Civic Innovations

Technology, Government Innovation, and Open Data

Building the Engine of Change

Engine of Change
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Bart Heird.

The term “civic tech” gets used a lot, and it often means different things to different people. To me, this has always meant 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 ultimately be broad and durable. I’ve never been prone to excessive handwringing.

I believe very firmly that the most important thing about civic technology has nothing to do with technology at all. Real people – with empathy and a desire to make their community better – are the most important kind of civic technology. A recently released report on civic technology by Omidyar Network entitled Engines of Change underscores this idea, and helps emphasize that the connections between people – both inside the civic tech community and outside it – are what’s most important to its future growth.

The report presents a blueprint of sorts for how those working in and supporting civic tech can help it grow in a way that deepens its impact and broadens its appeal. It very smartly highlights a set of opportunities for the different groups working in the civic tech ecosystem that each can follow to help civic tech grow. I think that those of us working in this sector should embrace these recommendations.

“Our findings show a critical link between cities and practitioners. Civic tech is not a sector that has been driven forward entirely outside of governmental systems. Rather, it has been built in partnership with key stakeholders inside and outside government…”

The most impactful of these recommendations for me are those directed toward governments and people working inside cities. The report urges these people to reach out to, engage with, and help grow the civic tech community. Having recently moved from a large city with an active and growing civic tech community, to a smaller city with no tradition of civic hacking and little organized engagement around data or technology, I can say emphatically that there seems to be an acute need here.

Connecting with innovators outside government and helping to nurture external communities often falls outside the job description (and the skill set) of most public servants – even those tasked with running open data or innovation programs. Shoehorning these efforts into a traditional government IT department can shackle them to a bureaucratic infrastructure that often has little interest or expertise in outward engagement. Placing them in other parts of the organization may help with external focus but may also erode proximity to the part of the organization where important decisions about data and technology are made.

Finding the right approach to enable government employees to interact with and nurture external civic tech communities can be a tough balance to strike. This can be particularly true in smaller municipalities with nascent open data and innovation programs, and smaller or more dispersed tech communities.

Over the last few years we’ve seen a growth in the number of resources and tools available to municipal governments and civil servants to open up their data, enact policies around innovation and technology, and to make better use of their data themselves. But there seems to be a noticeable lack of practical resources available to assist government officials with identifying and connecting with people outside of government in the civic tech community. Civic tech can’t flourish unless we educate and support municipal officials in their outreach to these groups.

That’s why I’m working on creating a new guidebook for local government officials, building on my own experience in city government and the expertise of a host of others currently working in cities. This process will be open and collaborative, and the results will be released under a Creative Commons license for any government official to use. I hope this will help those in government embrace the opportunity highlighted in the Omidyar report – to “engage deeply with local civic tech communities.”

Municipal governments and other public sector officials need better tools, broader networks, and more information for building (and sustaining) relationships with outside innovators in civic tech. Building out these resources will help ensure that civic tech becomes what we all hope it can – and what cities and communities need it to become.

A powerful and enduring force for positive change.

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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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