The Myth of Everybody

Dear Civic Tech: If you really want to make change, we can do better.

Cities have the capacity of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody. —Jane Jacobs

What is the difference between “with” and “for”?

“With” implies togetherness, a network: a larger group, possibly, a messier group, but a group (meaning 2 people+) nonetheless. Acting “with” others implies certain degrees of collaboration, collective action, coordination, and even unity. You run a three-legged race with your partner (or you’re going to fall). When you use the word “with” it means that, however many people are involved, whatever their individual roles, they’re acting as one — or at least, towards a shared goal.

By contrast, when we use the word “for” we center on the experience of individuals in a relationship, with one unit acting on behalf of or doing something to another. (“For another.”) In the “for” universe, there’s usually a receiver and a giver. There can be many people involved or few, but there are almost always actors and those acted upon. In a democracy like ours, where we have government of, by, and for the people, we understand that when we vote for an elected representative, they are then empowered to speak and act for us. To govern for us….but with our consent.

Representative democracy in action.

At least, that’s the way it’s described in textbooks. In reality, however, governance is awash with intermediaries: companies, contractors, public/private partnerships, lobbyists, NGOs, think tanks — organizations of people, formal and informal, that support, distribute, and sometimes do the work of our government for our government and for us. This (very simplified overview of our) system of proxies isn’t necessarily good or bad; it’s just the way we’ve structured things to work in the US.

Why? Well, because we govern in a “for” system. Because there are so many of us and our lives are interconnected. Because we balance majority rule with minority rights. Because of all the reasons you learned in social studies class (if you went to a US public high school) and because this is the way most of us believe society has to work.

But there are other ways.

— Take your hand off the “COMMUNIST” alarm. I’m talking about the “civic” revolution.

In the last 6 or so years, as the buzz around “Gov2.0” waned, obsession with “civic”-ness waxed. What “civic” means exactly, well, we’re all still figuring that out. Sure, there are official definitions that relate “civic” to all things local…and overlapping understandings of “civics” that lend the air of government involvement…but with increasing interest from folks in the tech and innovation sectors (and funders), the word has taken on new shape. Today, “civic” is the center of a Venn Diagram encircling notions commonly associated with “society,” “community,” “governance,” and public commons (or goods). The sheen of social impact, social responsibility, and “community-ness” — that’s what terms of art like “civic innovation,” “civic engagement,” “civic decisions,” “civic participation”, and “civic tech” are all trying to describe.

To be clear, it’s not that this intersection of societal something hasn’t been outlined before: language like “social” (see “social innovation”) and “civil” (see “civil society”) has been used to describe similar concepts for decades. “Civic” is just the newest coat of paint, its popularity driven in part by interest from NGOs, start-ups, digital strategists, and governing bodies attempting to bring new flavor and energy to long-standing questions, like

How can we make democracy work? What can we do to make the systems in place work better? And what do we need to change to make systems work better for everybody?

The thing is, it’s sort of working. “Civic hacking” has brought excitement to folks who once felt apathetic or disengaged from governance and empowered them to engage with these questions. “Civic innovation” has pulled entrepreneurs and governments into rethinking service delivery (“for everyone”) with a techno-optimism that’s to be admired. And “civic participation” has made way for the exploration of community-driven processes like participatory budgeting, opening the door to a new vision of constituent collaboration.

Where “everybody” once felt like a burden of democratic reform, now it feels like an opportunity. The power of technology is (theoretically) that we can design processes to serve everybody. We civic-minded technologists, we wield everyday tools like smartphones and laptops and with them, we can lift up communities long separated from the system meant to support them. We can make the system work better for everyone.

Do you spot the problem yet?

It’s “for.”

“For” is the thorn in the paw of the “civic” movement today. We espouse to build new, collaborative systems, new technologies, new relationships with government, but we do so wielding old systems of power.

Outside of elections, when was the last time there was energy around the idea of person-to-person collaboration at scale (small or big) for improving our political system? When was the last time there was an element of positivity to it — a feeling not of obligation or desperation or hopelessness, but of unbounded possibility?

That’s what the “civic folks” (me, too!) bring to the table. We believe that in this time of technological revolution social change is possible. We can help government to increase effectiveness, efficiency, transparency, and representation. We can help make things work differently, taking advantage of the tools available to reimagine processes long stagnant. And we believe that we can only do this if we work together: if we fork each other’s code, ground ourselves in communities, work with our governments, and bring more people to the table to help.

But there is a substantial difference between this notion of “working together” and working “for everybody.”

Working together means working “with” each other. It requires legwork for outreach and meaningful inclusion in dialogue, tech development, process input, and (political/technical) system design. It requires a deep bench of talent and it requires the recognition that in the wired world of 2014, people do not fall purely into “technical” or “non-technical” buckets, but rather possess a multitude of equally valuable skills, knowledges, and expertise.

Working together also requires shaking up the ground on which we hold court. (Is your civic hack night held where you work or in a public transport accessible, geographic/cultural center in your community? Are you meeting during the weekday dinner-time or Saturday mornings?) It means being thoughtful about the language used (don’t dumb down, but don’t buzzword up), thinking about social norms once taken for granted (ever laughed at the idea of a code of conduct? why?), and sometimes hearing that you’re wrong — that a project you love doesn’t resonate, that the tool chosen was the wrong one, that the messaging doesn’t work outside of a particular context — that despite bringing a ton of seats to the table, you’re going to need to make room for more.

Remember, most of our experience exists in a “for” system. We might tell ourselves the myth of “with” as a way of explaining what democracy means, but very rarely do we enable (let alone create!) systems that wield “working together” as central to their function.

The “civic” revolution could be that enabler. Sure, there will be times when working with everyone (like, everyone everyone) isn’t practical, but envisioning the snag shouldn’t prevent us from trying. Why model the old power structure we’ve convinced ourselves that we can change? If the civic space portends to be the intermediary that will (help) develop systems of collaborative governance from the intersection where communities and technologies collide, let’s make good on that vision and try our darnedest to realize it to its fullest potential.

Working together is the essence of the “community-ness” that civic initiatives seek to define and amplify. We can choose to make that “community” part meaningful, a way of describing actual individuals with actual interests who can actually contribute substantially to the innovations and processes that will reshape what governance means. Or we can choose to keep the status quo, to treat “community” as a description of the theoretical beneficiary of the work that we’ll create on our own toward this end; a marker of the progress we’ll make for everyone.

Unity or obscurity. You decide.

This piece was written in response to a recent Medium post on community building in civic tech, which called for the following manifesto:

Whether in the context of an event, a new project, or something else all together, when it comes to civic technology, build with, not for.