Civic Tech: Of Makers and Activists

Omidyar Network
Jul 13, 2016 · 3 min read

By Josh Hendler, CTO & Head of Product at Purpose and Jeremy Heimans, Co-Founder & CEO of Purpose

When Purpose partnered with Omidyar Network to create Engines of Change, we knew that civic tech was a vibrant field composed of people and organizations who cared both about the technical challenges and the potential for impact in the world. We were struck by the breadth, diversity and growth of this space across almost all our social movement indicators. The report includes an extensive set of recommendations for civic tech based on our findings, but today we want to highlight a unique aspect of civic tech that might have implications for social movements more broadly.

Within the civic tech community, one particular set of goals stood out for us–the creation of a government that is more connected to, engaged with, and accountable to citizens. This includes a government where decision-making can happen in not just a top-down way, but also bottom-up and sideways. This is the kind of government that isn’t uniformly mocked as ineffective and inefficient, but is creating new opportunities for participation and showing real value to citizens.

What was notable for us wasn’t just the potential for this vision, but also a potential path for achieving it–the cultivation of a movement where makers and activists work in unison to solve problems. The technologists and creatives who are making the tools and infrastructure necessary to enable seamless government interactions; the activists who are pushing to shift power from entrenched interests that profit from the status quo, either financially or politically.

The need for a combination of shifting power and building solutions couldn’t be more clear than it was last week when a consortium of large government contractors challenged the work and role of 18F, an innovative service that taps top technology talent to create effective technology solutions for government. Claiming that 18F has a conflict of interest and unfairly competes for government technology services, existing contractors are concerned about shifts in the status quo. And as we move into a new administration, be that a President Clinton or Trump, there will need to be continued pressure to maintain the amazing work that has helped to power the Obama administration’s technology initiatives.

The collaboration between domain experts and activists is absolutely core to many movements. Policy experts provide blueprints for a solution, and campaigners and activists sort out how to make them come about in the world. What’s unique here is that it’s not just elite experts involved in crafting policy but rather a grassroots army of makers who are actually helping to at least start solving some of these problems.

This type of collaboration between maker and activist is shown in the theory of change of groups like the Sunlight Foundation and Code for America. This dynamic continues to be an ongoing conversation and question within the civic tech space itself. To what extent should organizations simply be offering solutions, versus pressuring those in power to adopt them? How do we ensure that the technology community doesn’t ignore the real need to shift power as well as the stack (e.g., this week’s debate about Shervin Pishevar’s proposal for an app to help avoid police shooting)? Answering these questions is core to the future of many of the key issues and groups within the civic tech community.

Interestingly, this solve-while-mobilize approach is becoming more relevant across other issue areas. In particular, the healthcare sector is one where groups and individuals are providing technological solutions while at the same time pushing for structural and legal changes. And more generally, creating real impact in today’s global and fast-changing context involves using a combination of different types of approaches, including effective public mobilization, building technology and influencing policy makers. The movement for a more accountable and engaging government helps us see this path forward.

Read Engines of Change: What Civic Tech Can Learn From Social Movements at

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