PPF Blog

Unpacking Civic Tech – Inside and Outside of Government

It can sometimes seem, or be conflated, that “civic tech” is the same in its incorporation, business & sustainability strategy, and product priorities.

“Oh, it’s all online civic action, whether it happens on Facebook or PopVox or NextDoor or myMadison or Mindmixer or via MoveOn’s Action Kit or DemocracyOS or Brigade.”

“Civic tech” is an intentionally big-tent term, after all, to obfuscate the non- vs. for-profit differences in the field.

But significant differences obtain in what these projects are aiming to build & support.

In short, non-profit community projects aim to develop open data standards for elected officials and everyday political information – towards the goal of new engagement features to be developed & remixed & localized. Think better alerts, better discussions, currently-unimaginable tools to close the feedback loop of civic engagement. Non-profits aim towards meeting the ambitious potential of open technology for self-governance in our representative democracy. There’s suprisingly little charitable investment in open tech for the networked public sphere – the kind of interactions between groups and especially dedicated organizer time – that won SOPA/PIPA and net neutrality battles, and could be applied to the very-big, very-tough problems of low U.S. voter turnout, catastrophic climate degradation and campaign finance reform.

The non-profits & community projects that are incorporated to develop such infrastructure are different creatures from social-enterprise startups that go through civic-tech accelerators and receive high-six-figure early budgets and funding rounds of $17-25m – and whose (understandable) priorities are to sell software to government entities or acquire many millions of users (by most means necessary) for lead-gen & sponsored-content business models. Hey, all in the game, and some great work will happen this way.

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.

This initiative is driven by the following observation: stakeholders in civic tech projects often promote metrics-based evaluations, but often these aren’t shared as publicly as they could be, and different *types* of civic tech projects are still silo’d in their understanding of impacts & analytics. For example, civic tech may encompass everything from community planning processes to legislative transparency to online petition platforms to open-data consultants. Developing enhanced ROI for projects may be commonplace inside foundations’ program areas (which shift regularly), but in the growing civic tech ecosystem, it’s not as widely understood as it could be. Currently, metrics are often top-line web traffic & sales: users, web visits, time-on-site, returning users, number of government entities vended-to, or the gold standard of e-petitions, matching an email address with a donation history.

I hypothesize it’s possible to develop enhanced metrics on ROI for thicker civic engagement, the kind that comes from apps like See Click Fix or city-level engagement platforms like our proposed Councilmatic.

Many disciplines already have metrics on what returning, ongoing, timely & informed engagement looks like with their existing civic tech tools – sharing these more publicly would help the broader civic tech field set priorities and calculate ROI. Someday, this research could even integrate with studies by GovLab, Knight Foundation, Microsoft Athena and others.

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?

Related questions on U.S. ecosystem – scale can be obtained through open-source non-profit projects in other countries, after all, so why not the U.S. space?

  • Why is the major UK civic-tech company (mySociety) (or in Germany, Parliament Watch) a public charity making open-source tools, while in the U.S., there is maybe just one accelerator for civic-tech non-profits, and commercial startups are overwhelmingly the type of company that get launched out of the Bay? After all, mySociety was able to secure earned-revenue consulting from municipalities – why not open-source, open-data non-profits in the U.S., why is it so necessary for companies to scale to approx. 5,000 client municipalities when open-source tools can be shared?
  • Is existing #civictech making a sufficient impact on key metrics such as voter turnout (towards OECD avg. of 70%) or public trust in Congress or awareness of municipal elected officials?

Grab me anytime today - I’ll be pleased to share my experiences on what’s worked and what hasn’t in developing AskThem & Councilmatic as two civic-tech non-profit startups, as well as our rare #civictech “exit” with OpenCongress (our flagship project from 2006-2013) and OpenGovernment.org (deprecated). For the past two years, I’ve been wrangling with how real-world community groups and municipal elected officials view the burgeoning new civic tech landscape, in relation to existing social media (Facebook & Twitter) and the tough challenges of marketing new platforms to busy government staff.

Sharing concrete examples of community info-sharing & equity-building on platforms may help to identify the next round of opportunities in the civic-tech field. Signing a Change petition certainly feels a lot, just on the user experience, like signing-on to delivery a public question to your city mayor on AskThem. Voting “aye” on a bill on PopVox is nearly the same as the features we developed on OpenCongress in 2011 to enable digital constituent communication to Congressional offices. See for comparison, non-profit efforts like our previous OpenCongress, and our proposed Councilmatic nationwide (versions of OpenCongress for city governments). So clarity is needed.

Questions & feedback welcome, thank you for considering these ideas.


drm@ppolitics.org /  @ppolitics

Few more rambles of potential interest:

Closing the feedback loop of civic engagement, entirely with free & open-source tools. Just now becoming close-to-possible.

More on the open-data infrastructure needed for greater civic engagement in the U.S. political space. Lots more to say about this – but see old community project, Democracy Map, which is one data source for our non-profit AskThem.

Similarly, the rich potential of open data standards for constituent communications and channeling more political actions into structured data for delivery into government entities and a transparent response. This is the biggest opportunity I’ve seen in the field in eight years, but who will invest in a shared community standard, when the big for-profits seek to win on their proprietary data? But we have the working spec, so help us start building now.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Take Part

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *