A Civic Stack Thought Experiment

It is well known that the Internet protocol suite consists of a stack of layers: the application layer sitting on top of the transport layer, the internet layer, and the link layer. Detailed analysis of the interaction of these layers has yielded insight into the rapid information innovation we’re experiencing as a matter of practice and policy. Compare this to government, which is often criticized for being independent silos of operation and information. Regardless of the truth or utility of the silo metaphor, it is typically the view of the academic, critic or bureaucrat, not necessarily the citizen looking from the outside in.

For citizens, framing their interactions with government in terms of a vertical service stack unrelated to the actual operational organization can help tease out what we seek with “citizen engagement,” “participatory government,” and similar phrases in a way that can prompt action, not merely discussion. After all, we seek to become a “crowd of hands, not of voices.” A Do Tank, not a Think Tank. The civic stack I’ll propose is merely a thought experiment in how we can come up with new approaches to work in the gov 2.0 space. It is an oversimplified and slightly arbitrary approximation to help analyze the impact and scope of our work in each layer and across layers. I encourage you to create new application ideas or provoke discussion by expanding and rearranging these layers. Alright, here’s the stack:

  • Communications
  • Maintenance, Operations
  • Property, Recordkeeping
  • Emergency, Police, Fire

The idea of a civic stack, or how it relates to our work, began to materialize after a recent conversation with a group of fellows about the importance of being a generalist as we approach projects. It fits the broader narrative that we’re trying to change both minds and methods. It is not to create a self-fulfilling prophecy that skeptical readers might think I’ve set up all along. I can assure you that is not my intention. Unlike the internet layers, we’ve seen changes flow in both directions of this model. For example, Prepared.ly (fire and communications), BlightStatus (property and recordkeeping and communications) and ATX Floods (emergency, operations, communications). Others are anchored in a higher layer and can affect any of the others, such as Textizen, LocalData or the 311 projects.

Notably, I did not include technology or open data in any of the layers. That is because I see them more as features than products, at least with respect to our work. In some ways, this is the flip side of the understanding that transparency alone is not enough. I’ve struggled this year in deciding whether open government needs to come from the top down or bottom up, and have worked to encourage both. Still, the political process is by its nature slower even in cities with little resistance. I’d argue that the changes we’ve seen from the bottom up have pushed things along faster and farther, because they’ve come from identifying specific outcomes. This has also cemented the point that tech is not always the answer. The layers above can help us generate useful projects and analyze existing ones, because even though we’re Code for America, our success has come from focusing on code for America.

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