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Civic Tech for the Civics

Gear and Gov Building

I had an “aha moment” recently while reading “The Responsive City,” a book co-authored by Stephen Goldsmith and Susan Crawford that offers fascinating stories of local and state governments that adopted new technologies as a way to better respond to the needs of citizens.

In the final few pages of the book, Goldsmith and Crawford write: “Above all, we think it is important that these new developments be understood as tools, not as ends in themselves. … We must not embrace the use of digital tools for its own sake.”

Finally, someone had addressed the elephant in the room.

For all the upward movement in the civic technology space – the Knight Foundation reports that from 2008 to 2012 the civic tech field grew at an annual rate of 23 percent – many of these companies have struggled to gain a foothold.

Many chalk it up to government’s unwillingness to change, or its workers’ aversion to technology, or the complex intricacies of the procurement process.

But are those the real reasons?

If you take a holistic look at the civic tech space, much of the emphasis is about putting enough pressure on government to bend to the public’s demand for technology, focusing so much on changing the citizen experience first, with little forethought given to how internal government process will need to change or adapt to support a new technology.

Too often, governments adopt technology to appease pressure rather than with an open-armed embrace. Thus, much of the civic tech space is ignored, seen as  “nice-to-have” or as a checkbox on a list – as ends, rather than tools, as Goldsmith and Crawford warn against.

We can’t just paint the outside of the house, plant new bushes and water the grass to give government more “curb appeal” as a way to get citizens inside, only to reveal that the interior is like a fun house mirror maze at the carnival, minus the fun.

We can’t create a brilliant citizen-facing interface, which then invites the public into an outdated, broken, rigorous or unable-to-adapt process.

A lack of citizen engagement is a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself.

The people I know in government want to do the best that they can for the citizens of their community and would gladly adopt a new technology if it meant they could do their jobs better and more efficiently.

But when citizen input and data is thrown at a perceived problem, with no direction on how to help government officials analyze that data or how to easily get it in the hands of decision makers (i.e. elected officials) in a way that improves their workload, it creates more frustration on both sides.

This is why so few governments allow comments on their Facebook pages. There is no clean way to incorporate that feedback into their processes without added staff time, so many only use it as a billboard.

This is the next and necessary evolution of civic tech, and the real measurement of how to improve civic engagement in total: applying technology to a government process in such a way that the process improves, decisions are more well-informed and government staff and officials can more easily do their jobs.

Then citizens will be invited into a better experience and have a vastly improved interaction with government. Not the other way around.

No doubt, there is a place for civic tech companies to push government out of its comfort zone. But there must also be an understanding that internal processes– procedures put in place more than 100 years ago to protect the public and to reduce biases in decision making, misuse of public funds and other unscrupulous behaviors – will have to change at the same time.

Goldsmith and Crawford close “The Responsive City” with a few more thought-provoking words that underscore this point.

“The real payoff,” they write, “will come when technology changes legacy processes for good to create truly data-smart and responsive cities.”