How Civic Tech Should Respond to Our New Reality


Last week I attended the annual Code for America Summit, where it was readily apparent that the community of people committed to the idea that technology can be built and deployed to serve the public interest is not only continuing to grow at a rapid pace, but is also beginning to show signs of measurable impact.

This week’s election throws all of that up in the air. With our country so clearly and diametrically divided, the idea of using technology as a tool to support the public interest seems almost trite.

As I struggle to understand the results of the election personally and professionally, I am also trying to work out how the civic tech community can respond to our new reality.

One troubling aspect at the recent CfA Summit, which seems even more grave today than it did last week, is that there was almost no public discussion of the election or the increasing polarization of the American people. Code for America founder Jen Pahlka and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman mentioned the candidacy of Donald Trump briefly in their session on the main stage, but generally the talk of “politics” was taboo—too messy for a forum intended to bring together the best civic technologists in the world. What?!?!

I understand why it is so important for civic tech events like Summit (and our own Personal Democracy Forum) to be nonpartisan affairs where political perspectives of all kinds are welcome, but de-emphasized, in the interest of fostering greater collaboration and building trust. For one, civic tech is intended to be in service of the public, not politicians and their politics. And since a key element for the success of civic tech is having elected leaders embrace its promise and partner with civic tech organizations and civic entrepreneurs, ideological disharmony doesn’t seem like it helps anyone in this context.

However, maintaining a nonpartisan posture does not absolve the civic tech community of responsibility when an ideological perspective takes hold and the bullying of women, journalists, and underrepresented communities in public and online becomes normalized, or where the threat of violence is used to silence those who may have another point of view.

When I warned of the possible election of Donald Trump from the main stage of the Summit last week, only half of the audience signaled agreement by clapping or hooting. Some came up to me after the panel to thank me for raising the issue and many of them expressed their own exasperation that the election was not being addressed more openly at the event.

But to those who did not agree with me let me repeat:

THERE IS NO GREATER THREAT to the future promise of technology for the public good than the possibility that President-elect Trump will wield his mastery of destructive politics not on Twitter, on Facebook, or through the media in general, but from the Oval Office itself. Let’s hope that the responsibility of the office will temper his most negative traits and that he will surround himself with reasonable and experienced people. Our system of democracy owes him an opportunity to do that. But if not we have to do everything we can to fight for what is right for everyone, not for what is best for ourselves or our industry or collective businesses.

To be absolutely clear, my perspective on this is not that the civic tech field should become partisan and political. But if it is to ever fulfill its promise, our field must become a champion for decency, equity, and openness, and to do everything it can to fight bigotry, racism, and hate. The fear of openly talking about these subjects at Summit makes me also fear that the civic tech community has not yet developed enough to know when to recognize the difference between partisanship and an existential threat. As a group, we should be able to collectively stand up for plain human decency. Let history be our judge.

Beyond the issue of dancing around politics, as I see two other serious issues facing the civic tech field, which could impinge upon its ability to grow and have lasting positive impact.

Much was said and discussed at the summit about mechanisms needed to scale civic tech projects, including better evaluation and measurement tools, more stories of successful initiatives to help convince potential partners in government and other sectors to join and support projects, and the need for better infrastructure, from more open data to more philanthropic resources. I was gratified to hear how often diversity and user-centric participation were cited as key components for projects to succeed.

That said, the definition of the terms we use to describe what we do continues to limit if not outright handicap our ability to succeed. Throughout the summit I heard the terms “civic tech” and “govtech” used interchangeably, and though very much related and often overlapping, they are not the same thing. Another term I heard thrown around is “urban tech.” So let me attempt to define each, and to explain why the careful use of these terms really matters.

Here we go:

Govtech is technology developed for or used by the government in the course of fulfilling what the government considers to be its duties to deliver services to the public whatever they may be.

Civic tech is technology developed to serve the public good.

Urban tech is technology developed to support the issues that disproportionately affect cities, as opposed to rural areas, such as transportation, air quality, energy efficiency, etc.

Crucially, in my definition of govtech I allow for the possibility that what the government considers to be in the interest of the public may, in fact, not be. Of course it can be argued that all govtech is in service to the public and therefore govtech and civic tech are two sides of the same coin, but I beg to stridently differ.

Would the development of technology used by police departments to look at the social media profiles and posts of people of they are considering pulling over on the road—to see, for example, if they support Black Lives Matter—be govtech or civic tech? Would the development of technologies to compile a list Muslim Americans and analyze their potential allegiance to America be govtech or civic tech? Who gets to decide when a technology used by government is in fact being deployed to serve the public or to control it, or when it protects or violates the civil or human rights of citizens themselves?

Now of course we know that most technology we have seen labeled as govtech is intended to support the public good, like many Code for America open data projects, and others around new procurement systems, open budgeting, or websites and apps that make it easier for people to apply for benefits or get public information. But the reason we need to be vigilant about the difference between govtech and civic tech is that we can’t always be sure that the government leaders who tell us that they are using civic tech innovations benevolently are benevolent, or are masquerading and obscuring their real intentions.

Should a company responding to an RFP by the Trump administration requesting a tool to help identify all 11 million undocumented people in the U.S. be allowed to call itself a civic tech company?

On the urban tech side, what if sensors and kiosks deployed to allow traffic to flow more easily or support self driving car infrastructure also captured and shared the movement of individuals with governmental authorities?

Even more difficult to answer is, should any of us accept sponsorship dollars from a company like this? I know one thing: The lack of sustainable funding for civic tech innovation and measurement deter the field from asking some of these tough questions.

So as excited as we may all be about the future of civic tech and some of what we heard at Summit, what we didn’t hear may be far more important. Which brings me to what I believe remains another serious threat to the future promise of civic tech: That we are laboring under the idea that somehow, if we can bring innovation to government and more open public data to citizens, that these innovations will trickle up and make our politics more functional and civil. This theory of change seems ever more dubious in this political environment.

We need more civic tech practitioners building new tools and platforms to support a more connected and equitable system of democracy in the 21st century. Regardless of political ideology, people have a right to feel heard, and to be given a sense of agency in decisions that govern their lives, the lives of their families, and their communities. Our political system, born in the agricultural age and subverted in the industrial age, feels obsolete in the information age.

The politics we have gives us the dysfunctional government many people in this country experience. Therefore, you can’t fix government without fixing politics, and you can’t fix politics without fixing the way people experience democracy.

The people who supported Trump for President might have been repulsed by his behavior and some of his words, but they are more repulsed by the technocrats from both parties who promised them jobs, better public education, and affordable healthcare for the last 40 years, and came up short.

No civic, gov, or urban tech is ever going to make up for this failure by itself.

So we need to change this reality and figure out how to give people the ability to know they actually are being heard, have a say in the decisions that affect their lives, and can benefit from the promise of a more connected world, rather than be fearful of it. This has nothing to do with technology of any kind. It’s about truly reworking the fabric of civic society on a citizen to citizen, neighbor to neighbor basis.

I applaud Code for America’s work and agree with what Jen Pahlka writes in her post-election piece about the technology community’s need to recommit to work with government: more than ever the movement of helping government innovate must continue to be supported and grow. The opportunity to help restore trust in government by leveraging technology in solving really hard problems has not changed. But I deeply worry that even though people working in government in nontechnical jobs reflect the diversity of the American public they serve, the technology community itself has a long way to go to fully reflect that, and many citizens in underserved communities are rightfully feeling pretty scared right now.

And we need to go even further.

As I tried to outline here last year, and want to emphasize again, we need far more experimentation and work to develop the platforms, tools, and methodologies for designing new forms for citizen-centric decision making and governance in the 21st century while staying true to the highest principles of democracy itself. For examples of what I mean look at Loomio, Democracy Earth, and Liquid Democracy.

Without simultaneous innovation in how we form government, we won’t be able to deliver true innovation in either govtech or civic tech. So rise up, everyone, let’s commit ourselves to both!

  • http://twitter.com/nickkauf @nickkauf

    thank you! small point I’d say urban-tech is more than large cities, anything related to the built environment and human settlements. “the urban system” ate the entire world some time ago.