One of my favorite professors, Lawrence Goodwyn, used to say that as a historian his job was to study the continuity of error over time1. The United States may have been founded upon the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal,” for example, but this has been historically untrue. Historically speaking, “all men are created equal” has meant “all white men who own land are created equal.” Everyone else—women, people of color, etc.—has had to fight for rights that were, at the time of our country’s founding, ostensibly inalienable.
Civic space is space in which citizens strive to reconcile an imperfect reality with their own social contract’s egalitarian promise. Civic space exists outside of both the market and the state; it is where citizens work together (or at least alongside each other) as peers, in public2.
And yet I’ve seen the term “civic technology” applied to things like government data management systems, apps that provide easy access to public information and services, and even “the sharing economy” (i.e., apps that let people sell their services or rent their stuff to strangers). Such technologies very well might please their users and benefit everyone involved, but there’s nothing self-evidently civic about them.
Many define civic technology as that which enables people to build and wield power3. I don’t disagree per se, but I do think this puts the cart before the horse. It’s kind of like defining public transportation as that which enables people to more efficiently get from A to B. Enabling people to wield power is what any technology does.
The whole point of civics is that people precede power. Civic technology, then, is that which helps citizens work together, particularly in the building of a world in which all people can live with dignity and respect. As civic designers, our job is to enable the correction of errors over time. Our functional specifications begin with statements like “all people should be treated as equals.”
Getting there, together
Tim O’Reilly’s “government as platform” manifesto lays out a vision of a 21st Century state. Drawing upon lessons learned from platforms like Windows and Facebook, Android and Apple, O’Reilly describes a lean government that sets policy, maintains infrastructure, monitors systems, exposes data—and otherwise hangs back until it’s needed to adjudicate.
Key pillars of his vision include:
- Embrace open standards;
- Design for participation;
- Lower the barriers to experimentation;
- Learn from your hackers;
- Develop a culture of measurement; and
- Build simple systems that can evolve.
It’s a grand vision—Jeffersonian, really. “[E]nable ‘We the People‘ to do most of the work,” wrote O’Reilly. Yet, in civics, our first task is usually to ask precisely who we mean when we say “We the people.” If, as a platform, the government’s primary role will be to manage a marketplace, who should we expect to exchange what, and with whom?
The idea that anybody can participate is the very source of government as platform’s value. It’s also a frequently revisited trope within the civic technology community, one that LaurenEllen McCann refers to as “The Myth of Everybody”. Because while anyone can participate, only some of us actually will4.
For this reason, “government 2.0” poses as much of a threat to civics as it does an opportunity. This is not to say that government as platform is wrong; openness is a necessary precondition for civic politics. It’s just insufficient. If our systems are to be redesigned, whose interests are prioritized? Who gets to write on the whiteboards? …anybody?
The work of civic design begins precisely where the logic of government as platform ends, averting the many possible (yet not inevitable) tragedies that might befall the commons
The work of civic design begins precisely where the logic of government as platform ends, averting the many possible (yet not inevitable) tragedies that might befall the commons5. In my work as a civic technologist, I’ve striven to apply a set of principles that I’ve come to call community as platform.
Community as platform
At first glance, community as platform might seem like an awkward metaphor. Government is a self-contained system that literally produces data as its core operational function. It makes sense to build technology on top of it. Community, on the other hand, is inherently porous. It could exist among any set of people who interact with each other over time.
Yet a community’s health is determined by its members’ ability to share information and make effective decisions6. This makes “platform thinking” a reasonably useful framework for our purpose. To construct the community as platform framework, we can start by remixing the core principles of O’Reilly’s government as platform. Here:
- Embrace open standards becomes Establish your purpose;
- Design for participation becomes Design for diversity;
- Lower barriers to experimentation becomes Value participation;
- Learn from your hackers becomes Learn from each other;
- Develop a culture of measurement becomes Develop a culture of accountability; and
- Build simple systems becomes Navigate through complexity.
Establish your purpose
“Open by default” is government as a platform’s first principle. Take any framework for the science of community, however, and you‘ll likely find a different first principle (one potentially at odds with openness): set clear boundaries7.
The value of a community emerges from its relationships, relationships predicated upon trust. Trust emerges from a shared sense of who we are and what is meaningful to us. This is, itself, a kind of boundary. Open communities define boundaries by establishing a shared sense of purpose, determining what is vs. is not allowed, what is good vs. what is bad, and what they ought to collaboratively do.
Since O’Reilly published his manifesto, civic technologists have produced a flurry of applications to help people find and use information to serve their interests and reshape their communities. In theory, anyone can use these apps, but we should anticipate that the mostly likely users will be those who are already digitally literate and well networked8. The success of such apps might even amplify systemic patterns of resource allocation that benefit some communities while impoverishing others.
This is a dilemma. So are we gonna be all ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ or are we more like ಠ_ಠ? It depends on where we draw our lines; it depends on our purpose.
Design for diversity
The world wide web flourished in large part due to its “choice architecture,” a design that nudged users to be “open by default.” Government as platform applies the same principles to public systems.
And yet because actually-existing civic society is structured by serious inequity and persistent disenfranchisement, we can expect that open by default will, by default, yield contributors who are whiter, more male, more heteronormative, and more likely to be employed by incorporated interests.
“Diverse by design” is community as platform’s corollary to open by default. By designing for diversity I don’t mean recruitment quotas or focus groups other aspirational gestures of inclusion; I mean designing systems that promote different kinds of leadership. At a tactical level, this entails adherence to the standard protocols of social and cultural interoperability, such as organizing events with childcare, transportation, translation services, gender-neutral bathrooms, etc.9
At a strategic level, this entails structural interventions. Bill Traynor describes the value of “contrivances” that jump-start collaborative relationships between people who might not otherwise feel comfortable talking to each other. Contrivances could be anything from “icebreakers” to multi-stakeholder governance processes that gives decision-making weight to end users.
Code for Progress is an example of an organization that promotes diversity as its core function. Code for Progress recruits and trains programmers of color before embedding them in community-based organizations. There, programmers prototype tools to meet the needs of their host organization and its community. Code for Progress isn’t open—not just anybody can join—but it’s terrifically civic.
Truly civic technology bypasses more than just technical or bureaucratic barriers; it engenders agency among those who would otherwise lack it.
The notion that participation its own kind of reward can only get us so far. Without creative means of valuing participation, the civic hacking community will mostly consist of a disjointed mix of volunteers, professionals, entrepreneurs, and job-seekers. This is not to disparage any such people—you, dear reader, almost certainly fit at least one of these categories. But it wasn’t so long ago that the domain of civics was largely comprised of people who didn’t quite fit any of these molds10.
Here we should consider the “Calculus of Civic Engagement” that Anthea Watson Strong cites in her great essay “Three Levers of Civic Engagement”. Basically, whenever a citizen considers taking a civic action, they implicitly calculate the following formula:
In English, a person will take a civic action if they estimate that the product of
P (the probability that their action will affect an outcome) and
B (their personal benefit of that outcome) plus
D (their sense of civic duty) is greater than
C (the cost of the action).
Watson-Strong suspects that most civic tech tools today chiefly aim to reduce the cost of action (
C), or increase the probability of impact (
P), but otherwise depend on sentiment (
D). She urges us to remember, however, that civic technologists have an abnormally high sense of civic duty (
D); most people are far more rational. In the end, civic politics cannot rely on our shared sense of civic duty11.
I look at this equation and see
B, the benefit of civic action, crying out for love. Civic politics should be chiefly concerned with the meeting of people’s needs; citizens‘ participation is invaluable, and such value should be made explicit in return. How might we do this?
The Smart Chicago Collaborative’s Civic User Testing Group organizes non-technical residents to test civic applications by paying for their time. Paying people for civic participation is not always the right thing to do; it tends to warp behavior and depress otherwise-intrinsic motivations. So we must find ways to meaningfully, non-monetarily value participants‘ time (e.g., mutual credit systems, like community timebanks, in which participants earn credit for activities like mentoring and tech support).
Ultimately, a community should offer more than warm fuzzies to participants. It should offer tangible benefits.
Learn from each other
Government as platform encourages users to do unexpected, possibly unprecedented things12. In the words of government 2.0, we “learn from our hackers.”
Likewise, a healthy community learns from its margins—but not just its savviest, most successful members. A healthy community also learns from members who struggle the most. They have firsthand knowledge of what’s not working; in some cases, they may have even devised their own solutions to the problems. From the mainstream of a community, such perspectives can often be hard to see or hear.
The greatest potential for civic innovation exists when those who experience a problem and those who have technical skills interact with one another.
Truly transformative civic technology promotes the agency of a community’s most marginalized members. The greatest potential for civic innovation exists when those who experience a problem and those who have technical skills interact with one another. Zaid Hassan’s “social labs,” for example, convene people from different levels of a dysfunctional system—from the ground to the executive, from policymakers to academics—to collaboratively prototype experimental solutions to complex problems.
Consider how we might apply this principle to the processes of working together. What if we replaced Agile development’s “product owners” with “problem owners?” What would happen if we transferred the critical levers of production—the ability to generate user stores, prioritize backlogs, and evaluate output—directly in the hands of those who authentically represent the interests of their community? I suspect this process would yield relatively few new products; rather, it would likely uncover new, transformative ways of working with entirely boring technology.
Foster a culture of accountability
What counts? What’s it worth? What works? How do we know? Civic technology should help people ask questions, share what they discover, and hold those in positions of responsibility accountable for the design and evolution of systems that serve our interests.
Again, lean methodology is a useful point of reference, as it’s premised on a cycle of learning: Do something, observe what happened, and analyze it, iteratively, together. The same process guides effective public work; but it’s that “together” part which ought to be considered the defining aspect of the process and/or its products.
Remember that a lean company learns by extracting data from tests conducted on users. Those learnings are channeled into product. A community, however, learns when its members communicate with each other in public, and channel those learnings back into shared, collective knowledge13.
At a minimum, a culture of accountability would entail that civic design’s priorities, processes and outcomes are transparent to everyone—not just the institutions that fund development or purchase product. At its fullest expression, civic technology would create feedback loops between institutions and community members that enable new forms (or revive older forms) of institutional governance, such as cooperatives and other dues-paying membership bodies, election of non-profit leadership, participatory budgeting, and so on14.
This principle requires us to answer some urgent questions: If society is increasingly subject to “algorithmic regulation”—another O’Reilly notion—then who writes the algorithms? Who determines what is measured, and what will trigger interventions? Who decides what’s done with metadata? Civic technology should enable the public remediation of algorithmic regulation; otherwise, the whole prospect is frankly terrifying.
Navigate through complexity
Simplicity is a virtue. Reality is complex.
The complexity of social systems can mask the reality that what’s efficient for institutions (even civic institutions) isn’t always effective for individual people—and vice versa. When developing products, it’s all too easy to aim for simple and end up at simplistic, i.e., with an output that may work superficially yet fail to address the systemic nature of its problem. Such superficial fixes tend to eventually become part of the problems themselves15.
Those of us seeking solutions must strive for simplicity while designing for complexity. We must bring people on this journey with us.
One expression of this principle is a prerogative to visualize abstract technical systems, so that non-technical people can understand their essential workings at a glance.
A great example of this is “Every Network Tells A Story” a tool produced by the Open Technology Institute to aid in the building of community wireless networks. Through simple icons for different kinds of routers and signals, “Every Network Tells a Story” enables anyone to grasp the basics of wireless technology. Then, with only scissors and tape (actual maps are optional), the toolkit prompts participants to visualize their neighborhood’s social topography, and layer their desired communications infrastructure on top of it.
Inspired by this approach, the Open Referral Initiative is experimenting with a similar kind of participatory iconography for databases, records, APIs, and so forth. Relatedly, I think the Noun Project could turn out to be one of the most essential civic technologies of our future.
Towards truly civic technology
Establish a clear purpose; design for diversity; value participation; learn from each other; foster a culture of accountability; and navigate through complexity. These are the principles that I aspire to practice in my own work as a civic technologist.
Only occasionally do I feel like we‘re getting it right. But those moments are like magic: something emerges that is greater than the sum of each individual’s perspective, the invisible becomes visible, and you can sense the world of possibilities expand.
Goodwyn wrote The Populist Moment, a classic text about one of the few truly broad-based grassroots movements in American history. He passed away last year and is greatly missed.Return
In this essay, I refer to the definition of civics and citizenship articulated by Peter Levine, Harry Boyte, Jane Mansbridge, and others. See their statement about “the New Civic Politics” for starters. In brief, citizenship is defined as possessing two primary characteristics: rights and responsibilities; and creative agency. “Public work” involves citizens collaboratively negotiating outcomes that best serve their collective interests. We can understand this work to be the practice of “civic politics”—which “at its best involves ‘power with’ and ‘power to,’ and not just ‘power over.’”Return
Indeed, we can anticipate who these participants are likely to be: Those with social capital, financial capital, technical skills, time to kill, etc.Return
Elinor Ostrom’s “Governing the Commons” encapsulated a vast body of evidence with a theoretical framework that was elaborated in Ostrom and Charlotte Hess’s “Understanding Knowledge As A Commons” and most recently expanded in Frischmann, Madison, and Strandburg’s “Governing Knowledge Commons.”Return
Civic design might also be defined as that which builds (and/or builds upon) the capacities of a community to meet its members’ needs.Return
Say, McMillan and Chavis’ landmark study. It’s also the first principle of Ostrom’s Institutional Analysis and Development framework.Return
Examples are ample. Consider the recent story about Dropbox employees using a mobile app to reserve basketball courts in the Mission. How many of these confrontation are never recorded and shared online?Return
The organizers of the Lean Startup conference have documented their successful approach to recruiting diverse speakers, primarily by declaring a serious intent to feature unusual stories.Return
Theda Skocpol’s Diminished Democracy provides an account of the rise and fall of great civic associations and an analysis of what we've lost to the mediating influence of professional non-profit organizations and the associated donate/volunteer/protest models of participation.Return
If practiced correctly, civic politics should only occasionally be about voting! If all possible civic actions were a color spectrum, voting would be white. (Protest would be black. Donating to a non-profit organization would be brown.)Return
O’Reilly’s manifesto cites Eric von Hippel, whose “Democratizing Innovation” is an excellent text about how technology evolves most effectively through adaptations made by users themselves.Return
Much of this essay’s analysis considers the process of developing civic technology. For products that functionally enable deliberation and self-governance, consider the promise of Loomio (for group-based decision-making) as per Sifry’s recommendation, and Discourse (which is attempting the kind of upgrade of listserv/forum technology that we desperately need).Return
See also, my chapter “Beyond Transparency:” “Toward a Community Data Commons.”Return
My favorite description of this is in Wendell Berry’s “Solving for Pattern.” It’s about farming, but I think the metaphor stands.Return