Code for Canada’s Civic Tech Playbook for Canadian Municipalities

Code for Canada has released the first draft of our Civic Tech Playbook for Canadian Municipalities, a guide to help public servants engage with their local civic tech community.

The BikeSpace team works on their project during a Civic Tech Toronto hacknight in 2018. (Photo courtesy of Civic Tech Toronto)

Good things happen when civic tech groups and governments work together.

In Toronto, civic tech cyclists helped build an app to report bike parking problems to the city. On the East Coast, New Brunswickers can now use a mobile web app to keep apprised of potential flood risks. And low-income families in Edmonton have a new online benefits finder that helps them discover social benefits they’re eligible for.

These remarkable tools were created through collaboration: technologists working together with residents and public servants to design solutions to hyper-local challenges.

We want to see more of this collaboration, and we’ve written the Civic Tech Playbook to make it happen.

We spoke with dozens of stakeholders and looked for commonalities that made their civic tech collaborations a success. We found public servants played a critical role in helping civic tech communities get the data they need, get the space they need to work, and get the context necessary to choose which civic problems to work on.

The Playbook lays out practical measures you can take to engage your civic tech community, build trust and get to impact. Some of the steps (or “plays” as we call them) are relatively straightforward, like “show up at a hack night” while others require a greater investment, like “holding a hack night at a municipal office.

The Civic Tech YYC community during the 2018 CodeAcross hackathon in Calgary. (Photo courtesy of Civic Tech YYC)

Canada is a large and diverse country, and some plays may not make sense in some cities. So we designed the playbook to allow you to skip to the steps that are most relevant to your municipality. After all, if you don’t have a civic tech community in your town or city, how could you possibly “show up at a hack night?”

To help you understand how best to put the Civic Tech Playbook to work in your city, each play is presented alongside a case study of collaboration, featuring on-the-ground advice from public servants and civic tech practitioners.

In every discussion we had with municipal public servants, we heard about the benefits civic tech collaboration can bring to a town or city.

For public servants charged with overseeing open government data, software procurement and other digital projects, civic tech communities — and by extension, open data advocacy groups and development groups — are great at getting their voices heard on these issues, and can help move agendas forward.

“One of the most compelling engagement examples is how the community has helped us validate our own projects, from user testing to designing our open data portal. We found their input really informative,” said Jessica Rayes, a public servant with Toronto’s Open Data team.

Civic Tech Vancouver co-founder Leah Bae presents at the group’s most recent hacknight. (Photo courtesy of Civic Tech Vancouver)

Working with civic tech communities also gives municipalities a valuable arena to experiment with policy ideas. We heard from many public servants that government is risk-averse by design, and must be accountable for every dollar spent. Civic tech communities, on the other hand, are able to take on the risk of trying new approaches; and if their products are successful, local governments can potentially merge civic tech projects into the public services they offer.

“When it comes to differences on issues like this, externalizing a project can remove concerns about accountability for the project,” said Jason Diceman, a Consultant with the City of Toronto.

Municipal public servants can play a key role in fostering civic tech communities, and have fantastic resources and networks at their disposal. But the Playbook isn’t just about talking about the things you can provide to technologists, it’s also about a process of mobilization. Civic tech isn’t simply about creating an app or website for residents, it’s also a community-building experience that helps towns and cities stay ahead of the technological curve.

Members of Civic Tech Fredericton gather at The Ville Co-op during one of their first hacknights. (Photo courtesy of Civic Tech Fredericton)

We’re excited to share the Civic Tech Playbook with you, and we hope the advice and case studies contained within it will help you tap into to the potential of collaboration and co-creation with the civic tech community in your city.

We’re also excited to get your feedback on how we can make the Playbook better. Do the steps we suggest work for municipalities both large and small? What do we need to make this a truly “Canadian” guide? What other questions or needs do you have when it comes to engaging with civic technologists in your city? Or, if you’re part of a civic tech community, what would you like your city to know about engaging with you? Let us know by adding your comments to the document.

Finally, we’d like to thank everyone who contributed to the Playbook, including the public servants and civic tech practitioners who contributed their experience and expertise. A special shoutout goes to my writing partner Hebah Masood as well as Mark Headd, whose excellent book, How to Talk to Civic Hackers, was the inspiration for the Playbook.

Check out Code for Canada’s new Civic Tech Playbook for Canadian Municipalities!

Code for Canada’s Community Network Program supports the formation and growth of grassroots civic tech groups in cities across the country. Visit our website to learn more about the program or discover the civic tech community nearest you.