Civic Tech is Not Alone: Connecting with Local Knowledge

Problem: Limited glass recycling options in New Orleans
Engagement: 169 Neighbors posted on Neighborland that they “want the ability to recycle glass in New Orleans.”
Solution: Local business, Phoenix Recycling, discussed this desire on Neighborland and launched a program to collect local glass to use for construction projects.

In my very biased assessment (I work for Neighborland), this process exemplifies the practice of civic hackers building tools to help people find solutions for their own neighborhoods instead of imposing solutions from the hacker’s point of view. Paul Davis mentioned this when he wrote “more apps for social justice, less bar finders for hip urbanites.” I am working on implementing Neighborland in my hometown of Houston, Texas because: A) I am a very persuasive beggar. B) I saw a team of civic hackers who are focused on building an open-ended tool for community groups, local government, and everyday citizens to collaborate on their own solutions for their own communities.

Eric Liu wrote a great piece calling for the rise of “citizen citizens” or the average person to step up and take responsibility for improving their communities. Liu argues that citizens are to blame for irresponsive and inefficient government when he writes, “we aren’t stuck in sclerotic government and extractive politics. We are these things. Our actions and omissions contribute to the conditions we decry.” Liu’s conclusion is, “citizenship, in the end, is too important to be left to professionals. It’s time for us all to be trustees, of our libraries and every other part of public life. It’s time to democratize democracy again.” Liu’s message speaks to the heart of the Gov 2.0 movement and exemplifies the mission of promoting citizen participation through technology. I know that I personally identified with Liu’s call for action, I work for a civic technology company.

Although I surely agree that we need more engaged citizens, it is easy to forget that there are already many passionate people who are devoted to improving their communities. It is important not to entirely discount the effort of professionals, like civil servants who have dedicated their careers to serving their communities – maybe civic technologists are professional citizens as well. It feels good to think of ourselves in the Gov 2.0 field as the vanguard for civic change but we are not the only community of engaged citizens working towards civic improvement.

While members of the Gov 2.0 community are very well connected to each other, we are not as well connected to other communities for civic change, especially those that are not early adopters of technology. There is a solid logic to going after the “low hanging fruit” and connecting to governments and civil society organizations who embrace technology as a tool for civic improvement but there are many more resources outside of those early adopter circles. Just as one of the core tenants of Gov 2.0 is including citizen resources to improve communities, including external resources also needs to be part of the Gov 2.0 process. There are community organizations, advocacy groups, and government departments that have the local, political, and technical knowledge necessary to effecting civic change. Civic tech groups certainly know how to build tools but without connecting to that local knowledge the effectiveness of those tools is compromised. It is tempting for a civic tech group to identify a problem and then implement a tech-sexy solution without consulting external groups but that process is just as wasteful of resources as a government that tries to implement a solution without involving citizens in the process.

Who knows more about what a neighborhood or city needs than the people who live and work there and are passionately devoted to improving it? Inclusive processes, such as participatory budgeting, involve collaborations between local government, technical expertise, and citizens to identify the true needs of the community and actionable solutions that all sides are agreeable to and responsible for. Collaboration is not just the goal of Gov 2.0 it could also be the method for achieving that goal.

Civic tech can be a civic improvement multiplier if it is built for the people who know where the issues are and simply need better processes for solving them. Gov 2.0 does not need to be the vanguard for change. We can do more if we connect with and support others who can lead change in their own communities.

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Samuel Lovett

I like the Eric Liu quote

“citizenship, in the end, is too important to be left to professionals. It’s time for us all to be trustees, of our libraries and every other part of public life. It’s time to democratize democracy again.”

It’s encouraging to see cities and towns that have fallen on tough times turning to citizen participation to get out of trouble (recently read an article about Vallejo, CA implementing e-voting by citizens in order to decide budget spending).

Collaboration as the means, and the end… pretty cool.