Fairness in Civic Technology and City Services

Posted by Zac Townsend on

Think of how unpleasant the DMV is in many states when getting a new license. You endure lines, poor business process, and bad technology systems. Imagine you had to do that five times a year and your children’s lives depended on it. That is what
many low-income families experience.

I know firsthand how hard it can be. I remember when my father stopped working at the post office and he wanted to find out if we were eligible for food stamps, free or reduced school lunch, or any other programs that might support us. He had to navigate a dizzying array of offices, acronyms, paperwork, and confusing business process. I remember standing in line with him at one office for hours only to be told we had not gotten the right approval from another office. Overall the quality of service provision in government offices remains low. The offices which provide services use outdated and ill-designed technology tools to facilitate rarely-updated business process. Services must be requested in person, lines can be long, multiple offices need to be visited, and forms that aren't filled out to exacting detail must be redone, creating an array of bureaucratic barriers. In essence, city services are a regressive tax on people's time.

It doesn’t need to be this way. It doesn’t even make sense that it is this way: Helping hands should not be hard to reach. More and more, we have the tools to visualize the systems that provide these services, identify their shortcomings, and roll out solutions that span all city services at once, saving precious time and effort for hourly-wage families that can ill afford to lose either. We just need to devote ourselves to the cause.

There’s even a name for it: Civic technology involves leveraging modern design and technology tools to build citizen-centric systems within governments. It’s a tool that can vastly improve the provision of city services and, in turn, the lives of the low-income families who disproportionately rely on those services. Fixing city services with technology is not about abstract efficiencies, but fundamental fairness for the neediest in our cities.

And it’s catching on. Recently I have had the pleasure of participating in a number of recent fora to discuss the future of civic technology, including Living Cities' August
meeting at the Harvard Kennedy School
. The pathblazing work of New Urban Mechanics and Code for America has pushed forward civic technology remarkably over the last few years, allowing the field to mature enough that practitioners and funders can begin to study and identify lessons and opportunities. We can finally begin to build the civic sector capacity for working together, improving business process through technology, and reengineering city services to improve income, health, or other opportunity for citizens -- in particular, for those who have the least of each. The civic technology community has an opportunity to move beyond stand-alone apps to redesign, redevelop, and ultimately vastly improve city services and, subsequently, the lives of low-income citizens interacting with the civic sector. Any civic hacker or technologist should consider working with me and others to begin to directly address and improve city services.

When I argue for building a suite of open source information technology systems for small- and medium-sized cities (as mentioned in my earlier blog post Dreaming Bigger in the Civic Technology Movement), it is the largest and fastest way I have devised that funders and civic innovators can focus their attention on addressing fundamental inequities found in bad business process and cemented in bad civic technology. In so doing, the citizens who interact most with our local governments will see the most benefit from the associated improvement of city services. With changes based around good citizen-centric design -- like sharing basic demographic information across city departments or a “one-stop window” to apply to and understand city services -- people like my dad will be able to spend less time getting promised services, and more time using those services to move forward in life.

Zac Townsend is Senior Technology Policy Adviser and Mayor's Office Fellow in Newark, New Jersey.