The Untapped Potential of Civic Technology

DemocracyLab: “Today’s most significant problems are being addressed primarily by governments, using systems and tools designed hundreds of years ago. From climate change to inequality, the status quo is proving inadequate, and time is running out.

The role of our democratic institutions is analogous to breathing — inhaling citizen input and exhaling government action. The civic technology movement is inventing new ways to gather input, make decisions and execute collective action. The science fiction end state is an enlightened collective intelligence. But in the short term, it’s enough to seek incremental improvements in how citizens are engaged and government services are delivered. This will increase our chances of solving a wide range of problems in communities of all scales.

The match between the government and tech sectors is complementary. Governments and nonprofits are widely perceived as lagging in technological adoption and innovation. The tech sector’s messiah complex has been muted by Cambridge Analytica, but the principles of user-centered design, iterative development, and continuous learning have not lost their value. Small groups of committed technologists can easily test hypotheses about ways to make institutions work better. Trouble is, it’s really hard for them to earn a living doing it.

The Problem for Civic Tech

The unique challenge facing civic tech was noted by Fast Forward, a tech nonprofit accelerator, in a recent report that aptly described the chicken and egg problem plaguing tech nonprofits:

Many foundations will not fund a nonprofit without signs of proven impact. Tech nonprofits are unique. They must build their product before they can prove impact, and they cannot build the tech product without funding.

This is compounded by the fact that government procurement processes are often protracted and purchasers risk averse. Rather than a thousand flowers blooming in learning-rich civic experiments, civic entrepreneurs are typically frustrated and ineffectual, finding that their ideas are difficult to monetize, met with skepticism by government, and starved for capital.

These challenges are described well in the Knight and Rita Allen Foundations’ report Scaling Civic Tech. The report notes the difference between “buyer” revenue that is earned from providing services, and “builder” capital that is invested to increase organizations’ capacities. The report calls for more builder capital investment and better coordination among donors. Other recommendations made in the report include building competencies within organizations by tapping into knowledge sharing resources and skilled volunteerism, measuring and communicating impact, and nurturing infrastructure that supports collaboration….(More)”.