The place where government interests intersect with community-minded activists who are ready to donate their time and talents — best known as civic tech — is the public sector’s fastest-moving innovation inlet.
Government and technology are far apart as cultures. Government is deliberate. A wise leader does not subject his roads, power grid and economy to whimsy. He plans everything. Technology is experimental. Technology is Leonardo da Vinci taking a half-dozen naps each day. Technology is making things work now and worrying about the consequences later. Government creates lists, policies and protocols to ensure the bathrooms are stocked with the correct number and type of shampoo, towels and soap. Technology doesn’t like taking showers. Technology is Steve Jobs wearing the same thing every day and only eating fruit. Technology wears an unruly beard. Government wears a tie that’s approved by a policy that was written by a committee following six years of research.
But, alongside society, government’s conservative ways are relenting. Once fearful of inviting criticism, a nudge from the economy has left government willing to ask the public for help. And most importantly, the popularization of technology means the public can help and people are empowered by digital tools. The result is that civic tech — the place where government interests intersect with community-minded activists who are ready to donate their time and talents — is the public sector’s fastest-moving innovation inlet.
People are collaborating across institutional boundaries. The markets and organizations that support civic tech are growing wiser and better organized. Government is opening its doors and converting opponents into allies. Technology itself is exciting — there are scores of new inventions each day — but the civic tech movement, in its immaturity, leaves untouched even more territory, more potential to realize its simple directive of making the nation’s cities, counties and states better places to live.
Civic tech starts with people like Ethan Phelps-Goodman. A software engineer who interned at the Center for Democracy and Technology, led development of the Sunlight Foundation’s Influence Explorer, lobbied for federal contracting and campaign finance reform, engineered for Facebook and then returned to civic tech because the private sector wasn’t challenging enough, Phelps-Goodman is the kind of talent government complains it can’t afford. And yet, he shares government’s mission.
“As I became a more competent engineer, I started to see engineers as more interchangeable,” he explained. “Engineering problems became easier and less interesting. The hard problems are societal problems. These are the real head scratchers. How do you improve transparency, how do you improve education? How do you improve housing policy, how do you improve governance itself? These are really hard problems. They involve a broader scope than just engineering, but have potentially a bigger payoff.”
Phelps-Goodman’s current project is Seattle in Progress, a website that uses Google Maps to plot the city’s land-use application data. The website feeds on data the city has published since 2007, but because the information was poorly organized and difficult to navigate, it was infrequently accessed. Seattle in Progress gets about 15,000 hits monthly and is receiving praise from the public, the real-estate industry and the city itself. It seems a perfect fit: Here’s someone smart and driven who wants to work in the public sphere. But tapping that talent is not so simple.
“So much of civic technology is strongly related to e-government-type things and that means partnering with the government directly. And that’s still very difficult,” Phelps-Goodman said. “I’d say we still have almost no models for how to do that. If somebody comes up with a great idea at a hackathon and the city likes it and the civic tech person wants to work with the city, it’s really unclear how to go about that. The existing procurement process is not at all built around one or a small team of people with an idea. … If you want to just sell your idea to the city, there’s no real model for the government purchasing outright technology it didn’t build. Even if you want to give your technology to the city, there’s no real model for the city even accepting something for free.”
Phelps-Goodman conceded that Seattle’s attitude toward civic tech has improved the last couple years. An executive order signed in February created a thorough open data policy that arrived alongside a showcase of local civic tech talent. When bombarded by requests for every video it had on record, the Seattle Police Department brought the requester in as a consultant. Several civic technologists interviewed for this article cited Seattle CTO Michael Mattmiller as an advocate of their efforts, and Candace Faber, whose title actually is civic technology advocate, as a harbinger of increased cooperation between government and the public.
The civic tech space is moving fast because there are forces pushing it forward from every sector, Faber said. Philanthropic efforts like Bloomberg’s What Works Cities are helping local governments spot smart investments. Academic research from members of consortiums like the MetroLab Network targets every government business. New federal programs like 18F and the U.S. Digital Service (USDS) provide thought leadership, and companies like Google and Microsoft lead civic engagement teams that partner with cities on project and policy. And most importantly, the public is giving government some breathing room.
“The conversation is evolving very rapidly past this transparency agenda that used to drive open data, the notion that we should be able to see what government is doing,” Faber said. “I still think that’s true, but we run the risk of getting locked into a relationship that is just about accountability and not about matching that accountability with ability to do the job well. And those things can sometimes work against each other. If you have a government that is afraid to take risks, then the space for innovation shrinks.”
General interest in civic tech is growing, said Seth Vincent, founder of Open Seattle, an organization that runs hackathons and other events to bring civic hackers together. When he founded the group in 2013, it was just a few strangers showing up, but now it’s not uncommon for 50 people to participate on a weeknight. Vincent said he feels supported by Faber and Mattmiller, but doesn’t know if the city is serious about supporting their efforts in a way that will allow their projects to mature. Open Seattle is Vincent’s side project, and it scrapes by thanks to the few spare hours that he and others can afford to donate each week.
“We don’t have a path of a civic hacker working on a project to someone at the city of Seattle using it, and part of that has just been we’re all volunteers,” Vincent said. “We have a lot of companies support the events that we hold, but what we don’t have yet is some way to fund all of the projects people are working on, or even a couple of the projects people are working on, to get them to the point where they’re truly useful.”
The city is committed to nurturing its civic hacker community, said Mattmiller, and that’s evident from its recent efforts, but even a private company would have a hard time buying someone’s idea on spec. And to make things more difficult, many of the problems being solved by civic tech aren’t sustainable businesses. That’s why those problems fell to government in the first place.
Though the gov tech market is growing — Government Technology’s parent company, e.Republic, cites $1 billion in capital investment in the space — much of the sector is made up of small startups whose leaders struggle to identify a clear path forward. For every successful civic tech startup, there are 1,000 developers building weekend projects who understand their efforts to be novelties, not budding empires.
But the market’s immaturity is matched by its enthusiasm and optimism. With dozens of new companies launched each year, the field is growing at an annual rate of 23 percent, according to a 2013 study by the Knight Foundation. Many projects centered around open government missions thrive, like those fueled by Socrata and SeeClickFix, but the best-funded and fastest-growing segment of civic tech consists of privately funded companies that use crowdsourcing and peer-to-peer transactions like Waze and Airbnb.
The Knight Foundation’s current research, done in collaboration with the Rita Allen Foundation, seeks to understand how the more philanthropic-minded civic tech startups with less obvious income streams can adopt models that will allow them to scale up and become mature businesses.
“The purpose is to be a lot more intentional about the way we structure our funding to startups in this space, with an acknowledgment about the path to more sustainable operations, looking toward building repeatable and reliable revenue and examining the types of capacities that need to be invested early on in order to achieve those aspirations,” explained Jonathan Sotsky, Knight Foundation director of strategy and assessment.
OpenGov, a financial transparency and analysis platform, is a prototypical example of a company showing increased sophistication in the civic tech space, Sotsky said. OpenGov continues to partner with and buy other companies to expand its offerings and attract new rounds of investment. But this isn’t happening everywhere in civic tech.
“There’s been a lot more success in the B2G organizations and on the data portal side of things than there has been on business-to-citizen or consumer plays that are trying to promote civic engagement,” Sotsky said.
Despite the economic challenges facing civic tech, participants continue to gather from all over.
“I think it’s the tail end of the technology wave disrupting different verticals,” Sotsky said of the market’s growing popularity. “In some ways, the way technology is doing that to civic life and within government is trailing a few other spaces where we’ve seen that disruption play out more vividly in the last five to 10 years. And part of it is an issue of vocabulary. People are starting to glom on, to self-identify or point to this broader movement to start to label it as a field, where [before] it was a bunch of ebbs and flows of seemingly distinct pieces of activity. … I think the more that people can self-identify, that improves the ability to learn from peers, to collaborate with others and to ultimately achieve the type of impact folks are striving for.”
While the Knight Foundation keeps an eye on the future, today’s technology chiefs keep the front doors of their city halls propped open. Minneapolis CIO Otto Doll’s conversion from civic technology skeptic to wary supporter is symbolic of a shift among government leaders who are more willing to admit they could use some extra help.
In 2013, Minneapolis began exploring the potential behind its hacker-made apps, like the real-time transportation portal OMG Transit. Immediately, Doll said, the city was faced with challenges. For one, the app’s developers demanded payment for continued maintenance that the city couldn’t necessarily provide. Releasing current data to keep such apps running costs money, Doll said, but the city didn’t want to release data without knowing if the project would survive. There were too many questions and no clear solutions of how Minneapolis and developers could work together. But in the past few years, attitudes have changed, Doll said. People are more willing to work without promise of compensation when they’re committed to their causes, and government is opening new avenues of collaboration in recognition of the opportunities it can create.
“We don’t have all the answers,” said Doll. “And taking advantage of these people with these skills and experiences is really valuable. I’m hopeful that we’re turning a corner, because the civic hacking community has found that there’s few, if really much of any, must-have apps or implementations that someone is going to find fulfillment in, in a financial way.”
Government’s relaxed posture is letting more people in and also changing how its partners operate. When nonprofit Code for America (CfA) launched in 2010, its early brigades and accelerators had more of an experimental feel. Its members worked on big problems, and they got people excited about new ideas for government. But cities sometimes kept the group at arm’s length, and the social impact of the projects wasn’t always evident. Today the group’s efforts are more substantial.
Last year, California invited CfA to advise on procurement of a child welfare services system. Working with California’s Office of Systems Integration and departments of Social Services, Technology and General Services, with consulting help from 18F, CfA convinced the state to trade its plan of a traditional monolithic procurement for an iterative development process. The group predicted the state’s original plan would likely have run late and gone over budget. If CfA was right, the nonprofit’s intervention will save taxpayers millions.
“The thing we took away from it … was that these people were embracing change. They were owning the change,” said CfA Founder Jennifer Pahlka. “They were excited about the work that they could do, and it was their willingness in the state to make this change and employ a radically different approach despite what, of course, is a degree of risk in change.”
The reason her nonprofit was invited in, Pahlka said, is because governments now recognize that CfA understands the public sector’s challenges and know that CfA isn’t a watchdog group — it exists to enable success.
“The first age of Code for America was that experience and that ability to build relationships with people in government and with the tech industry, and it served us very well in the transition,” Pahlka said. “What we did in 2011, 2012, 2013 was exactly right for 2011, 2012, 2013. I think what we did then changed people’s perceptions of what’s possible and people in governments’ desire to work in new ways and tech industry folks willing to come to the table around this issue, which set us up for the work we do [today].”
The Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit founded in 2006 that focuses on government transparency, hasn’t diverged from its mission either, said Kat Duffy, the group’s Labs director, but its relationship with government has changed.
“We’ve had a dialog with government for a while,” she said, “but over the past couple of years we’ve seen an expansion in the government’s promotion of civic tech, particularly bringing technologists into the space through mechanisms like 18F and USDS and in that respect, we have more clearly direct counterparts in government who we can engage with.”
The federal government’s increased participation in civic tech is taking up some of the slack previously reserved for watchdog groups too. In April, the White House opened public comment on a governmentwide open source software policy. The Sunlight Foundation has encouraged such a move for years.
“That means we no longer have to engage with government on the importance of open source code to begin with,” Duffy said. “So we can engage constructively because we no longer have to push for the importance of open data or open government to even exist as a concept.”
Cases where governments establish new modes of thinking are exceptional. Whether through the creation of digital services units, procurement from cloud-based startups or pursuit of wisdom from its civic tech partners, it’s clear the old structure and practices of government are unacceptable to a public that thinks it could do a better job itself if given a chance. These trends represent the biggest in government technology today, said Abhi Nemani, Sacramento, Calif.’s interim chief innovation officer and former chief data officer of Los Angeles.
“New York has a digital services inside their Health and Human Services Department,” he said. “Chicago’s whole IT shop could be considered something of a digital services unit because of their very top-notch developers. San Francisco has started to build out theirs. Some counties are looking at it — a few counties in Massachusetts, for instance. In L.A., I had started piloting one, as well.”
Now in Sacramento, Nemani sees the challenges that smaller governments face in adopting modern practices. It’s not so simple for organizations hundreds of years old to jettison their knowledge and start over, especially without the resources of larger organizations. Attracting and retaining the caliber of technical talent needed to sustain innovation is near impossible. Filling even a single top spot is challenging, and governments often go months without a permanent replacement to the CIO. Something has to give.
“Is this whole ‘chief X officer’ model sustainable?” Nemani asked. “It’s harder for small cities to do that, and even when big cities do it, they often don’t resource them fully. They’re not running a department, per se. They’re running just a shop and so they don’t have the resources to buy, to hire, etc. So what can they really get done in the long run?”