Can We Tell a Truer Story about Civic Tech?
The Personal Democracy Forum conference has always been a celebration of technology’s role transforming politics and redefining democracy. But this year’s celebration included particularly strong notes of caution, like danah boyd’s talk on the unintended consequences of code, Mark Surman’s warning that internet freedom is shrinking and Mariana Ruiz Firmat’s reminder that equity within our organizations is a design imperative, not just a good hiring practice.
The chorus of realistic voices was my second favorite thing about PDF16. My favorite was our own cautionary panel, “Is the Civic Tech Story Broken?”, which I presented with panelists Sam Dorman, Elizabeth Eagen and Shaifali Puri.
In the panel description, we said:
“We have an expectations problem in the civic tech world that is making donors waste money and social justice projects waste opportunities. When foundations and executives expect technology to create rapid results, or massive results, they can set up their tools and their teams to fall short. And simplistic expectations mess up the incentives for advocates and donors alike. Advocates will keep talking like tech utopians even when they know better, to secure funds; and donors will smooth over tech projects that underperform, to tell an easier story to their boards and their peers.
To fix these mismatches in expectations, civic tech needs a better story. One that celebrates not just innovation but alignment between donor missions, tool designs, and local impacts. One that rescues the word “learning” from the stigmas of “evaluation” and “failure” and gets people across the civic tech ecosystem to celebrate project shortfalls for what they teach us about not repeating our mistakes. Our panel of experts from the tech and donor communities will come with good and bad stories from the expectations gap, and we’ll work with session attendees to brainstorm new stories that will help civic tech strengthen its realism and its civic conscience.”
Our central message was that the expectations surrounding civic tech are not aligned with the realities of how it takes hold—or doesn’t. We expect that new tools will transform organizations, but too often projects stall on non-tech challenges, or teams lack the person-power to make a new system thrive. We go big on big data, expecting citizens and governments to reboot their relationship, then go home disappointed when the realities of power relationships and bureaucracy slow down the new age.
The panel was determined to do more than complain, though. We, and later our audience, brought ideas for bridging the civic tech “expectations gap.” We talked about how our community can change the civic tech story from one that assumes transformation to one that anticipates challenges.
To add context to the discussion, I compared the struggles of civic tech to previous cycles of idealism and shortfall, for blogs in 2006, for instance, or for social media in 2010. In both those cases, civic groups learned that breakthrough tools still need bread-and-butter planning to create lasting change.
We use utopian shorthand too often when we promote the potential of civic tech. And simplistic expectations can mess up the incentives, especially for grantmakers, who are already prone to following the tech “hype of the month,” as Esra’a Al-Shafei put it in her PDF talk. Fortunately, some donors are trying to take a longer look at the progress of civic tech. The day before, we heard from Omidyar Network’s Stacy Donohue about the absence of a “shared vision” for civic tech’s purpose and role.
Our panel included two experienced funders, from the Open Society Foundations and the Nike Foundation. Elizabeth Eagen of the OSF Information Program said that a thoughtful design phase for data-driven programs can make the difference between success and unmet expectations in technology grants and technology projects.
“Be clear on the hypotheses you are supposed to be testing,” she said, “and understand how nuances in project goals can actually represent huge differences in aims.” The general plan “to build a database,” for example, might mean gathering data and making it more usable, but might just as easily mean conducting pilot work and capacity development to determine the availability of data and the readiness of a grantee to use that data for advocacy. The lesson: Don’t settle for broadly-defined goals. Spend time on design to be clear—and realistic—about your hypothesis.
Elizabeth added that it may take “more paperwork” to fund a thoughtful design phase—since the final goals won’t be clear at the outset, but the extra planning is worth it, especially because technology can easily impinge on human rights in the effort to protect them.
Shaifali Puri, who led global innovation for the Nike Foundation, said we need tech grantmaking that is more utilitarian and less utopian. If human experience is full of power imbalances, she said, then civic tech has a “cultural imperative” to be aware of existing infrastructures, or it risks reinforcing them. Shaifali recommended donor groups look more honestly at their failures, to avoid more projects where “the impact happens in spite of the tech.”
Sam Dorman pointed to the tension between funding cost-efficient technology experiments and investing at the higher levels that can help assure success. He said organizational capacity, which is often ignored entirely in funder initiatives, “is one of the key differentiators between successful and unsuccessful technology.” Internal capacity and thoughtful planning were also at the heart of Sam’s talk the previous day on the PDF main stage. “When the social sector builds tech products,” he argued, “on some level our organizations become tech companies. We need to invest a comparable level of care if we want these products to remain effective.”
So while the civic tech story may not be completely broken, we all agreed that stories of difficulty, stories of failure and stories drawn from the demand side of civic needs—and not just the supply side of great tools—should be more visible and more shareable among us.
To walk the talk of story-sharing, we opened the topic to our audience using the super-low-tech platform of index cards. We asked for specific examples of tech projects that struggled with an expectations gap, and examples or ideas for how organizations, donors and technologists can narrow the gap. Four responses from the dozen or so we received are captured here.
Craig Sinclair described the roadblocks that the CMDrupal project faced after launching tools to support Community Media Centers. Even though the platform enabled each center to tailor the modules to their needs, “this option to customize made it too complex/expensive, so only the largest center deployed the project.” (That’s Sam’s internal capacity challenge seen in the wild.)
Even though his work has garnered two awards from New York City’s BigApps contest, Joel Natividad said, “I found civic tech so much harder than I thought: Depleted savings, tapped home equity, kited credit cards, raised money from friends, family, and VCs didn’t understand.”
Joel singled out the government procurement process as a major roadblock in the spread of civic tech—echoing comments by Elizabeth during the panel and a blog by Tom Steinbergthat helped to inspire the session. “Government is ripe for innovation,” he said, but government tech “is built and delivered by the ‘government-contractor complex’ … procurement, bureaucracy, politics, regulatory capture and the election cycle make it so hard.”
Lawrence Grodeska of Civicmakers advised governments and organizations to adopt the Service Design model, to help “tackle civic challenges in a more holistic way, builds with not for, and ensures there’s a seat at the table for design thinking from the outset of any project.”
Designer, director and sometime techie Andrew James Benson speculated that an organization like PDF could become an “impact-oriented convener of founders and organizations to assert common goals, like the Millennium Development Goals for civic tech.”
As we struggle to tell a civic tech story grounded in realistic but ambitious expectations, the Millennium Development Goals aren’t a bad place to look for inspiration—specifically because they didn’t deliver all the results promised, and because their “2.0 release,” the Sustainable Development Goals have prompted a timely conversation on the power of data andthe power of inclusion.
My own prescriptions for a healthier civic tech story included the example set by Civic Hall Labs, who made sure to include failures in their recent “field guide,” and a more radical wish that all our scattered stories of collaboration, innovation and unmet expectations could be easier to find and share, perhaps using a model like the Humanitarian Exchange Language.
Like the PDF conference, the civic tech community has never been more diverse in the backgrounds and perspectives of its members. Now that we’ve grown out of the blind enthusiasm stage of civic tech, we ought to be able to bring that same enthusiasm to a less simplistic, but equally intriguing story.