There was a time when technical resources were scarcer than human resources in government. But now, with the explosion of cloud storage, personal devices, and enterprise SaaS (software as a service) available at low cost — and the massive budget and staffing cuts facing most cities — that’s no longer necessarily the case. Technology is inexpensive and replaceable. People, and the knowledge that comes with them, are not.
This shift needs to be reflected in the technology strategy inside city hall — and to some extent, it is beginning to be. As Karen Boyd, Communications Director for the City of Oakland, said in a recent TIMES article, “We can no longer do things in old ways. Technology is moving in a new direction, and government needs to move that way too.”
What direction is that? It’s away from the costly, maintenance-intensive enterprise IT systems of yesteryear, and towards lightweight tools that support our most valuable public resources — dedicated civil servants — in doing their jobs more easily and more effectively.
Civic technology’s function should be to empower these individuals. Ultimately, it’s public servants — not new apps and technology — who will build a government that truly works for the 21st century. Civic innovation is driven by person-to-person, peer-to-peer connections that enable the exchange of knowledge and best practices, and successful collaboration is founded on solid relationships. It’s the network of individual civic innovators working in city halls across the country who will scale up impact and collaboration between cities. And we, as a community, can catalyze this by convening, strengthening, and expanding our own networks.
In the age of endless information and data, we need experts to help us find the information that matters. The network of individual civic innovators can play that curatorial role. For example, with nearly 700 apps listed in the CfA Commons, on a very practical level it can be hard to filter all that data and find what you need. In addition to a comprehensive catalog of what’s being used where, we need an engaged expert community to help surface the best options and find the apps that suit a city’s particular needs.
We have to recognize that civic tech and innovation is not one-size fits all. We must take into account scalability between municipalities. What works for Chicago or New York might be very different from what works for Bloomington, Ind. or Santa Cruz, Calif. Cities and counties of all sizes face similar issues, but the specific tactics must take into account each municipality’s particular needs and characteristics. The conversations that happen through peer networks can help us understand what those are.
Cities can be laboratories of democracy. See, for instance, Mark Headd’s excellent experiments with GitHub based procurement in Philadelphia. If the experiment proves successful there, individuals in other cities can adopt and adapt the same approach. That’s how innovations spread.
There are factors we can influence to make what happens in one city scalable to other cities. Civic data standards, for one, are a key of making more innovations portable and shareable between municipalities. At Code for America, this is becoming increasingly core to our work in with fellows, governments, community organizers, and startups alike.
Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.