A More Verdant Civic Process
Although we civic technologists have found power in our ability to create tools, it doesn’t mean that just by creating technology we are sharing that power.
In 2013, Whitney May and the team at the Center for Technology and Civic Life (CTCL) began a 7-month listening tour to understand the challenges election administrators around the country face publishing information online. They interviewed nearly 100 administrators through conferences and site visits, exploring the points of pride and of pain in the government officials’ everyday work. Their goal was to ultimately build technology that could help these government officials do their jobs better. To do so, their first step was to build relationships.
To one extent or another, the CTCL team had all previously been on the other side of the table, working as election data providers. (May herself used to be an election administrator in Durham County, North Carolina.) But even with the personal and professional experiences of the CTCL team, they knew that they would not be able to fully tackle the daily data needs of election officials with a single solution. There are too many factors, too many particularities of place and jurisdiction and resource-access for people outside the system to make the right call on tools.
But people in the system can make the right call. They can identify their own obstacles and, when connected to each other, evaluate common methods and guidelines for overcoming these challenges. They can, with their own digital mastery (more than access to digital tools and digital literacy), create the tools they need together—if and when they need them.
So, when it came time to build, CTCL decided to prioritize co-production above tool production. They let election administrators guide the process. The result wasn’t a tool, but an emerging suite of tools, what CTCL calls ELECTricity.
ELECTricity is defined as a “learning community of election officials who believe that technology can improve our democracy”—and functionally, that’s how it plays out. Although the CTCL team built a website template in response to the first wave of interviews and feedback from administrators, they did so through a process that connected people to each other and to digital skills as they went along. The result isn’t a one-and-done website-builder. It’s a network that, fueled by collaboration on one simple tool, can respond and grow and adapt to serve its own needs. This is civic tech.
But there are too few stories like ELECTricity in the big tent of civic tech.
A year ago I stood in front of a giant yellow backdrop with the words BUILD WITH NOT FOR blazing behind me. My goal wasn’t to become the poster girl for the latest slogan in our still-emerging field, but to call attention to a division between our declared aspirations (“make government work for everybody!” “serve public good!”) and our corresponding actions.
If there is a consistent narrative to the work of civic tech, it’s that we believe that we can use tools to make our democracy work better. I believe this, too, and I think that this belief, broadly held, is genuine. Our intentions for civic tech are good. But intention is not action, and what it means to make our democracy work better is not singular—not something we civic technologists should decide on our own.
There is no shared experience of America, no single navigation of our democracy that we can improve. There are instead many Americas, many conditions and contexts and experiences that clash and hide, mesh and coexist, whether or not we’re aware of them. It’s a philosophical point with real-world implications: whether you think of your experience as universal or personal changes how you identify social problems, how you form teams to work on “solutions,” who you include, which solutions you pursue, and what happens next.
Although civic tech has inherited the values of openness and sharing from the free culture and open source movements that preceded us, we have more collaboration we need to do if we want our civic work to truly be transformative. We have to learn how to work not just with tech communities and particular government partners of interest, but also in deep partnership with the wide array of civic actors and organizations already enmeshed and working in the democratic landscapes we are trying to affect.
Remember: democracy is a form of government that people create collectively. Who’s directly involved in that creation and whose involvement is assumed by proxy—by people acting on their behalf—changes how the system works. Although we civic technologists have found power in our ability to create tools, it doesn’t mean that just by creating technology we are sharing that power.
So what does it mean to share power? What does civic technology look like if we were to approach it differently?
Over decades and generations, many different fields—from journalism to education to the arts to environmental science—have asked similar questions. Which is to say that there is a lot out there that civic tech can learn from. And shortly after my talk at the Code for America Summit last year, I teamed up with the Smart Chicago Collaborative as part of the Knight Foundation’s Community Information Challenge to begin concentrated research into just that. In the spirit of working through the lens of context, this first phase of research I conducted focused on exploring collaboration in technology: projects like ELECTricity and others that develop through community direction and in response to expressed, collective needs. Projects that serve public good, whether or not they identify themselves as “civic tech.”
Last week, during a workshop I held on this research at this year’s Code for America Summit, we released a book with our findings: Experimental Modes of Civic Engagement in Civic Tech (Meet People Where They Are). You can download a free PDF of the book here or buy the paperback version on Amazon.
Experimental Modes is our first attempt to answer the question “what does it mean to build with, not for?” in a nuts and bolts way, based on the real experience of practitioners who do the work. Through a combination of independent review and in-depth self-reporting, I identified five common strategies (“modes”) and a number of associated tactics that civic technologists can (and do) deploy to integrate community perspectives and deep engagement into the work—and to better integrate themselves into the communities they work for.
The technologies I studied varied from QR codes to radio towers, mobile apps to hotlines, but the strategies involved were largely the same. Chief among them: invest in relationship-building, partner with hyperlocal groups with intersecting interests, lead from common physical and cultural spaces, build the tool that fits (not the tool you want), and be a community participant. Not just a participant in any community. A participant in the community you are trying to serve.
Describing the approach CTCL took when creating ELECTricity during a convening held as part of the Experimental Modes project, Whitney May shared a simple equation: Information + Invitation = Participation. When CTCL sought to work with election administrators, they didn’t assume that their expertise in delivering top-notch technical products would be enough to ensure that administrators felt ownership of the tools created. So instead they made sure to mesh every step of their process with invitation. They invited administrators to be part of the creation, and they make this invitation as an equal party, giving their community (the administrators!) the power to push back and to lead—to do the work together.
Civic tech starts and ends with people—with relationships that bridge many different divides. Over the past five years (or decade, depending on how you slice it), this idea has formed a powerful beacon, summoning folks from across the country and all corners of the world together to talk about what we can do with our skills for our country (our counties, our cities, our towns…). What happens next, whether and how we move towards these goals, depends entirely on us. How much do we care about making democracy better versus making “governments” better? How much are we willing to explore not just the information we produce but the quality of the invitations we extend? How much are we willing to not just issue invitations, but seek them out from others, too?
Are we ready to talk about civic technology not as an end in itself, but as part of a more verdant civic process?
I don’t have the answers. We’re going to have to find those together. My only hope is to some degree Experimental Modes can be a partner helping to advance that process. Take a read. Let me know what you think—and where you want to go.