What’s New in Civic Tech: ‘Why I’m Staying at 18F’ Author Departs Over Concerns About Direction Under Trump

Plus, Georgia lays out online content strategy advice for state agencies, Pittsburgh debuts online database of for-sale city properties, and Naperville, Ill., launches new open data portal with police incidents and other info.

by / July 6, 2017

As the votes were tallied in November and it became clear that Donald Trump was the nation’s next president, Noah Kunin wrote a blog post titled, “Why I’m staying at 18F.” On July 5, Kunin wrote another post, this one entitled, “Why I’m leaving 18F.”

Kunin, 18F’s infrastructure director, made the reason for this total shift clear: He was leaving because of the administration of President Donald Trump.

Kunin has been with 18F since 2014, when the Obama-era agency was created to be what was essentially a tech startup within our federal government, a valuable consultancy for other agencies and, later, for state governments as well. In Kunin’s first post, he wrote of compartmentalizing his personal politics in order to keep using his talents to improve government tech, which would ultimately better the lives of real people.

“My oath to this country was not to a particular office, or person, and certainly not to a political party. It was to the Constitution and to the people,” wrote Kunin in November.

His post, and others like it, surely provided reassurance to many in the civic tech community, where a mixture of fear and occasional cautious hope took hold in the weeks after Trump’s election. Kunin’s first post was short, to the point; his second, however, was detailed and lengthy, filled with pontificating and anecdotes, and a real sense that the technologist who wrote it was grappling with a difficult decision.

While Kunin’s reasoning was nuanced, he did point to two specific recent developments as directly responsible for his coming departure: former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony that Trump had repeatedly asked him for personal loyalty, and the reorganization of 18F via administrative order into the General Service Administration’s Federal Acquisition Service, a move that Kunin says resulted in the group being told that it was now under the leadership of the Commissioner of the Federal Acquisition Service, a person appointed directly by the White House.

“Every day he remains in office, civil servants have to ask themselves if political appointees are being given their positions due to merit, or to personal loyalty to Trump, or someone else in the Administration,” Kunin wrote. “That creates a creeping rot, an institutional mistrust even of those appointees who are getting their positions based on merit. Legions of government employees, both politically appointed and otherwise, constantly act in accordance with their values of honesty, courage and compassion, just to name a few. Trump is setting a standard that threatens to poison those values for years to come.”

In March, 18F Deputy Executive Director Hillary Hartley also departed — nearly a month before her term was set to end, leaving the group for Canada, where she is helping to form the Ontario Digital Service.   

Georgia Advises State Agencies on Online Content Strategy Practices

Georgia’s state government has rolled out a guidance plan aimed at helping its many agencies create better online content, complete with an accompanying series of content strategy certification courses.

The state government laid out the steps in a blog by Kendra Skeene, who oversees Georgia’s enterprise Web platform, titled, “Putting Our Best Face Forward: Business Case for Content Strategy.” The central aim of the post was to show state agencies how to take control of their online content, integrating strategy into their daily business.

Some of the advice in the blog included: adding content to strategic visions, making sure the right people are on the job, educating those people, and finally empowering them to succeed. Skeene emphasized that adding content to agency's strategic vision was a vital first step that made the others possible. In addition, she pointed members of state agencies to content strategy certification courses being offered by GeorgiaGov Interactive.

Pittsburgh Rolls Out Online Database of For-Sale City Properties

Pittsburgh has launched a new database that contains online records of all city properties that are up for sale, announcing the move in a press release that notes for years there was no such list available to the public.

Pittsburgh is offering the info through a new website from its Department of Finance, which was constructed with help from the Department of Innovation and Performance. With this site, users can view all currently available properties on an online map, or they can search for them by street name or parcel number.

“Since the early 1990s I have wanted to display the city’s tax and property information on a visual basis," said Finance Director Paul Leger in the press release. "This administration has taken the first big step to getting that done and we will continue this process until all data from the department will be available visually as well as textually. It’s a dream come true and a real convenience for anybody looking to purchase city property.” 

The visualization is part of an evolving trend sweeping through the open data practices in many major cities, wherein public-sector innovators and data scientists are working to make the info they release easier for average citizens to access, process and ultimately understand.

Pittsburgh officials also noted that improvements are planned for the for-sale site, one of which will be an online application to purchase. Pittsburgh also recently announced that many city permits can now be secured online and with credit cards.

Naperville, Ill., Launches New Open Data Portal

Naperville, Ill., one of Chicago’s largest suburbs, has launched a new open data portal that gives the public easy online access to police incident reports, the salaries of public servants and many other data sets.

Open Data Naperville breaks its data sets up into four categories, including financial stability, economic development, public safety and high-performing government. Mirroring a trend seen recently throughout government, it also uses interactive maps to make its data easier for residents to understand and benefit from.

In addition, the site contains links to agendas, videos and related documents associated with Naperville’s City Council, boards and commissions. It also contains the results of a citizen satisfaction survey conducted in 2016 to collect feedback on public works, transportation, public safety, utility services and public information practices. 

Open Data Naperville is powered by Socrata, a prominent company in the public-sector data solutions space.

Zack Quaintance Staff Writer

Zack Quaintance is a staff writer for Government Technology. Prior to that, he spent five years working in daily newspapers, and another five years working in the tech sector. He lives in Northern California.