So, what is “civic tech”?
The term may underpin much of Tom Steinberg’s professional life but it is fair say that it has yet to form an established component of the global lexicon – unlike other technical sectors such as e-commerce, online dating or streaming video. But as befits the founder and former director of mySociety, Steinberg has a neat clarification ready and waiting.
“Civic tech is the general term for any use of technology for citizens as a whole,” he explains. A good example, from the non-government sector, he continues, is change.org, the large-scale petitions website. “Sometimes you may not think about petitions very much because they are so common now but they were an innovation and in the form of change.org they’ve really reached their apotheosis,” he points out. “It is a popular service that delivers petitions to public and private entities all over the world.”
Civic tech is also alive and well in government – but to varying degrees. Rather than focusing on specific projects, Steinberg prefers to cite its influence on mindset, approach and success in putting citizen needs first. “Larger IT projects in the 1990s were not ever really about the citizens, but were instead about public servants and what they and politicians wanted from technology,” recalls Steinberg. “In their newer guise, where you have services ruthlessly attuned towards being excellent for the public and the ease of a service like renewing your passport, then that is what now counts as civic tech. So, in short, ‘civic tech’ is all tech that thinks about the citizen as a user and the precedence it gives to that citizen having a really good experience.”
Stuck on go slow
Steinberg, who stepped down from heading up mySociety in 2015, has served in an eclectic range of roles – systems administrator, policy analyst and policymaker have all taken pride of place on his business card at various times. Having established mySociety in 2003 in order to develop and popularise digital tools that can empower citizens over institutions and decision maker, he has also advised governments around the world about formulating policy advice on digital issues, as well as serving for two years on the UK government’s Public Sector Transparency Board.
His time in government coincided with a steep improvement in how policymakers of every stripe and in countries around the world tapped into the transformative seam of technology to improve public services. “In terms of how to make a service really citizen focused on the internet these days, the howis no longer a mystery at all,” he points out. “We’re not in the late 1990s when no one really knew how to make a good service. Now, though, there are courses and manuals and knowledge and orthodoxy that explain how to do it. It is widely dispersed and no secret.”
However, it is also clear that progress remains slow – too slow. “What is stopping governments from doing this more broadly is the fact that they can sometimes lack the necessary motivation to undergo what can be slightly painful transformation programmes to do things differently,” he explains.
Steinberg believes that crises of some sort are often needed to jolt politicians and policymakers from their inertia and uses the problems with the launch of the healthcare.gov website to illustrate his point. “One of my favourite factoids about this website crash is that when it didn’t work the President’s approval ratings sank to what at the time was an all-time low for him,” he says. “It showed how unforgiving the public is when it is confronted by bad government services delivered digitally. It is also a taste of things to come when citizens’ expectations are based on using truly excellent digital services like Facebook every day. When government services don’t work, citizens don’t just say that a website isn’t working, they say the government isn’t working.”
Successfully implementing civic tech in government depends on the recruitment of two different sets of people, believes Steinberg. These groups – communicators and programmers – are mutually interdependent. “First, you need people to make the case that change is required and possible,” he explains. “They can tell the story about how creating new digital capacity is not frightening or bring the roof down on everybody. They need to have deep knowledge about what is good about the digital age; have fantastic interpersonal skills and to some extent speak the language of policymakers – able to translate tech ideas into something understandable to ministers and their staff.”
While these can be found in civil society organisations around the world – he cites Code for Germany, Canada’s Open North and the UK’s mySociety – the second group all need to possess classic Silicon Valley skills. “These are the people who can build a better quality digital service,” he says. “They are good quality designers, programmers and researchers who can tease out people’s needs and turn them into services and so on.”
Of course, saying this is easy – actually recruiting them into government is another matter entirely. Steinberg agrees that it is a tough assignment but adds that there are two primary ways to tap the talent. “You can appeal to their sense of public service and the chance to do work that is more important than that on offer in the private sector – the type of work you tell your grandkids about,” he says.
“The second is about salary. Truth be told, you could find a Google engineer willing to take a three-times salary cut and many governments could still not be able to afford them. So you have to get creative and find funds locked up in bad technology budgets and have tough conversations with human resources departments and ask them for flexibility. In the longer term, governments have to work with universities to address the capacity issue as currently the total number of people in an economy with these skills is not enough to serve the needs of a big government.”
Picking up the pace
Steinberg’s frustration that more governments have not yet fully taken advantage of the potential of civic tech is palpable. “One of the troubling things is that we have had a couple of exemplars but the rate at which it is catching on in other countries is glacial,” he admits. “There are significant, relatively well run wealthy countries that are more or less nowhere in terms of ‘getting’ digital: Germany and Canada to take two examples. Even after healthcare.gov it is surprising that more policymakers and politicians haven’t said ‘that could happen to us’.”
The slow pace prompts Steinberg to conclude that only a fresh wave of problems and crises will spark the widespread transformations that citizens expect and also deserve. “The lessons have spread soslowly,” he says. “But I remain convinced that we’ll get there – it’s just going to take time.”
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