Business & Legal

A Primer on Civic Tech Context and Trends

By Annmarie Levins, General Manager, Technology & Civic Engagement, Microsoft


What is Civic Tech? 


“Civic Tech” is the use of technology for
the public good, with applications designed to address shared problems and opportunities.  The term encompasses the ecosystem of people
and organizations working toward this goal, the collaborative and agile
development approaches they embrace, and the tech solutions they produce.
Civic tech responds to and has been shaped
by a variety of other movements and trends:

Release of open data for transparency,
collaboration, and economic impact

Increasing demand for citizen
engagement and involvement (often mediated by IT)


Governments and communities being
expected to accomplish more with fewer resources


Integration of data and data analytics
into society, including smart cities efforts


Technology workers and companies’
increasing interest in skills-based volunteering and societal impact


Open source tools, approaches,
communities, and polices


Cities’ aspirations to nurture
tech-enabled economic development across sectors


The ecosystem of civic tech is broad,
encompassing dedicated new groups but also evolving missions and
responsibilities within governments at all levels, civic service organizations,
innovation incubators, philanthropies, universities, social entrepreneurs,
companies of all sizes, and policy makers.
It is also highly-networked, with people moving often, following
projects and into newly created jobs and organizations.  For example, within government, the past 5-10
years have seen an explosion of new positions[1] –  e.g., Chief Innovation Officers, Chief Data
Officers, Chief Digital Officers, Chief Technology Officers – whose mission
often include figuring out and interacting with the local civic tech ecosystem.


These trends and movements are not
limited to the U.S.  Many countries are
hungry for these new engagement models.  A
key attribute of civic tech, however, is the focus on local priorities and
communities.  Thus, how civic tech
becomes real in different geographies, including the balance between government
and community leadership, will depend greatly on local needs and culture. 
Civic Tech’s Importance to the Tech Industry


Civic tech is a new way of developing and
deploying solutions that will infiltrate and shape how customers, partners, and
stakeholders expect to interact with and use technology.  It is characterized by:
User-centric and agile design and development
processes, with an emphasis on inclusivity, and


Non-hierarchical models – different
groups inspire, develop, validate, operate, maintain/improve, use, and pay for
civic tech solutions.


Thus, established tech companies need
to think not only about how they can engage with civic tech projects within the
civic tech ecosystem, but they also need to consider the broader markets in
which civic tech-inspired or enabled products and processes are becoming the
established norm.  A 2014 IDC study estimated
the annual market for government spending on transformation of citizen services
and data sharing and analysis within government at $6.4 billion.[2]
Many services offered by established
tech companies are, or can be, particularly relevant to the civic tech community.  Data analytics and visualization technologies
are certainly central, and tools that enable collaboration and connections also
resonate with the core inclusive engagement principles of civic tech.  But it is not enough for private companies to
have products and services that can further the civic tech mission.  Being relevant to this community requires sustained
involvement with civic customers in real time as they are considering how to
address real challenges and at the incubation stage as new models of
partnership and services are being developed.
Authentic, sustained engagement is critical to participate in the
ecosystem over the long term.  There are
significant parallels here to open source and its technical, legal, and
cultural consequences.  Like open source,
products and experiences from civic tech will influence government and business
customers, and ultimately inform their tech-related processes and choices.


For government, the experimentation with
civic tech is occurring now.  Examples
include government-led offices like US Digital Service and 18F and UK
Government Digital Services at the national level, and collaborative efforts
like the work of New Urban Mechanics, UI LABS, and mySociety at the regional
and local levels.[3]  These experiences will drive the formal
integration of civic tech models into regulation and practices for procurement,
delivery, and partnerships.


The civic tech community is also now
tackling its challenges around scalability and sustainability.  Civic tech leaders have begun to appreciate
that established companies can bring the know-how, networks, and technical
resources to help address these challenges, and are open to learning and
services from them that help develop and extend solutions that operate reliably
and securely at scale.
Governments, Civic Tech, and Tech Companies Should
Work Together


By participating in the civic tech
ecosystem, tech companies will have front row seats to the digital
transformation of government and civic services.  They will benefit by learning firsthand the
interests and needs of this innovative sector, and can apply this learning to
the development of their products and services.
Likewise, civic technologists will benefit from deep engagement by established
tech companies, which have experience in developing products and services that
are sustainable, scalable, and compliant with regulatory requirements.   Finally, for governments, partnership with
the civic tech ecosystem offers a path to deliver 21st century
services and to build deeper connections to constituents.
Further Reading


The seminal study on the field of
civic tech is The Knight Foundation’s report,
The Emergence of Civic Tech: Investments in a
Growing Field
(December 2013). The report was the
first serious research on the field of civic tech.  It maps the field, identifies trends, studies
investment activity and sources of funding, and highlights the strategic
implications for potential investors and government.   More current is the excellent work by Micah
Sifry, Matt Stempeck, and Erin Simpson, What Is Civic Tech: Toward Finalizing A Basic
Framework So That We Can Move On With It Already

(Spring 2016), which provides a comprehensive catalog of “the common
functions” of civic tech.
The more recent short articles provide
additional background:


Towards a Taxonomy of Civic Technology (Microsoft
on the Issues,
April 2016) This blog describes the
results of collaborative research by Microsoft’s Tech & Civic Engagement team
and Civic Hall in New York.  The taxonomy
consists of four parts: a clear definition of civic tech, a categorical index
of civic tech’s technical functions, a study of the social processes in which
civic tech engages, and cross-cutting analytical questions.


How Civic Interests Are Helping Shape
Government Innovation

(Government Technology, July
2016) This article describes how civic tech emerged from passion of individual
hackers to more organized movement with government buy-in.  Examples from the City of Seattle, a
discussion of the market opportunity, and a review of venture investments.


Obama and His Geeks (Fast
, June 2015) This article provides an in-depth look at how President
Obama staffed the US Digital Services and 18f as tech innovation offices within
government by drawing employees from major tech companies in Silicon
Valley.  It makes clear how a civic tech approach
to delivering government services can profoundly change government procurement.
Why Civic Tech Is the Next Big Thing (Forbes,
June 2015) This piece traces the development of civic tech and discusses the
growing investments by venture capital in the area and the opportunities,
especially for entrepreneurs, to serve the government market.
The CIO Problem Part 1 and The CIO Problem Part 2: Innovation (Code
for America
blog, May 2016) by Jennifer Pahlka, Founder and
Executive Director of Code for America.
Blogs describe the various tech roles that governments need to fill and
how they have evolved.  She distinguishes the role of Chief Information
Officers (modernizing government tools and services, transforming them to work
as seamlessly consumer digital services) from that of Chief Innovation Officers
(cultivating ecosystems to enable new and unanticipated use cases using
government data and transactions).


[1] See blogs by Jen Pahlka in the Additional
Information section below.
[2] Another area where civic tech’s influence can
be seen is the evolving effort to assess and implement “smart cities” in more
flexible, more inclusive ways than earlier system integrator-driven vison of
command and control.
[3] How governments and civic tech community work
together, and who leads at various phases, is still evolving.  Challenges include how external organizations
can work collaboratively on development without being precluded from later
procurements, how governments can receive services and benefits without
providing funding, and how to ensure continuity of services.  There are also internal tensions within
governments on the roles and authorities of new governmental offices and these
new external organizations.

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