Civic Tech, Local Government and Low-Income People: Recent Learnings

Posted by Tamir Novotny on
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The work of Living Cities and its members is taking place at a time when digital technologies and social networks are seemingly transforming every aspect of our lives. Unfortunately, this transformation has yet to spill over significantly to change the relationship between low-income city residents and their local governments, or to address pressing challenges facing low-income communities. In order to better understand why this is and what might be done about it, we recently hired leading civic app developer OpenPlans to scan the civic tech field (their report can be found here), and also convened about a dozen big-city chiefs-of-staff and their chief innovation or technical officers in August at the Harvard Kennedy School (our takeaways from that
session can be found here).

From these engagements and others, we’ve learned that the civic tech movement is growing, as is its potential to change profoundly the way cities do business. Code for America’s Civic Commons logs nearly seven hundred civic tech solutions developed by nonprofits, small private startups and “civic hackers.” The Urban Strategies Council in Oakland used data provided by their police department to challenge the department’s preventive policing strategy, leading to the adoption of more evidence based strategies such as the Ceasefire model. City governments are creating new positions focused on innovation (both technological and non-technological), with Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics garnering special attention. And cities across the country are opening their data like never before, which in turn will power new tools for data-driven decision-making, civic engagement and more. These examples suggest the potential for civic tech to go beyond “just apps” to change more fundamentally the ways cities and their residents solve tough problems.

However, the extent to which civic tech advances this transformative potential depends on the collective ability of cities, equity groups, the technology community and other leaders to seize this momentum and address systemic issues including:

  • Rigid local government business systems: These include inflexible technology platforms which lock in public data and dated business processes; siloed or exclusionary governance structures; and legal/regulatory restraints both real and perceived.
  • Gaps in the civic tech marketplace: Cities struggle to sort through scores of apps to identify those that meet their needs. Few structures exist to link civic hackers to the stakeholders that would most benefit from their efforts. Meanwhile, beyond a small-but-growing number of startups, not many tech companies offer robust and affordable civic tech solutions.
  • Underdeveloped mechanisms for spreading innovation: The networks connecting civic tech innovators within and across cities are early-stage. In addition, a lack of structures such as data standards (protocols for incorporating data from city governments and others into applications such as maps) forces cities to redevelop rather than seamlessly adopt existing innovations.

Some issues are more adaptive than structural. For example, one local government leader at our August session said: “If you’re going to use technology to deepen civic
engagement, you have to be prepared to do something with the input you get. Otherwise, you lose credibility.” Another session participant described a tradeoff in his mind between using civic tech to improve basic city operations, (e.g., by reducing the cost of local government IT), and addressing mission-critical issues like streamlining the process by which low-income people access social services.

Applying civic tech to benefit low-income people presents additional challenges. This work requires deep engagement between local government leaders, technologists and low-income communities to identify issues, shape technology products, and integrate those products into the way work gets done. Thorny issues such as designing effective collaborative process, overcoming mistrust between stakeholders, and reconciling potentially conflicting expectations and priorities, have to be worked through. In most places, this work is no one’s formal “day job,” and its complexity is enough to discourage even the most enthusiastic would-be innovators within city government. For this work to become more widespread, the collective capacity of government, technology and community leaders to undertake it will need to be strengthened.

Fortunately, leaders in this field are beginning to organize to address these issues. On the systems side, work ranges from taking on technology procurement policy to developing action plans for open government. Emergent peer networks could potentially provide support to local change agents wrestling with the more adaptive challenges, while forums like Offices of New Urban Mechanics offer potential vehicles for working through these challenges city-by-city. As these efforts bear fruit, sustained effort
will be required to strengthen and preserve a deep, intentional focus on low-income people.

This piece, and the knowledge products from which it draws, are intended to inform discussions among technologists, local leaders, philanthropy, and others. We continue to explore this space and will share our learnings with you as they emerge, and welcome your responses.

Additional Blog Posts on Civic Tech

Ben Hecht: Big Data and a Brave New World

Nick Grossman: Stuck On The Bus, or, Civic Engagement in a Networked World

Zac Townsend: Dreaming Bigger in the Civic Technology Movement