The waves of civic tech

Kristin Taylor

Published Oct 4, 2023
Note: For more information, see Ryan Mahoney’s post, which addresses this topic from the point of view of a reformed solutionist.

The first wave of civic tech

The first wave of civic tech at a government agency brings public websites up to modern standards to meet basic ‘customer’ expectations. This work starts with low-hanging fruit or no-duhs. It might be a mobile-first accessible website with a robust CMS, digitizing forms and processes only available in-person or on paper, replicating existing backend digital tools to make them more usable and stable, or providing the public with essential information updated in real-time

Calling these things no-duhs and low-hanging fruit doesn’t diminish how hard they can be to deliver. While the technical challenges may be obvious to skilled tech workers, an organization's politics, personalities, and power dynamics make simple improvements complicated or impossible. On top of the internal negotiating, doing the work requires stable funding, solid hiring and people management, and dedication to upholding modern experience and technology standards.

The first wave is an important foundation for building the trust that our civic tech team can do more and can do it better. Despite politics and power struggles, our team delivered! Enjoy the fact that career public servants now trust us and that we have improved the digital experience for people who rely on government services. But, what’s next?

What worked in the first wave—tackling the low-hanging fruit—won’t work in the subsequent waves. We no longer need to prove that we can deliver, and the most obvious things that need to be done are done. This means we’ll have to make choices about where to improve how people engage with the government through technology—and the opportunities are endless.

Let’s first acknowledge that because what we delivered is essential, it must be maintained and cared for. Now that we have that out of the way, what about innovation? Where do we go from here? With the organization's trust, stable funding, and a talented team, there is so much we could do. Now we’re asking, “what should we do?” and we have entered the second wave of civic tech.

The second wave of civic tech

Since proving ourselves in the first wave, departments and individuals will come to us with their tech needs and challenges both because we can deliver and because there is literally nowhere else for them to go. While this seems ideal, it means we will have to know what to say yes to. We also need to set ourselves up to identify and act upon the things that stakeholders aren’t asking for. This is where leadership and innovation must work together.

In some business circles innovation relies on aligning around customers’ needs to gain a competitive advantage or to increase profit. In government, aligning around peoples’ needs is not optional. There is no competition or alternative—we are it. Our job as public servants is to understand peoples’ core needs and support them.

I don’t think there is much disagreement that we should focus on supporting peoples’ needs. But knowing it and doing it are two different things. Several factors often make it difficult to maintain a people-focus. Things like:

  1. Teams or departments in competition with each other
  2. Autocratic leaders viewing teams as mere production vehicles for their concept of value (a leadership style that likely contributed to first-wave success)
  3. Being limited to technical-only solutions when technology is part of an ecosystem of non-technical pieces (i.e., your digital boarding pass for your flight still requires looking at signs and walking to get to your gate)
  4. A culture of proposing solutions or building something without understanding the real need. For example, building an app that allows someone affordable housing is a solution to the wrong problem. It assumes that the challenge to securing affordable housing is the inability to search for it. In reality, it is often the lack of affordable housing options.

A proposal for success in the second wave of civic tech

My proposal for the second wave is that we double down on the core parts of innovation and service design: identify peoples’ priorities with research, collaborate across teams and departments, engage the right stakeholders, and make space for conflict management and alignment clarification.

Since service design and innovation are often misunderstood terms, I am calling out four building blocks of the practices that help us find our footing in the second wave.

  1. Identifying peoples’ priorities as an organization, for example, with a “Jobs To Be Done” research framework

    Successful innovation is not luck, it is the work of understanding and addressing peoples’ needs in a strategic and purposeful way.

    The “Jobs to Be Done” Theory suggests that people “hire" products or services to accomplish a specific job or solve a particular problem in their lives. For example, hiring a next-bus ETA feature to lead to less time wasted waiting at the stop. Understanding the underlying reasons why people make certain choices is the starting point for innovating more effectively. When we focus on the job a person is trying to get done rather than just the product itself; we match the services or products we build to support people’s needs.

    Identifying “Jobs To Be Done” requires emergent qualitative research.

  2. Collaborating with other teams and departments who are working towards supporting the same “job”

    The USDS Digital Services Playbook instructs us to “address the whole experience from start to finish.” That “every encounter—whether it’s online or offline—should move the user closer towards their goal.” When we skip looking at the whole experience, add to or create inconsistency. Inconsistency causes confusion; it makes our services and tools nearly unusable and inaccessible.

    Government organizations, like private ones, organize people around initiatives to allow them to focus. But technology and products don't live in a vacuum. Again, from the USDS Digital Services Playbook; “We need to understand the different ways people will interact with our services, including the actions they take online, through a mobile application, on a phone, or in person.”

    To effectively understand and address the whole “job,” we must work with other teams and departments. That is literally the only way to provide an experience that is more usable and accessible.

  3. Engaging the right stakeholders

    It is pretty much a guarantee that the digital technology our team delivers only plays a part of a “job.” And the bigger the problem space (or organization) the more stakeholders should be engaged, the more stakeholders, the more complexity. Our teams need people with skill sets and time set aside to engage in these stakeholder relationships. Stakeholder engagement must be a major priority. Team members with the skill sets should be added to our teams and there should be a focus on setting them up for success.

  4. Making time and dedicating resources to alignment and conflict management

    Organizational complexity brings up conflict. Conflict is natural; it’s part of being human. Conflict isn’t bad; it encourages diverse perspectives and stimulates critical thinking. It can even strengthen decision-making.

    Often user research puts our researchers in a position of mediation and advocacy between people in positions of power (business decision-making) and those in positions of lesser power (impacted audiences). Just doing the research doesn’t automatically lead to a decision. If we can’t reach an agreement at various points in time, we can’t successfully move forward supporting the ‘job’ that people are trying to accomplish. Taking the time to walk through it, talk about it, and set up processes for decision-making is necessary.

In civic tech and innovation, we've laid a strong foundation in the first wave. As we dive into the second wave, the game has changed. We don't need to prove our delivery capability anymore; it's about being even more people-centric, which means changing how we approach what jobs we do, who we do them with, and how we do them.

Thanks to Ryan & Autumn for their thoughtful reviews and chats.