically-skilled residents of your community to work on civic-tech projects and get involved in Brigades, I would encourage fellow civic innovators also to ask themselves the following questions, too:
What untapped community potential might exist right before our eyes that we’ve never noticed?
How might we spark civic interest in the work we do among people living in the margins? How might their involvement in community tech empower them to develop a greater sense of personal agency?
How do we make the most of what we already have available to us in our neighborhoods to maximize collective impact?
As for us at Open Savannah, we’re still very much in the process of answering those questions. But former Savannah assistant-city manager Henry Moore’s plain-spoken, powerful anecdote that we recently stumbled upon online (video below) offers an inspiring example of precisely the type of asset-based approach to civic-tech community-building we aim to apply.