The Last Mile of Public Service Delivery

Photo courtesy of Flickr user fallsroad.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user fallsroad.

The most important thing about civic technology has nothing to do with technology at all.

The term “civic technology” gets used a lot, and it may mean different things to different people. I think this highlights the fact that the work being done in this area is dynamic, growing, and evolving rapidly — all good things that suggest the impact of civic technology will be broad and durable.

For me, the term civic technology is inextricably related to the world of civic hacking. I began my career in government in what I would describe as the “old fashioned way”: graduate school to study public administration followed by work on political campaigns. Having now worked for three different state and local governments in both the legislative and executive branches, I consider civic hacking and civic technology to be the future of how governments will deliver services.

Distilled to its essence, civic hacking is the existence of a condition that is suboptimal in a neighborhood, community or place, and a desire to effect change on that condition. That’s it. There is no prerequisite that civic hacking involve technology or software, it only needs to involve people willing to help fix problems. Apps are incidental to the larger goal of fixing a community problem.

In a way, civic hacking is a manifestation of dissatisfaction with government services. And while there has probably always been some level of dissatisfaction with the performance of government, the spread of open data and powerful, cheap tools for using this data to build new apps allows citizens to design their own interfaces for interactions with their government. Outside parties have begun developing solutions on top of government-provided or maintained data, often to fill a role or address an issue that would ordinarily fall under the official responsibilities of a government agency.

For example, in cities like New York and Philadelphia there are a number of efforts underway to encourage the repurposing of vacant properties, even though official responsibility for this falls under the duties assigned to specific government agencies. These outside efforts are enabled by the deliberate release of property information by the cities like Philadelphia.

Before civic hacking, it was not possible for people to custom tailor an interaction with their government to their liking, or to change the way that government information and services were presented. Now it can be quite easy to do this. This presents an enormous challenge to the bureaucracy, and, in many ways, an enormous opportunity.

This, to me, is the essence of civic technology. Civic tech provides solutions to help governments deliver services to citizens more efficiently. We might think of civic apps as a kind of “last mile” technology — the link between the traditional infrastructure of government technology and the tools people ultimately use to interact with and get information from government.

The most important component of civic technology is that it requires active collaboration between people inside government, including elected officials and government employees, and those outside government, the people in the neighborhoods and communities being served by government.

The old way of delivering government services is over. Civic technology — technology we build together — is the future.

[Note – this piece originally appeared on Civicist.]

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