By Luminate

Building a Civic Tech Sector to Last

Stefaan G. Verhulst, The GovLab

Over the last few years we have seen growing recognition of the potential of “civic tech,” or the use of technology that “empowers citizens to make government more accessible, efficient and effective (definition provided in “Engines of Change”)”. One commentator recently described “civic tech as the next big thing.” At the same time, we are yet to witness a true tech-enabled transformation of how government works and how citizens engage with institutions and with each other to solve societal problems. In many ways, civic tech still operates under the radar screen and often lacks broad acceptance. So how do we accelerate and expand the civic tech sector? How can we build a civic tech field that can last and stand the test of time?

The “Engines of Change” report written for Omidyar Network by Purpose seeks to provide an answer to these questions in the context of the United States. It starts from the premise that for a sector like civic tech to scale it needs to be part of a broader movement aiming at change. Complementing existing mapping efforts within the civic tech field (e.g., the map produced by the Knight Foundation and Microsoft Research’s Civic Graph ), and using a particular methodology of content and keyword analysis that leverages a diverse set of data sources, the report uses five participatory indicators to measure where civic tech stands as a movement.

The good news, according to the report, is that civic tech in the US is very much a grassroots activity, supported by an engaged, committed and active community. The challenge is that there is no shared identity or vision, which hampers the growth of the sector. Of particular interest are the report’s recommendations to promote common branding in the civic tech sector and create opportunities to broaden the base of participants. The report also emphasizes the need for civic tech to build bridges with other actors and sectors, which should be fostered in order to prevent a “not invented here” syndrome.

Given the new insights gained from the report, how to move forward? How to translate its findings into a strategy that seeks to improve people’s lives and addresses societal problems by leveraging technology? What emerges from reading the report, and reflecting on how fields and movements have been built in other areas (e.g., the digital learning movement by the MacArthur Foundation or the Hewlett Foundation’s efforts to build a conflict resolution field), are a set of design principles that, when applied consistently, may generate a true lasting civic tech movement. These principles include:

  • Define a common problem that matters enough to work on collectively and identify a unique opportunity to solve it. Most successful movements seek to solve hard problems.  So what is the problem that civic tech seeks to address? Many of the early civic tech initiatives in the US were focused on tackling the growing democratic deficit by exploring new forms of civic engagement. There was a clear sense of the problem, and advances in collaboration technologies provided a unique opportunity to experiment with new solutions. By broadening the definition of civic tech (to include govtech, for instance, as suggested in the report) it may make it harder for the sector to coalesce around a shared view of the problem and identify opportunities for improvement. (It turns out that defining problems well is a key challenge for the civic tech community as a whole).
  • Encourage experimentation. As it stands, there is no shortage of experimentation with new platforms and tools in the civic tech space. What is missing, however, is the type of assessment that uncovers whether or not such efforts are actually working, and why or why not. Rather than viewing experimentation as simply “trying new things,” the field could embrace “fast-cycle action research” to understand both more quickly, and more precisely, when an innovation works, for whom, and under what conditions.
  • Establish an evidence base and a common set of metrics. While there is good reason to believe that breakthrough solutions may come from using technology, there are still too little studies measuring exactly how impactful civic tech is. Without a deeper understanding of whether, when, why and to what extent an intervention has made an impact, the civic tech movement will lack credibility. To accelerate the rate of experimentation and create more agile institutions capable of piloting civic tech solutions, we need research that will enable the sector to move away from “faith-based” initiatives toward “evidence-based” ones. The TicTec conference, the Opening Governance Research Network and the recently launched Open Governance Research Exchange are some initiatives that seek to address this shortcoming. Yet more analysis and translation of current findings into clear baselines of impact against common metrics is needed to make the sector more reliable.
  • Develop a Network Infrastructure. The viability and growth of the civic tech sector depends on the sharing of assets and practices among the community. Applying network technology or platforms to meet the demands of diverse actors in the space and matching those needs with the supply of expertise and tools will be key to continued expansion and creation of meaningful impact. While the use of expert networks to improve governance is still in its early days – though the list of examples is steadily growing – it is clear that the experts and first movers in the field would have much useful, practice-based knowledge to share with new actors, if only they had the infrastructure in place to do so. Primarily focused on those working within government, the GovLab’s Network of Innovators platform aims to create such an infrastructure, allowing those working in governance innovation fields – from open data to prize-backed challenges – to match with one another based on their skills and experiences and, subsequently, to share knowledge.
  • Identify the signal.  As it stands, the field of civic tech is rife with noise. Without new community-wide mechanisms and services for identifying the signal in that noise, policymakers, technologists and other decision-makers will struggle to make use of the platforms, methodologies and research findings that are currently active in the civic tech field. We need intermediaries that can move from delivering “facts” to exposing and amplifying patterns; and leverage those patterns to move from information to intelligence. By investing in curation (vetting and sharing the stuff one needs to know) and brokering evidence and tools for the field, a movement can be directed to focus on those things that matter and the gaps that exist (as has been done with other field creation). 

As every engineer knows, building engines requires a set of basic design principles. Similarly, transforming the civic tech sector into a sustainable engine of change may require the implementation of the principles outlined above. Let’s build a civic tech sector to last.