Navigating the field of civic tech
A guide for newcomers and explorers
Technology, when combined with the human spirit, has the ability to revolutionize entire industries and the world as a whole — indeed, it already has countless times over. When it comes to government, politics, and social issues it is no different.
Enter the field of civic tech. Whether you have been familiar with the field for a while or have just been introduced to it recently, inevitably most people have asked the question at some point: What exactly is civic tech, anyways?
Something to do with civic things, politics, government…
Well, not far from the truth. But what does civic tech actually entail? And what are some of the companies that are out there and what do they do? I’m here to try to shed some light on those oft-asked questions, and hopefully bridge some gaps in understanding of a field that is only growing more important in an ever-more digitized and socially-turbulent world.
Part I — What is civic tech? | The challenge with definitions and an attempt to make one.
Part II — Who are the players? | An overview of the landscape, plus a list of over 125 active companies and organizations.
Part III — Challenges, opportunities, and the future of civic tech | 3 big challenges + 3 big opportunities
Part I — Definitions of civic tech (or lack thereof)
To start, there is no universally accepted definition of the term “civic tech”. This largely stems from the fact that there are inherent definitional problems to the field that make it difficult to neatly define.
Civic tech has a definition problem largely because of the simple fact that, despite holding a relatively small market size, it encompasses a wide range of services and products that don’t have neat borders. In all this, some players are for-profit, some are non-profit, and some overlap with other industries. Thus, it’s often open to different interpretations as to what counts as “civic tech” — ask around and you’ll probably get a different definition each time.
I’m going to opt for a wide definition:
At a high level, civic tech is technology used to directly improve or influence governance, politics, or socio-political issues.
From there, civic tech can be largely grouped into three overarching, sometimes overlapping, categories:
- Gov Tech — technology used by governments for improving internal efficiency and/or delivery of services, as well as interacting externally with citizens.
- Advocacy— technology used for social and political advocacy purposes by nonprofits, political campaigns and ordinary citizens.
- Voting— technology used to improve the voting process, such as digital voter guides and tools for simplifying registration.
All of this to say that it is hard to pinpoint a specific definition, and a whole other host of questions then arise around defining civic tech.
For example, does news media count as civic tech? With the decline of print, news media has become digitized, and no one can dispute the fact that journalism and the public’s consumption of information massively influences governance, politics, and society-at-large. But where does this fall in our definition? I would lean towards this inhabiting its own field entirely, but an argument could be made otherwise.
How about social media? Certainly platforms like Facebook and Twitter are being used for civic purposes, especially around advocacy and organizing by non-profits, activists, politicians and ordinary citizens (and Russian bots). It’s often understood that social media occupies its own separate field, but moves like Facebook recently developing its own Town Hall feature signify that social media giants are now making more explicit forays into the civic tech arena.
Furthermore, do other mission-driven, social impact technologies count as civic tech? There are some awesome examples of technology being used to leverage social good — be it in education, health, philanthropy, or micro-finance — but rarely do these technologies fall under the umbrella label of “civic tech”. I suppose you have to draw the line somewhere.
There are also other names for related fields. The New America Foundation, for its part, has coined the term Public Interest Technology — kind of like how Public Interest Law once became a thing. As they note:
“In the 1970s, civil rights and anti-poverty movements led to the creation of the field of “public interest law.” Imagine you are a civic-minded young thing and you attend law school. Badda bing, badda boom, you now can have a lifetime career serving the public good. Not as a side hustle. Not only pro bono. Not relegated to volunteer work or the weekend. As your full-time, paying job. Fast-forward to the 2010s. Run that play again — but this time, swap “technology” for “law.” Build a field where people can build lifelong careers deploying technical skills and solutions for social good.”
They refer to public interest technology a little more specifically in regards to bringing technologists and human-centered design to NGO’s (non-governmental organizations), but some overlap certainly exists with the field of civic tech.
That all said, ambiguity and gray areas will inevitably remain attached to any definition of civic tech, but that may just be unavoidable, and we may have to settle for less than perfect definitions of a field that is inherently hard to define.
Part II — Who are the players?
Helping shed light on the first question — what is civic tech — is a second question: who are the actual players involved, and what do they do? Taking a look at some of the companies and organizations currently active will help us contextualize and better understand what the field actually entails.
To that end, I’ve put together a list of over 125 civic tech companies/organizations that are out there right now and what they are doing to help give a better idea of the landscape.
To provide a more digestible overview, I’ve highlighted a few examples below of some of the existing companies and organizations in each category (Gov Tech, Advocacy and Voting). In doing so, I try to strike a balance between larger, more established names and those that are newer and smaller.
(To note, choosing just a few examples was hard to do, as there are many exciting and innovative examples of technology being used in the civic space. To see the full list, check it out here. The list is by no means complete and will continue to be updated, so make sure to let me know if there are any great companies or organizations I am missing.)
Ad Hoc | Washington DC | 100+ employees
Ad Hoc is a software design and engineering agency that came out of the successful effort to rescue HealthCare.gov after its disastrous initial launch. Since its founding, Ad Hoc has worked with federal and state agencies to re-imagine how digital services can be done better by applying the latest methods and tools in software engineering, design, and user experience. Ad Hoc is now focused on developing, delivering, and operating fast, stable, and well-designed digital services on behalf of U.S. government clients.
Bang the Table | Boulder, CO | 50–100 employees
Bang the Table’s engagement solutions provide governments and community organizations with a means to connect with the people in their communities in more meaningful and productive ways. The EngagementHQ platform offers a suite of engagement tools — such as polls, forums, surveys and Q&As — that provide citizens with an online forum for discussing and weighing in on the issues that impact them most directly.
City Innovate | San Francisco | ~10 employees
City Innovate is a nonprofit dedicated to improving efficiency and accountability in government and services for the residents they serve. Their flagship program, Startup in Residence (STIR), bridges the gap between the private and public sectors by facilitating startup and government teams to co-create technology solutions for government-defined challenges. City Innovate then helps these solutions, and the startups that create them, scale by providing mentorship, introductions, and capital. Enterprise technology experts provide guidance to these teams to ensure the solutions created have maximum impact. City Innovate streamlines the government procurement process with a goal to be the API for government sales.
Code for America | San Francisco | 50–150 employees
Code for America is a staple and leader in the civic tech community, and for anyone interested in the field it is a must-know organization. It is a non-partisan, non-political nonprofit that organizes a network of people who build technology to further local governments’ priorities, using the principles and practices of the digital age to improve how government serves the American public, and how the public improves government. (Their revamp of the CA food stamp application process is an awesome example.)
coUrbanize | Boston | 10+ employees
coUrbanize is an online community engagement platform connecting real estate developers and municipalities with residents. In many U.S. cities, where gentrification is out of control and development projects are often controversial and out of touch with local residents, a platform like this is sorely needed. The goal of coUrbanize is to make project information easy to share, understand, and comment on. A project page is a developer/planner’s website, blog and message board, as well as a community member’s single stop for the most up-to-date project information and conversation.
OpenGov | Redwood City, SF, Portland, DC, NYC, London | 200+ employees
OpenGov’s mission is to power more effective and accountable government by providing cloud-based software built exclusively for government budgeting, operational performance, and citizen engagement. Today over 1,800 public agencies in 48 states form a growing network leveraging their tools to achieve better budgeting, improved reporting and operational performance, and comprehensive transparency and open data. OpenGov drives impact by giving governments the right tools and relevant data for more informed decision-making and better transparency for the public.
Other notable examples:
Blue State Digital | NYC, Oakland, LA, DC, Boston, London | 200+ employees
Blue State Digital is a digital strategy and technology firm that specializes in online fundraising, advocacy, social networking, and constituency development for non-profits, political campaigns, governments and other social initiatives. In addition to strategy and consulting, their BSD Tools platform helps hundreds of causes and brands grow impactful digital programs — from fundraising to advocacy, with personalized communications and deep analysis.
Countable | Oakland | 10–20 employees
Countable is a citizen’s “dashboard to democracy”, bringing together a decoder for Washington policymaking with communication channels for civic action in one place. Their platform makes it quick and easy to understand the laws Congress is considering, and also streamlines the process of contacting lawmakers so you can tell them how you want them to vote on bills under consideration. You can use Countable to read clear and succinct summaries of upcoming and active legislation, directly tell your lawmakers how to vote on those bills (including by video), and follow up on how they voted so you can hold them accountable in the next election cycle.
Crowdpac | San Francisco | 10–20 employees
Crowdpac is the first crowdfunding platform designed for politics — helping candidates, organizations and ordinary citizens fund the change they want to see. Their mission is to help more people participate in the political process through running for office and funding candidates and causes they believe in. It is the only platform where candidates can test the waters of a run for office without a bank account or formal campaign, enabling anyone to collect credit card backed pledges of support that turn into donations if the conditions of the campaign are met.
Tech for Campaigns | San Francisco | 10–15 employees
Tech for Campaigns (TFC) is a community where world class tech talent meets progressive and centrist political campaigns in need of skilled volunteer talent. The promise is not only different political outcomes but the sustained engagement of people concerned with the direction America is going.
Other notable examples:
Ever gotten one of these behemoths in the mail? Sure you have. Good luck trying to sort it out and coming to any sort of sane conclusion on who and what to vote for. Equally difficult for some people can be figuring out how to vote-by-mail, where to find your local polling place, or getting the right information on registration. This is where tech can fill the gap.
BallotReady | Chicago | 10+ employees
BallotReady aggregates information from candidates’ websites, social media, press, endorsers and board of elections data for the latest, most accurate details about the candidates and referendums on your ballot. They link everything back to its original source, so users can evaluate the messenger as well as the message. BallotReady also confirms details with the candidates themselves giving them the opportunity to share more information.
Voter’s Edge | Oakland | 10+ employees
Voter’s Edge is a comprehensive, nonpartisan online voter guide to federal, state, and local elections, though at the moment limited to California, Illinois, and New York. It isn’t necessarily its own company per se, as it exists as a joint project by two nonprofits, Maplight and The League of Women Voters. That said, it’s unique in that, in addition to ballot information, it provides campaign finance and donor information thanks to Maplight’s data, a nonpartisan research organization that reveals money’s influence on politics.
Vote.org | San Francisco | ~5 employees
Vote.org is a non-partisan, non-profit organization that uses technology to simplify political engagement, increase voter turnout, and strengthen American democracy. Vote.org reaches huge numbers of people across the U.S. to encourage and make it easier to both register and vote.
Democracy Works | Brooklyn | ~40 employees
Democracy Works is a non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to the idea that voting should fit the way we live, building the tools needed to upgrade and improve the voting experience for voters and election officials alike. Their portfolio of work includes TurboVote (an online service that helps every American vote in every election), the Voting Information Project, and tools for election administrators such as Ballot Scout, voter election notifications, and serving as the organizational home for the National Association of State Election Directors.
Part III — Challenges, opportunities, and the future of civic tech
It’s an exciting time for civic tech, but there are also unique challenges that face the field. Let’s take a look at 3 big challenges and 3 big opportunities. (To note, these are by no means the only ones nor are they necessarily in order.)
Challenge 1 : Sustainable business models and reliable revenue streams
This is a challenge that has persisted in the civic tech space since the very beginning. For a much more comprehensive analysis of this exact topic, I highly recommend reading the Knight Foundation and the Rita Allen Foundations’ recent report, Scaling Civic Tech. As it notes:
“Despite the proliferation of activity in civic tech, few startups in the field have meaningfully scaled and demonstrated sustainable business models capable of adapting to a rapidly changing operating landscape and set of needs. Civic tech for-profits and nonprofits alike have struggled to identify business models to expand their reach and impact. The struggles with sustainability have been increasingly observed and lamented by startups, funders and others committed to leveraging technology to promote a vibrant civil society.”
Challenge 2: Finite number of customers for Gov Tech
Gov Tech companies have seen the most success generating revenue within the civic tech space — and, thus, outside investment — with governments (federal, state and local) as the paying customers. However, governments, by their very nature, also pose several unique challenges, one of which is that they form a limited customer base. As Nick Bowden writes:
“This is easily the most overlooked and unique factor in govtech. This industry is one of the very few industries where the number of customers is finite. There are approximately 19,000 cities, 3,000 counties, and hundreds of state and federal agencies. Of those 19,000 cities, approximately 90% have populations under 25,000. Think about that for a second. The entire govtech market in the United States only has 23,000 potential customers…Let’s compare that with the enterprise SaaS market. There are 28mm SMB’s (small & medium sized businesses) in the United States. There are 18,000 companies that have > 500 employees. Not only is the customer count significantly higher, it replenishes itself every year…There are 400,000 new businesses started each year. That’s 400,000 new potential customers for enterprise SaaS every year.”
This fact isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just a unique challenge that civic tech — and particularly gov tech — faces.
(Other unique challenges include lengthy buying cycles, complex bureaucratic purchasing processes, and inertia resistant to change.)
Challenge 3: Building the right solution
It’s very difficult to build the right product without strong knowledge of the space you are designing solutions for and the true problems and opportunities that exist within it. This goes for almost any product, but seems to be especially so in civic tech. When the tech disrupt mindset is attempted in the civic space without factoring in people who have been on the inside it can mean a product that is out of touch with the realities of the inner workings of government, political campaigns and nonprofits.
In the Gov Tech space, this means knowing what government workers really need, where their pain points really are, how to talk about it in their language, and what solution has the potential to scale within the constraints of government timelines, budgets, and an overall resistance to change. That’s why you see some of the most successful Gov Tech companies being founded by — or early hiring — people who have worked within government themselves.
The same goes for the advocacy space — what are policy makers really influenced by? What will actually shift decision-making? What do political campaigns or non-profits really, tactically, need? Again, some of the most successful examples are being run by folks who have worked within congress, political campaigns, and nonprofits themselves.
Opportunity 1: Better measurement and communication of impact
An inability to adequately evaluate and communicate evidence of impact — including a lack of rigorous and consistent measurement— has limited the ability of many civic tech companies and organizations to secure funding, both through traditional and philanthropic sources.
However, companies and orgs can improve their ability to tell compelling impact stories by investing early on in strengthening measurement and evaluation capabilities. Companies and orgs who have successfully demonstrated impact often made an intentional and deliberate effort at the outset to establish specific measures of success that could eventually be communicated in a compelling way about a very concrete, data-backed outcome.
Opportunity 2: Other models for growth and impact
When it comes to solving societal challenges and improving lives, is business revenue-generation the only model for success? Indeed, while an important model, it shouldn’t be — and isn’t — the only one. Other opportunities do exist, especially at the outset, such as:
- partnership initiatives between governments and startups
- an increase in civic accelerators and incubators
- the potential for closer collaboration and coordination between civic tech funders
- more impact investments in the civic tech space by mission-driven foundations and high net worth individuals
- in-house government agencies hiring top tech talent and applying innovative methodologies from the private sector
Opportunity 3: Interest in civic tech is higher than ever
As Scaling Civic Tech notes:
“The 2016 election catalyzed a surge of interest and consciousness about the importance of a strong civil society and active citizen engagement. This has cast a spotlight on the work of organizations promoting informed and engaged citizens, including members of the civic tech community. And though few funders historically have explicitly focused on civic engagement, a growing cadre of donors and investors is seeking opportunities to support organizations contributing to well-functioning democracy. This could mark a sea-change moment for civic tech.”
Let’s hope this last piece is true, and that stakeholders can capitalize on the opportunity, so that more companies and organizations can invest in core capacities, deliver deeper impact, and develop sustainable models for longterm success.
Because indeed, meaningful, impactful civic technology has never been more important— nor possible— than it is now.
Want to learn more and/or get more involved in the civic tech space? Check out a slice of resources below👇 Civic tech is constantly evolving and still in its relative infancy — there is so much room for smart, motivated people from a variety of backgrounds to help shape the field moving forward. Embrace the messiness and jump in! Also, if you have any additional thoughts, disagreements or critiques on anything written above, please leave a comment below or reach out to me directly. I’m aways open to new ideas and would love to hear from you.
- Scaling Civic Tech — by the Knight and Rita Allen Foundations
- The New America Foundation’s Public Interest Technology initiative
- The Civic Tech Field Guide — by Matt Stempeck, Micah Sifry, and Erin Simpson.
- Code for America’s public interest tech job board
- Find your local Code for America brigade
- “Want to work in public interest tech? Start here.” — by Travis Moore at Tech Congress
My name is Derek Poppert. I’m a designer with a deep interest in exploring how technology can help address important civic and social problems. Let’s continue the conversation — feel free to connect and reach out.