When Making the World a Better Place Isn’t a Punchline

While technology is certainly not the answer to our governmental problems, the civic tech sector is built on the ideal that new tools can help us fashion new solutions, particularly as the old ones grind to a halt.


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.

There’s a running joke in the HBO comedy Silicon Valley, in which every new tech company is trying to “make the world a better place.” The punchline works every time because the typical Silicon Valley fare—compression-based algorithms or location-based searches—is such a far cry from what we normally think of as improving the common good.

Civic tech is what we find at the intersection of digital technology and actual public challenges. Civic technology describes the field of technologists, activists, and public intellectuals who are genuinely trying to develop tools that help us make the world a better place. It’s what you get when you treat improving the public sphere as something more than a buzzword.

Civic technology describes (at least) three distinct types of technology projects:

  1. Government directly engaging with citizens. This can be as simple as “e-government” efforts that upgrade citizen-facing websites and make government services easily accessible. It has been extended further to include SeeClickFix and AskThem.io—services which encourage citizens to directly engage with public officials and make their voices heard, but not through .gov websites or portals. Social petition sites like Change.org and the White House’s “We The People” petition platform also belong in this vein of civic technology.
  2. Government transparency efforts. A previous generation of civic reformers focused on opening up government data through laws and regulations like the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). They rallied behind Louis Brandeis’s famous observation, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” But most of the “transparent” data from years past is hidden in filing cabinets, accessible only to the most intrepid investigators. A major trend in civic technology is to render government actions practically open and meaningfully accessible.
  3. Citizens engaging with each other. This third branch of civic technology can also be called activist technology. When citizens collaborate to develop a shared understanding of the challenges their communities face, they are well on their way to becoming members of that slim slice of the public that actually engages with politics and civic life outside of elections. The challenge for this third branch is that activist technology often becomes partisan technology, and faces particular partisan challenges (movement-building, funding, government regulation) as a result.

Civic technology initiatives don’t always work. They can have unintended consequences. They can be overly idealistic. They can be based upon overly-rosy assumptions about how governments, partisans, and mass publics will behave. Many well-intentioned civic tech projects fall prey to what I have termed the “Field of Dreams Fallacy.”

But it is hard not to feel genuine hope when looking at the civic technology sector. These projects are formed out of a shared sense that contemporary American government has largely ceased to function. And while technology is certainly not the answer to our governmental problems, the civic tech sector is built on the ideal that new tools can help us fashion new solutions, particularly as the old ones grind to a halt.