Building a Civic Tech Sector to Last: Design Principles to Generate a Civic Tech Movement

Stefaan G. Verhulst at Positive Returns (Medium): “Over the last few years we have seen growing recognition of the potential of “civic tech,” or the use of technology that “empowers citizens to make government more accessible, efficient and effective (definition provided in “Engines of Change”)”. One commentator recently described “civic tech as the next big thing.” At the same time, we are yet to witness a true tech-enabled transformation of how government works and how citizens engage with institutions and with each other to solve societal problems. In many ways, civic tech still operates under the radar screen and often lacks broad acceptance. So how do we accelerate and expand the civic tech sector? How can we build a civic tech field that can last and stand the test of time?

The “Engines of Change” report written for Omidyar Network by Purpose seeks to provide an answer to these questions in the context of the United States….

Given the new insights gained from the report, how to move forward? How to translate its findings into a strategy that seeks to improve people’s lives and addresses societal problems by leveraging technology? What emerges from reading the report, and reflecting on how fields and movements have been built in other areas (e.g., the digital learning movement by theMacArthur Foundation or the Hewlett Foundation’s efforts to build a conflict resolution field), are a set of design principles that, when applied consistently, may generate a true lasting civic tech movement. These principles include:

  • Define a common problem that matters enough to work on collectively and identify a unique opportunity to solve it. Most successful movements seek to solve hard problems. So what is the problem that civic tech seeks to address? …
  • Encourage experimentation. As it stands, there is no shortage of experimentation with new platforms and tools in the civic tech space.What is missing, however, is the type of assessment that uncovers whether or not such efforts are actually working, and why or why not. Rather than viewing experimentation as simply “trying new things,” the field could embrace “fast-cycle action research” to understand both more quickly, and more precisely, when an innovation works, for whom, and under what conditions.
  • Establish an evidence base and a common set of metrics. While there is good reason to believe that breakthrough solutions may come from using technology, there are still too little studies measuring exactly how impactful civic tech is. Without a deeper understanding of whether, when, why and to what extent an intervention has made an impact, the civic tech movement will lack credibility. To accelerate the rate of experimentation and create more agile institutions capable of piloting civic tech solutions, we need research that will enable the sector to move away from “faith-based” initiatives toward “evidence-based” ones. The TicTec conference, the Opening Governance Research Network and the recently launched Open Governance Research Exchange are some initiatives that seek to address this shortcoming. Yet more analysis and translation of current findings into clear baselines of impact against common metrics is needed to make the sector more reliable.
  • Develop a Network Infrastructure…
  • Identify the signal…

As every engineer knows, building engines requires a set of basic design principles. Similarly, transforming the civic tech sector into a sustainable engine of change may require the implementation of the principles outlined above. Let’s build a civic tech sector to last….(More)”