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Co-opting Civic Tech

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Lisa Saye
September 26, 2017

Saved by the Technology

The blueprint for effective public service is a moving target. Definitions of efficiency change from era to era and are often impersonal. Technology is that way. Each time we believed that we had captured its power and defined its reach, we were forced to marvel at its latest invention.

Governments marvel, too. Civic technology, or civic tech, spawned a movement which uses new and existing networks of technology to interpret open data to help improve government services through public engagement. Civic tech enables citizens to file complaints in real-time or upload photos of dangerous potholes. It also allows governments to converse with citizens using chatbots while simultaneously providing information on available housing.

chairsGovernments across the U.S. have co-opted the skills of civic tech volunteers, designers, analysts and software engineers. This is not the first time administrators have relied on public skills. In his 1949 book titled, TVA and the Grass Roots, Philip Selznick noted how in 1940, TVA and local governments used volunteer associations totaling almost 900,000 citizens “to plan and operate nine rural action programs.” Selznick explained how government absorbed, or co-opted, new elements “as a means of averting threats to its stability or existence.”

In her 1904 article titled, “Problems of Municipal Administration,” Jane Addams warned us against being “afraid to substitute a machine of newer invention and greater capacity.” She would be proud to see what government has accomplished today, although often out of fear. By absorbing civic tech, governments are “catalyzing all sectors—public, private and voluntary—into action to solve their community’s problems,” as suggested by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler in their book, Reinventing Government. And indeed, governments have catalyzed necessary sectors when delivering public services, but have wisely moved away from the authors’ descriptions of citizens as customers.

From City Hall to Civic Hall

To say the marriage of civic tech with government needs to have a political dimension would be oversimplifying an understatement. Public services—its legal structure and its enforcement apparatus—are defined by its enabling statute or the legislation that created the service. In this case, politics is the distribution system. So, that should settle any debate about the political parameters.

I have noticed an increasing dependence of governments on civic technology in capturing stranded resources, in informing the planning process and in providing emergency information. The 2014 creation of the United States Digital Services (USDS) and 18F represent U.S. efforts to institutionalize civic tech at the federal level. Cities and states have co-opted civic tech, too. Before, during and after landfall of recent Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, civic tech volunteers posted and tweeted out evacuation routes, shelter information and rescue maps for citizens and city officials. Vision Zero, a 1997 civic tech approach, originally launched in Sweden and aimed at reducing traffic fatalities, has since been implemented in numerous cities in the U.S. including San Francisco, New York City, Washington, D.C. and Fort Lauderdale. For more proof of civic tech’s global influence, one would only need to Google Code for (specific country here), then marvel at the thousands of civic tech projects that are helping governments deliver more efficient healthcare, education, and disaster management services to its citizens.

I am not surprised by the collaboration of civic tech and government. Government is smart enough to know when it needs help. Government is also skilled at recognizing that we are in the midst of a transformation in thelibrary way the public uses technology to communicate. Advances in communication technologies have changed governments’ built environment. Its buildings have changed, the furniture is different and its lobbies are designed for short-term stays. The most profound change is the kind and type of public servant that is being recruited and trained to interpret the results that civic tech apps produce. Governments are increasingly looking for and finding, a civic tech bureaucrat—a data practitioner, who is steeped in the knowledge of public policy and digital networks.

Who are these civic tech-bureaucrat/data practitioners? If Warren Bennis were advising us, he would say as he did in his 1967 article, “Organizations of the Future,” that these practitioners should be “very diverse and highly specialized.” In her 2017 article in Microsoft on the Issues titled, “A Street-Level Look at an Innovative Data-Driven Partnership,” Elizabeth Grossman explains that, “it takes depth and diverse backgrounds to adequately identify challenges and develop and validate potential solutions.” Government is listening. If you scan the civic tech employee profiles published on government websites in the U.S., France, Germany or Sierra Leone, you’ll notice how consistently diverse the teams are in education, experience, age and background. In co-opting civic tech, governments are purposely disrupting old and inefficient ways to serve their communities while finding new ways to engage the public as partners. Good for us!

Images: All images were taken by Lisa Saye in Bangkok, Thailand.

Author: Lisa Saye is Executive Director of The Policy Analysis Institute. She served as Fulbright Specialist in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and as International Consultant for the United Nations Development Program in The Maldives. Saye earned her Master’s in Human Resource Management from Troy State and her Doctorate in Public Administration from The University of Alabama. She can be reached at [email protected]

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