“No one is coming, it’s up to us.”
This was written on a popular sticker at last week’s Code for America Summit in Oakland. Code for America, which is “on a mission to make government work in the digital age,” has hosted a summit for the last seven years. 2018’s summit grew to over 1,200 attendees from America and beyond.
The sticker’s saying resonated with the attendees, people in civic tech, because they live an ongoing struggle to make government citizen-centric. Every day, they are confronted with antiquated processes that complicate the enterprise of governing. And yet the civic tech community continues to gain strength and momentum — it turned out in record number. Stories of progress from all around the world were presented on the main stage and in intimate breakout sessions.
People are coming!
In addition to the growing number of dedicated public servants and nonprofits, this year’s summit brought large vendors in force. The capstone sponsor, Microsoft — which just acquired GitHub, the largest open-source community in the world — was back again. Accenture’s Fjord design and innovation consultancy presented on how government can use data and service-centered design to innovate with purpose. Accenture and IBM both described how they realize that we must reshape the gov tech ecosystem. Deloitte participated on the advisory board to help shape the excellent content.
In order to make government work in the digital age, we must change the way that we govern, but I’ll settle for changing the way we design policy. Civic tech needs a seat at the policy table. This sentiment was woven through the programming and presentations.
It is up to us!
As I spoke with attendees at the summit, there was one underrepresented group — the legislative branch of government. In the closing session where attendees described how much the summit energized them, a lone city council member from a small town of 12,000 people was given a standing ovation for showing up. We need those closest to the people and with funding authority to take notice. The legislative branch of government is the next key to making government citizen-centric. They must also employ service delivery strategists. They need to invite civic tech to the policy-making table.
During my time in government, I saw that law is written without consideration for technology implementation strategy. I routinely read legislation that lacked understanding of how to develop product or deliver digital services. Even when direction from the state Legislature or Congress came with the opportunity for a feedback loop, it was often measured in years and delivered in report form.
I would like to see more city council members, county supervisors, state legislators, and members of Congress embrace their role in changing how we design policy. In response to legislation, the executive branch initiates new projects. Most projects issue requests for proposal (RFP) containing hundreds or thousands of pages of untested policy assumptions. Unsure that large waterfall RFPs achieve the most desired outcomes, government has already begun to work on taking smaller, more frequent bites at the apple. However, these smaller, or modular, procurements need to be time-boxed to the legislative cycle. Every year, government should revise its strategy to account for the prior year’s learning and adjust.
It can be challenging to fully understand the desired outcomes of government policy. Further, when separate branches of government collaborate, there is often a desire to cleanly package the transition of information and direction. We must change the way we govern and design policy by bringing civic tech to a table that allows for discussion about outcomes interwoven with product and technical strategy. We must create a delivery-driven government.
Jennifer Pahlka, executive director of Code For America, recently published an article foretelling the agenda of the summit, titled “Delivery-driven Government: Principles and Practices for Government in the Digital Age.” Jen suggests that “the movement to modernize government technology has been focused on the delivery of government services using modern technology and best practices. But that is only half the solution; now we must also learn to drive policy and operations around delivery and users, and complete the feedback circuit. Only then can we effectively achieve the goals government policies intend.”
Now imagine legislation and policy constructed with user needs and product and technical strategy in mind. It could even have the intent of the authors written in the margins and have a team of civic technologists working for the legislative branch who conducted user research during the legislative process. This team could interact more frequently with the executive branch-run project teams to ensure that data is collected and compared against the policies’ desired outcomes. Both teams could iterate numerous times every year to allow for checkpoints between legislative cycles from intention through implementation.
“When we learn something doesn’t work quite the way we expected, take the guts, make a change and keep at it,” said Amy Tong, California’s chief information officer. In order to continue our success, we need to bring all of government into the fold. In addition, we need to mobilize and empower civil servants, tech workers and nonprofits to expand the network of civic tech.
I highly encourage you to watch the morning sessions just posted to YouTube. You’ll find over eight hours of excellent content.
Policy + Technology + User Experience + Civic Tech = Successful Government Services
We are already here. It’s up to all of us!
Peter Kelly is a veteran of the IT industry, most recently serving as Chief Deputy Director and CIO of the Office of Systems Integration, part of the California Health and Human Services Agency. In that capacity, he spoke with Techwire in September about the importance of user-centered design in building citizen engagement with government. Kelly also writes at on Medium and is on Twitter.