What is Civic Tech?

For many, civic tech is the bridge between government’s mission and modern technology’s potential.

by / August 16, 2016
As Seattle's civic technology advocate, Candace Faber will promote open data use by local technologists.Twitter/@candacefaber

Civic tech is technology that enables greater participation in government or otherwise assists government in delivering citizen services and strengthening ties with the public. Some use “civic tech” as a catch-all term to explain all technologies related to the public sector and civic life, but “government technology” is a more apt term for that broader category. Civic tech is where the public lends its talents, usually voluntarily, to help government do a better job.

“Hackathons,” meetings of software developers, entrepreneurs and government officials looking for new solutions to established problems during the course of a day or maybe a long weekend — are perhaps the most common example of civic tech, but the definition can be stretched to include any intersection of government cooperation with the public where the goal is to expand the role of the citizen in government operations.

OneBusAway, a mobile app that displays real-time transit info, is the quintessential civic tech project, explained Candace Faber, civic technology advocate for the city of Seattle, because it’s built on open data, it’s maintained by volunteers, and it serves a clear civic purpose, which is to help people get around in cities. There are competing philosophies pertaining to government’s role in society, but most technologists believe that civic tech is rooted in the idea that government should act as a societal equalizer, and that technology is the most powerful tool available to enable that goal.

“I think the reason civic tech exists is because, so far, technology has not fulfilled its promise to make society more equitable,” Faber said. “In a lot of ways, technology has made it harder for people to access information and services. If, for example, if you have to use a computer to download a PDF that you then have to print and sign and scan and email back, that’s actually creating complexity in the process. It’s just digitizing a failed process.”

The civic tech space is relatively immature, so impact is difficult to quantify except to say it’s growing faster all the time, with new companies popping up each month. A report from the Omidyar Network, a social impact venture capital firm, supports that fact, indicating that civic tech funding totaled $870 million from 2013 to 2015, showing an increase of 119 percent. 

Areas of focus include government transparency through open data, the democratic process and voting, and the inclusion of the public in government’s internal operations via things like hackathons and entrepreneur-in-residence programs.

Civic tech is the product of governments admitting that they can’t do everything themselves and big public gov tech failures like HealthCare.gov. For those unfamiliar with the inner workings of government, it defies reason that a powerful organization can so thoroughly mismanage a billion-dollar project while a group of two or three clever programmers can hack a successful app in a few weeks. It’s unclear whether the promise will ever be fulfilled, but for many, civic tech is the bridge between government’s mission and modern technology’s potential.

“I think civic tech has the potential to start weaving its way into the back end and simplifying processes across the board,” Faber said. “I think that’s where the future is.”

Sometimes civic tech comes straight from the people, and sometimes it starts with efforts by groups like the Knight Foundation or Code for America. California simplified its food stamp application process through a website called GetCalFresh.org, which is run by Code for America.

“There’s also an app called Balance that lets Cal Fresh users check their accounts without having to pay a fee to see how much money they have left in their account,” Faber said. “That’s an example of civic tech easing the burden on people who rely on government services by providing information more easily.”

Civic tech has been criticized for its failure to demonstrate strong impact, and some have declared that hackathons are a waste of time because their usable (and sustainable) app yield is so low. But with enough innovative civic tech projects to warrant a weekly column in Government Technology, the space is growing each day. Civic tech is still finding its footing, and with so many smart, creative people pushing civic tech onward, exactly what it is and what it can do will continue to evolve in the years to come.

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.