Thursday, January 12, 2017

A Primer on Civic Tech Context and Trends

By Annmarie Levins, General Manager, Technology & Civic Engagement, Microsoft


What is Civic Tech? 

“Civic Tech” is the use of technology for the public good, with applications designed to address shared problems and opportunities.  The term encompasses the ecosystem of people and organizations working toward this goal, the collaborative and agile development approaches they embrace, and the tech solutions they produce. 


Civic tech responds to and has been shaped by a variety of other movements and trends:
       ·        Release of open data for transparency, collaboration, and economic impact

·        Increasing demand for citizen engagement and involvement (often mediated by IT)

·        Governments and communities being expected to accomplish more with fewer resources

·        Integration of data and data analytics into society, including smart cities efforts

·        Technology workers and companies’ increasing interest in skills-based volunteering and societal impact

·        Open source tools, approaches, communities, and polices

·        Cities’ aspirations to nurture tech-enabled economic development across sectors

 
The ecosystem of civic tech is broad, encompassing dedicated new groups but also evolving missions and responsibilities within governments at all levels, civic service organizations, innovation incubators, philanthropies, universities, social entrepreneurs, companies of all sizes, and policy makers.  It is also highly-networked, with people moving often, following projects and into newly created jobs and organizations.  For example, within government, the past 5-10 years have seen an explosion of new positions[1]  e.g., Chief Innovation Officers, Chief Data Officers, Chief Digital Officers, Chief Technology Officers – whose mission often include figuring out and interacting with the local civic tech ecosystem.  

These trends and movements are not limited to the U.S.  Many countries are hungry for these new engagement models.  A key attribute of civic tech, however, is the focus on local priorities and communities.  Thus, how civic tech becomes real in different geographies, including the balance between government and community leadership, will depend greatly on local needs and culture. 


Civic Tech’s Importance to the Tech Industry

Civic tech is a new way of developing and deploying solutions that will infiltrate and shape how customers, partners, and stakeholders expect to interact with and use technology.  It is characterized by:
·        User-centric and agile design and development processes, with an emphasis on inclusivity, and

·        Non-hierarchical models – different groups inspire, develop, validate, operate, maintain/improve, use, and pay for civic tech solutions.

Thus, established tech companies need to think not only about how they can engage with civic tech projects within the civic tech ecosystem, but they also need to consider the broader markets in which civic tech-inspired or enabled products and processes are becoming the established norm.  A 2014 IDC study estimated the annual market for government spending on transformation of citizen services and data sharing and analysis within government at $6.4 billion.[2]   


Many services offered by established tech companies are, or can be, particularly relevant to the civic tech community.  Data analytics and visualization technologies are certainly central, and tools that enable collaboration and connections also resonate with the core inclusive engagement principles of civic tech.  But it is not enough for private companies to have products and services that can further the civic tech mission.  Being relevant to this community requires sustained involvement with civic customers in real time as they are considering how to address real challenges and at the incubation stage as new models of partnership and services are being developed.  Authentic, sustained engagement is critical to participate in the ecosystem over the long term.  There are significant parallels here to open source and its technical, legal, and cultural consequences.  Like open source, products and experiences from civic tech will influence government and business customers, and ultimately inform their tech-related processes and choices. 

 
For government, the experimentation with civic tech is occurring now.  Examples include government-led offices like US Digital Service and 18F and UK Government Digital Services at the national level, and collaborative efforts like the work of New Urban Mechanics, UI LABS, and mySociety at the regional and local levels.[3]  These experiences will drive the formal integration of civic tech models into regulation and practices for procurement, delivery, and partnerships. 

 
The civic tech community is also now tackling its challenges around scalability and sustainability.  Civic tech leaders have begun to appreciate that established companies can bring the know-how, networks, and technical resources to help address these challenges, and are open to learning and services from them that help develop and extend solutions that operate reliably and securely at scale.


Governments, Civic Tech, and Tech Companies Should Work Together

By participating in the civic tech ecosystem, tech companies will have front row seats to the digital transformation of government and civic services.  They will benefit by learning firsthand the interests and needs of this innovative sector, and can apply this learning to the development of their products and services.  Likewise, civic technologists will benefit from deep engagement by established tech companies, which have experience in developing products and services that are sustainable, scalable, and compliant with regulatory requirements.   Finally, for governments, partnership with the civic tech ecosystem offers a path to deliver 21st century services and to build deeper connections to constituents.


Further Reading

The seminal study on the field of civic tech is The Knight Foundation’s report,  The Emergence of Civic Tech: Investments in a Growing Field (December 2013). The report was the first serious research on the field of civic tech.  It maps the field, identifies trends, studies investment activity and sources of funding, and highlights the strategic implications for potential investors and government.   More current is the excellent work by Micah Sifry, Matt Stempeck, and Erin Simpson, What Is Civic Tech: Toward Finalizing A Basic Framework So That We Can Move On With It Already  (Spring 2016), which provides a comprehensive catalog of “the common functions” of civic tech.


The more recent short articles provide additional background:

·        Towards a Taxonomy of Civic Technology (Microsoft on the Issues, April 2016) This blog describes the results of collaborative research by Microsoft’s Tech & Civic Engagement team and Civic Hall in New York.  The taxonomy consists of four parts: a clear definition of civic tech, a categorical index of civic tech’s technical functions, a study of the social processes in which civic tech engages, and cross-cutting analytical questions.
 

·        How Civic Interests Are Helping Shape Government Innovation  (Government Technology, July 2016) This article describes how civic tech emerged from passion of individual hackers to more organized movement with government buy-in.  Examples from the City of Seattle, a discussion of the market opportunity, and a review of venture investments.
 

·        Obama and His Geeks (Fast Company, June 2015) This article provides an in-depth look at how President Obama staffed the US Digital Services and 18f as tech innovation offices within government by drawing employees from major tech companies in Silicon Valley.  It makes clear how a civic tech approach to delivering government services can profoundly change government procurement.


·        Why Civic Tech Is the Next Big Thing (Forbes, June 2015) This piece traces the development of civic tech and discusses the growing investments by venture capital in the area and the opportunities, especially for entrepreneurs, to serve the government market.


·        The CIO Problem Part 1 and The CIO Problem Part 2: Innovation (Code for America blog, May 2016) by Jennifer Pahlka, Founder and Executive Director of Code for America.  Blogs describe the various tech roles that governments need to fill and how they have evolved.  She distinguishes the role of Chief Information Officers (modernizing government tools and services, transforming them to work as seamlessly consumer digital services) from that of Chief Innovation Officers (cultivating ecosystems to enable new and unanticipated use cases using government data and transactions). 




[1] See blogs by Jen Pahlka in the Additional Information section below. 
[2] Another area where civic tech’s influence can be seen is the evolving effort to assess and implement “smart cities” in more flexible, more inclusive ways than earlier system integrator-driven vison of command and control. 
[3] How governments and civic tech community work together, and who leads at various phases, is still evolving.  Challenges include how external organizations can work collaboratively on development without being precluded from later procurements, how governments can receive services and benefits without providing funding, and how to ensure continuity of services.  There are also internal tensions within governments on the roles and authorities of new governmental offices and these new external organizations. 

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