Unpacking Civic Tech – Inside and Outside of Government

David Moore at Participatory Politics Foundation: “…I’ll argue it’s important to unpack the big-tent term “civic tech” to at least five major component areas, overlapping in practice & flexible of course – in order to more clearly understand what we have and what we need:

  • Responsive & efficient city services (e.g., SeeClickFix)
  • Open data portals & open government data publishing / visualization (Socrata, OpenGov.com)
  • Engagement platforms for government entities (Mindmixer aka Sidewalk)
  • Community-focused organizing services (Change, NextDoor, Brigade- these could validly be split, as NextDoor is of course place-based IRL)
  • Geo-based services & open mapping data (e.g.. Civic Insight)

More precisely, instead of “civic tech”, the term #GovTech can be productively applied to companies whose primary business model is vending to government entities – some #govtech is #opendata, some is civic #engagement, and that’s healthy & brilliant. But it doesn’t make sense to me to conflate as “civic tech” both government software vendors and the open-data work of good-government watchdogs. Another framework for understanding the inside / outside relationship to government, in company incorporation strategies & priorities, is broadly as follows:

  • tech entirely-outside government (such as OpenCongress or OpenStates);
  • tech mostly-outside government, where some elected officials volunteer to participate (such as AskThem, Councilmatic, DemocracyOS, or Change Decision Makers);
  • tech mostly-inside government, paid-for-by-government (such as Mindmixer or SpeakUp or OpenTownHall) where elected officials or gov’t staff sets the priorities, with the strong expectation of an official response;
  • deep legacy tech inside government, the enterprise vendors of closed-off CRM software to Congressional offices (including major defense contractors!).

These are the websites up and running today in the civic tech ecosystem – surveying them, I see there’s a lot of work still to do on developing advanced metrics towards thicker civic engagement. Towards evaluating whether the existing tools are having the impact we hope and expect them to at their level of capitalization, and to better contextualize the role of very-small non-profit alternatives….

One question to study is whether the highest-capitalized U.S. civic tech companies (Change, NextDoor, Mindmixer, Socrata, possibly Brigade) – which also generally have most users – are meeting ROI on continual engagement within communities.

  • If it’s a priority metric for users of a service to attend a community meeting, for example, are NextDoor or Mindmixer having expected impact?
  • How about metrics on return participation, joining an advocacy group, attending a district meeting with their U.S. reps, organizing peer-to-peer with neighbors?
  • How about writing or annotating their own legislation at the city level, introducing it for an official hearing, and moving it up the chain of government to state and even federal levels for consideration? What actual new popular public policies or systemic reforms are being carefully, collaboratively passed?
  • Do less-capitalized, community-based non-profits (AskThem, 596 Acres, OpenPlans’ much-missed Shareabouts, CKAN data portals, LittleSis, BeNeighbors, PBNYC tools) – with less scale, but with more open-source, open-data tools that can be remixed – improve on the tough metric of ROI on continual engagement or research-impact in the news?…(More)