Engines of Change

What civic tech can learn from social movements.

For over a decade, Omidyar Network has been supporting and investing in the civic tech sector. From the very early days we have backed the most talented entrepreneurs who are seeking to use technology to empower citizens or make government more accessible, efficient, and effective. In this time, we’ve invested nearly $90 million in 35 nonprofit and for-profit organizations around the world.

The experience we have gained over the past ten years has led us to hold a strong conviction that these technologies can be used to improve quality of life for millions of people. We also see accumulating evidence that civic tech is gaining momentum and is increasingly attracting investment. And yet, aside from a few moments of mainstream visibility (think Healthcare.gov), it does seem as if civic tech hovers continually on the edge of “taking off” in ways that are both energizing (because of the potential) and frustrating (because of the pace) for those of us who have worked in the space for a considerable time.

In order to spur creative thinking about how the civic tech sector could be accelerated and expanded, we looked to Purpose, a public benefit corporation that works with NGOs, philanthropies, and brands on movement building strategies. We wanted to explore what we might learn from taking the work that Purpose has done mapping the progress of of 21st century social movements and applying its methodology to civic tech.

So why consider viewing civic tech using the lens of 21st century movements? Movements are engines of change in society that enable citizens to create new and better paths to engage with government and to seek recourse on issues that matter to millions of people. At first glance, civic tech doesn’t appear to be a movement in the purest sense of the term, but on closer inspection, it does share some fundamental characteristics. Like a movement, civic tech is mission-driven, focused on making change that benefits the public, and in most cases enables better public input into decision making.

We believe that better understanding the essential components of movements, and observing the ways in which civic tech does nor does not behave like one, can yield insights on how we as a civic tech community can collectively drive the sector forward.

Today at Personal Democracy Forum in New York I was delighted to present the findings of this work and to announce the publication of the full report Engines of Change: What Civic Tech Can Learn From Social Movements.

The report provides a lot of rich insight and detail which we invite everyone to explore. Meanwhile, we have summarized five key findings:

  1. Grassroots activity is expanding across the U.S. Activity is no longer centralized around San Francisco and New York; it’s rapidly growing and spreading across the U.S. In fact, there was an 81 percent increase in the number of cities hosting civic tech MeetUps from 2013 to 2015, and 45 of 50 states had at least one MeetUp on civic tech in 2015.
  1. Talk is turning to action. We are walking the walk. One way we can see this is that growth in civic tech Twitter discussion is highly correlated with the growth in GitHub contributions to civic tech projects and related Meetup events. Between 2013-2015, over 8,500 people contributed code to GitHub civic tech projects, and there were over 76,000 MeetUps for civic tech events.
  1. There is an engaged core, but it is very small in number. As with most social movements, civic tech has a definite core of highly engaged evangelists, advocates, and entrepreneurs that are driving conversations, activity, and events, and this is growing. The number of Meetup groups holding multiple events a quarter grew by 136 percent between 2013 to 2015. And likewise there was 60 percent growth in Engaged Tweeters in during this time period. However, this level of activity is dwarfed by other movements such as climate action.
  1. Civic tech is growing but still lacking scale. There are many positive indications of growth in civic tech; for example, the combination of nonprofit and for-profit funding to the sector increased by almost 120 percent over the period. But while growth compares favorably to other movements, again the scale just isn’t there.
  1. Common themes, but no shared vision or identity. Purpose examined the extent to which civic tech exhibits and articulates a shared vision or identity around which members of a movement can rally. What they found is that many fewer people are discussing the same shared set of themes. Two themes—open data and government transparency—are resonating and gaining traction across the sector and could therefore form the basis of common identity for civic tech.

While each of these insights is important in its own right and requires action to move the sector forward, the main thing that strikes us is the need for a coherent and clearly articulated vision and sense of shared identity for civic tech.

If the sector can work together to deliver this, it will help attract more participants to the sector. The more people who understand what we mean when we say civic tech, the more they may see their work and interests reflected in it and will be interested to actively “join the movement.”

Shared identity will also be key to attracting new and different types of capital to the sector—both nonprofit grant money and for-profit investment—better enabling investors to understand the collective impact the sector is seeking to deliver.

And finally, attracting more talent and more capital will ultimately drive greater impact.

We hope that this research and the findings will be the start of a new dialogue—and debate—that will encourage others to add to and extend what we have started, ultimately delivering a stronger, more vibrant and impactful civic tech sector, creating real engines of change for the future.

  • Has anyone considered a large scale survey of civic tech participants/movement members?

    As “open data and government transparency” are means and not really compelling ends that sustain volunteer citizen engagement in a movement, I think we need to dig deeper into what motivates people to both first get involved and then to sustain (or not sustain) their involvement.

  • Stacy, any reactions?

    Can we really expect people to coalesce around means?

    I have found that most of the people showing up to Twin Cities events have a “tech for good” motivation, but are willing to listen to the leaders comments about open government. They however, defer to those leaders and lack the personal motivation to say get involved in legislation or lobbying efforts at the capital or city hall. They like the idea of open data, but as end users with most not seeing a path toward moving government politically. On the other hand a small percent are motivated to file FOI requests.


  • Amanda Clarke

    Hi Steven – I have some funding from the Canadian government to launch a survey of this type. I’m working on the research design and would be eager for feedback from anyone with suggestions on which issues to probe, and venues/sites to recruit participants to ensure broad representation across the civic tech sector. Also interested to learn if others have a survey already going so I don’t recreate the wheel. People can find me at @ae_clarke or http://www.aclarke.ca

  • This is great to hear. How widely can you survey – global or specific to Canada?

    One idea would be to collect some of the fields civic tech hackathons have used for people to share their skills and interests to see if motivations/inspirations are different or where they intersect. You could also get at the “civic” first people using tech versus “tech” first people using civics. How are they shaping/engaging in this space? Who is sustaining involvement, feels most welcome or not?

    I am at @democracy and clift@e-democracy.org

  • Amanda Clarke

    These are great ideas! Thanks, Steve. I had planned on focusing on North America for the survey, just to contain the scope for distribution. However, that’s not to say that a global survey wouldn’t be possible. Happy to connect. I’ll keep you posted on this as it develops.