Finding a Path Through Civic Tech: Asking What Technology Can Do For Our World

By Maita Navarro —Former Software Engineering Civic Innovation Corps Member at the Office of Innovation, State of New Jersey

As a Media Arts & Sciences major — an interdisciplinary program that combines computer science and studio art and art history courses — this summer I set out to explore a field I’d previously only caught a glimpse of in my classes: civic technology.

Motivating my decision to join the New Jersey Office of Innovation as a Software Engineering Civic Innovation Corps member was a question that has often made me think twice about my studies: what can technology do for our world today?

My time with the Business First Stop team this summer helped me begin to answer that question: technology can provide much-needed support to communities, and also serve as a foundation for institutional change.

Technology can provide much-needed support to communities, and also serve as a foundation for institutional change.

The Business First Stop initiative is a cross-agency project driven by the Office of Innovation that’s leveraging technology, policy, and innovation to make it easier to start, operate, and grow a business in the Garden State.

The difficulty of accomplishing any task involving a government system is something that pervades the lives of many in the United States in different ways. It’s also an experience I’ve lived — as a non-U.S. citizen student seeking work authorization, I’ve felt the dread of completing countless, complicated forms and extended time spent in fluorescent-lit rooms waiting to check off yet another bureaucratic task or requirement.

To others striving to take their and their families financial well-being into their own hands through entrepreneurship, there’s understandably a sense of unease around starting a business and somehow navigating a system that involves figuring out which of 1,500+ permits to submit to which of at least 12 government agencies in the State of New Jersey.

Never before had I considered what it might look like to move past feelings of frustrated acceptance. However, in joining a team of seven individuals from design, product, and engineering backgrounds, all of whom are dedicated to providing prospective small business owners with a clearer, user-friendly pathway to starting a business, I felt compelled to alleviate the weight of American bureaucracy in whatever scale I could.

More minor, day-to-day tasks such as completing an engineering chore or discovering a bug fix suddenly took on astronomical significance: it wasn’t just about making a web application run smoother, but about aiding a budding entrepreneur who was struggling through multiple browser tabs as they decoded last night’s scribbled to-do lists outlining the steps to register their business.

A screenshot from a demo that I presented to the Business First Stop project team during my time with the Office of Innovation.

Participating in Zoom meetings with representatives from other state government agencies made it clear to me that our team’s work is just as valuable for helping business owners as it is contributing to larger, cultural shifts within government: collaborating with other government colleagues can demonstrate how human-centered design, agile methodologies, iterative policymaking, and data-driven practices can be used effectively, potentially inspiring such approaches to be carried on in their day-to-day work.

Importantly, my summer also taught me that tackling dilemmas about the role of technology in societies, or how we might build better government systems, is something I never have to, or should, do alone. Collaborative planning, research sharing, testing, and review sessions with others — both inside and outside of government — surfaced different perspectives and a sense of hope that invariably motivated us and shaped our work for the better.

So now as I approach my senior year, the ever-shifting ground beneath my feet has come to feel more stable than it did a year ago. I’ve found a space where continuing to think through how technology might serve others is both welcomed and necessary. And for anyone also eager to problem solve and empathize with another, I’m also certain there is a place for you here too.

New Jersey State Office of Innovation

Official blog of the New Jersey State Office of Innovation…