Civic Innovations

Technology, Government Innovation, and Open Data

Civic Onboarding

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Chuck Simmins
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Chuck Simmins

Tomorrow, the President will speak at SXSW and issue a call to action for people inside and outside government to collaborate and solve the hard problems facing our country. This is a call to action that governors and mayors should echo – our communities are filled with people that want to help.

Reading about the Community Diaper Project and other efforts to get affordable disposable diapers to low income families got me so excited about recruiting those from outside government to work on hard problems that I forgot I have written about this before. I missed a lot in my first post.

We need to insist on collaboration not merely as an ideal, but as a basic design element for government…
The Collaborative State, 2007

Collaboration is about so much more than connecting with just technologists and civic hackers (although that’s important too). But there are some really important ideas and lessons from the world of technology that can be applied to broader onboarding efforts.

We should study them closely.

Really good open source software projects make it easy for new people to join and start contributing. These projects are clear about their focus and objective, and provide detailed instructions on how people can become involved and the kinds of things they can provide. The very best projects make it clear how issues can be raised and clearly communicate to those that raise issues that their voices are being heard.

For most people that have worked in technology even for a little while, a good project like this is easy to spot. Prospective collaborators encounter very little friction.

Now consider the public “face” of government. This usually means an official government website, but it could also mean the primary municipal service building – its where people go to interact and transact with their government.

How collaborative do these official facades look? Do they reach out and invite those with the desire to help to get involved? How hard do people have to look around for opportunities to apply their skills? If governments don’t ask, then they are missing a huge opportunity to not only engage more deeply with the people they serve but also to tap into expertise that is sitting dormant in their own communities.


Good open source projects make it easy for new collaborators to join up and start contributing. Government should work like this too. Sadly, this is too infrequently the case.

Let’s change that.

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About Me

I am the former Chief Data Officer for the City of Philadelphia. I also served as Director of Government Relations at Code for America, and as Director of the State of Delaware’s Government Information Center. For about six years, I served in the General Services Administration’s Technology Transformation Services (TTS), and helped pioneer their work with state and local governments. I also led platform evangelism efforts for TTS’ cloud platform, which supports over 30 critical federal agency systems.

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