But What Is “Civic”?

When did we stop talking about democracy? When did we start blurring the word “civic” into the word “tech”?


To kick off our coverage here at Civicist, we asked our contributing editors to share their thoughts on “What is civic tech?” We’ll publish their answers as they trickle in, and look forward to continuing the conversation in the weeks and months to come.

When did we stop talking about democracy? That’s the thing I get stuck on when I think about civic tech and the confusion around what it is or isn’t. When did we start blurring the word “civic” into the word “tech”?

I first came into the orbit of what we now call “civic tech” through the open culture and freedom of information movements in the mid-2000s. Back then a lot of the work was called Gov2.0 and e-gov. Digital democracy. I don’t remember the first time I heard the phrase “civic technology,” but I think it was used the way I think about it now, with the weight on “civic.”

“Civic technologies” are tools we use to create, support, or serve public good. That’s it. Full stop. That’s literally what it means. We often use it to describe digital technologies highly focused on government services (the inheritance of “Gov2.0”), but that’s only because these projects identify as such. They call themselves “civic tech.” So, we think of them as civic tech. But if we’re holding ourselves accountable to that word—“civic”—the world of civic tools is much greater.

What is “civic”? Variously defined, “civic” describes “citizenship”—or, better, the aspects of “living in society.” Sure, governments are key to making society function, but they’re just one of many actors. Journalists and artists, civil servants and entrepreneurs, parents and teachers, public health workers and neighborhood activists: the “civic sphere” exists where these and other roles meet. It’s the public square, the array of physical and digital spaces where communities connect with each other.

Laurenellen McCann at the Code for America Summit 2015 (Preston Rhea)

Laurenellen McCann at the Code for America Summit 2015 (Preston Rhea)

When we narrowly define “civic tech” as tools that “we the people” (or “we the companies”) build for governments, we miss whole swaths of public activity and public advocacy. In fact, we miss what it means to live in a democracy. Of course investing in government services is one way to impact the civic space, but it’s not like people are sitting around waiting for good to be done to them or made for them when the government’s not around. Being human, we are wired to work together, to build with each other, to make our lives better. That’s what we do, with whatever tools are available. We see problems or opportunities for improvements and we work to the best of our ability to create change.

That’s why “community tech” has a place beside “government tech” in the halls of “civic tech.” “Civic” is the macro picture of the micro activity that describes how we live and govern together. And it’s the breadth, complexity, and diversity of the civic arena that compels us to value “tech” not just as whatever tools are in vogue, but whatever tools get the job done. “Technology” describes everything from knitting needles to spaceships. When we limit “tech” to anything else, we change the meaning of “public good” and we limit the tools available to us to make our lives better.

And isn’t that the goal—to make our lives better? Isn’t that why we care about how our governments function at all? Because we believe in equity? Because, more than just a more functional government, we want a more functional democracy?

If that isn’t the goal, what is?

  • For me as an outsider to the established civic tech scene, I was totally surprised to find out to which extend the community is engaged with governments. In my opinion, it’s also important to do work without or even against the government, at least to avoid dependencies and maintain neutrality towards the citizens. Interest of the public and interest of the government often conflicts, and even if not, why involve a large bureaucratic entity if people could serve themselves in a more direct way?