Five years ago, “civic tech” in the US was a community of mostly volunteers, dedicated to scrappy informal projects and philanthropically-funded initiatives. These projects were designed to increase the public’s access to and ability to shape public services, but — by and large, despite their successes — they remained relegated to the far corners of mainstream public awareness. Today’s civic tech community owes much to those foundational efforts, but at the time, they didn’t enjoy mainstream public attention. Most people just weren’t keeping tabs on that type of work.
Then HealthCare.gov happened.
For the first time in the US, an attempt had been made to overhaul a foundational aspect of government service, putting it online, and making it digitally accessible. When it initially launched, the website was — well, bad. It was buggy and it crashed a lot. On one level, this is understandable: it was the first attempt of its kind. On another, it was unacceptable: it was the doorway between millions of Americans and critical health services.
The public outcry against HealthCare.gov was enormous. Perhaps unexpectedly, though, its failure also served as a rallying cry for a whole new industry. Groups of designers and developers — mostly young, very diverse, ambitious — came together with the goal of fixing this website. By and large, they were successful.
And, when the dust settled, they decided to stay put.
They formalized their work as full-time agencies, like USDS and 18F. Their counterparts outside of government began growing as well, with the founding of our team at Nava and others. The ensuing success — and public visibility — of their work helped to kickoff a culture shift amongst government leaders. More and more, they began to show confidence in the idea that government could benefit from modern technical practices.
Suddenly, “civic tech” had a place at the table.
As the field grows, though, it faces a set of unusual challenges. Namely, tech is no longer the outsider. It has become an essential and foundational piece of any modern day infrastructure — but best practices for its integration, and a profound understanding of long-term impacts, remain largely undetermined. That matters a lot if what you’re building is the digital doorway between millions of people and critical services, like healthcare and food assistance.
The playbook provided by Silicon Valley does not apply to civic tech. Instead, we need to be proactive and thoughtful as we forge ahead in shaping this field with an entirely new set of principles: ones that recognize the stakes, encourage deliberation over innovation for innovation’s sake, and encourage a deep and bonded understanding with all stakeholders.
We have to be rewriting the rules as we go.
A few ways to approach that:
First, it’s critical to resist the narrative of “the disruptor.” Civic tech is not a game of heroes and villains — with broken government on one side and brilliant designers and developers on the other. This a collaborative process, with all parties bringing essential expertise to the table. It is inconceivable that any government service could be improved without the full participation of those it serves and those who will manage it long after the designers have left the room.
Second, we must never forget that technology, alone, is not a silver bullet. It won’t solve every problem. But it’s one valuable tool of many, and one that we know how to work with. As we rely more and more on technology to assist us everyday, we have the power in civic tech to make sure that the advantages of moving a service online or making it faster actually benefits the people who use it. As civic technologists, we should be continuously asking ourselves two key questions: “Is this in the service of the public good?” and “How might we use the tools at our disposal to improve the lives of the people who will touch this service?”
When we do our best work, it’s when we understand how technology contributes and amplifies — not how it disrupts and replaces. This is counter to the well-engrained narrative that has fueled technology’s rise through Silicon Valley, so we will need to work hard to rewrite it.
Finally, we need to recognize that this isn’t the undertaking of a single organization, inside or outside of government. The success of this work will depend on the community we build around it and the willingness with which we share our stories and experiences. The community we build will determine who gets the benefit of civic technology and who doesn’t. This means creating ladders into the field, even as we define it together.
If you’re looking for a way into the field, know that the work to create equitable public services is happening and it’s succeeding. This community has a place for you — and it needs you.
If you’re interested in working with Nava, check out our open roles. To keep up with openings in the civic tech community, check out Design Gigs for Good, Code for America’s civic tech job board and the community-maintained Civic Tech Field Guide.
Director of Design