Last year when we (Code for America) began officially supporting civic startups. We created a program to support companies that build tool that help government work more effectively and transparently. We call it the Code for America Accelerator. Ever since then our organization, and our officespace, has become a hotbed of entrepreneurial energy — right now more than nine startups share our space, six of them are civic-focused. This expansion within our small corner of the civic technology ecosystem is in some parts reflective of a bigger story about the growth of civic startups and the power of convening government innovators from around the country to build solutions to problems that matter.
The Year of Civic Startups?
Mark Headd, Chief Data Officer for the City of Philadelphia, last year called 2012 the year of civic startups. From our vantage point within the government technology space, it certainly felt that way. When 235 companies submitted applications for the inaugural class of the Code for America Accelerator, we had no idea the level of interest we would receive, nor how receptive press, government, and funders would be.
Civic startups certainly began proliferating before Code for America’s involvement. Our friends at SeeClickFix, BrightScope and Govloop are part of the growing network of companies working to disrupt the $140 government IT budget, and are early supporters of elegant, lean government technology solutions. Nextbus, the widely known public transit app, gained incredible traction across the United States before it was ultimately acquired to the tune of $20 million.
These companies are incredible supporters and role models for building new methods of engagement, delivering services, and building upon open data. However, I like to believe that 2012 there was something of organic collaboration that solidified support and put lightning rod in the ground around the idea of civic startups. Increasingly, charitable organizations are following the lead of Code for America partners like the Knight Foundation in funding civic-oriented companies through both conventional means and app challenges. Google gave civic startups a huge “+1” when they funded our pilot incubator program, investing in even earlier stage startups than those in our Accelerator program. In addition, government support in terms of signalling their desire and eagerness for modern, web-based civic technology has grown. Governments like the City of Philadelphia are creating positions like Directors of Civic Technology, increasing the capacity of government to work with and implement solutions from outside government.
Setting the Stage
These are only a few examples of the wide ecosystem of which civic startups is part of, a multi-sector collaboration for the next generation of public sector innovation. However, these signs of progress do not negate the fact that there is big work ahead. Procurement still plays a significant barrier to startups, especially smaller ones without large sales teams with the knowledge of how to engage with the various and sometimes contradictory RFP processes across the United States. Venture capital for government technology is available but the opportunity presented by the possible disruption of government IT budgets still isn’t always understood or popular within top VCs. There is still an urgent need to grow the civic startup ecosystem from all sides. And that’s where you come in.
In his address to the attendees of Code for America’s inaugural Summit, Clay Johnson, Presidential Innovation Fellow and co-founder of Blue State Digital, talked about how change agents in civic technology had to go “through the wall” to help government foster the type of services and progress we envision it being capable of. I believe the turning point for 2013 is that we’ll see the acceleration of civic startups who have been able to benefit from the groundwork laid by the early startups who helped lower some of the barriers and biases against startups in government. To change culture and make structural changes in government we need all hands on deck — government innovators, non-profits, citizens, and startups. Civic startups play a crucial role in helping us showcase what’s possible to governments around the country, a way to provide services that are beautiful, elegant, and easy to use.
We need the best people, the best teams of startups, because this work matters.
My hope is that if 2012 was the year that civic startups entered the public conscience at some level, 2013 will be the year we turn the corner on increasing startups’ sustainability by supporting them with more government connections, more funding, and more mentorship. Startups are a critical piece of the puzzle in forming a government by the people, for the people, that works in the 21st century. We need seven steller startups to join us for the next round of the Code for America Accelerator, so please, apply now. We’re accepting applications now through May 31.
Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.