5 Busted Myths around Civic Tech
Words by Mar Marín • Apr 6 2022
When it comes to civic technology, myths and common assumptions surrounding government, funding, tools, its impact, and more, can spring up at any time.
As a non-technical person who has fallen into the realm, I took on the opportunity to ask our chummy international community about the most common (and funny) misconceptions people assume about their work and help us set the record straight. Here are just a few in no particular order.
Myth 1 – Civic Tech is all about the tech!
There is a general perception that tools —the ones that help make more democratic, transparent, and people-centered governments—, are the ones that hack their way into positively impacting society.
As we have stated multiple times, tools are merely one part of the story. To create civic innovation tools, there should be a participatory process accompanying how they are created. It’s crucial that the people who will be using the tool are involved in its creation.
It is important to think big beyond just tech and tools. Grace O’Hara joked that “civic tech is 90% civic and only 10% about the tech, but really the people element of our work is closer to about 99%”. Yes, technical skills are essential but a lot more soft skills are required too. These skills are understood to be complementary, not substitutes for one another.
Myth 2 – Civic Tech is only government work
Digital technology has played a big role in making it easier for people to get involved in the democratic process. As these technologies continue to enable citizens to hold governments to account, and to get involved in decision-making, tech will keep navigating its way into governmental processes around the world.
However, civic tech is not only about government work. It also involves collaboration between academia, civil society, and the private sector to help society fully benefit from public interest technology.
Here are examples of the prominent civic tech projects within our organization:
- Dopomoha by Code for Romania, where anybody fleeing Ukraine can get information about their refugee status or asylum.
- Creating a Human-Centred-Military-to-Civilian-Digital Transition by Code for Canada provides Canadian Armed Forces members with the transition information and tools that they need at their fingertips.
- Framework for digital citizen-led participatory processes by Code for Pakistan and Codeando Mexico, who co-developed a framework for digital citizen-led efforts to provide input and feedback on government policies and processes in their respective communities.
These are just a few. Check out our member’s web pages to find out more about their remarkable projects.
Myth 3 – Civic Tech and Gov Tech are the same thing
Both concepts have become catch-phrases over the years. “Potato, potato”, you may think. In the melange of open data, open-source, and government services, ‘civic tech’ and ‘govtech’ sound similar.
However, Civic Tech and GovTech actually describe two very different concepts and are aimed at different audiences, with different purposes.
Civic Tech focuses on citizens. As Lorin Camargo, Co-Director at Code for All, has mentioned before:
We are talking about technology that positively impacts society — but that’s not the whole story. It’s about creating civic innovation tools (tools that help make more democratic, transparent, and people-centered governments), but it isn’t only about the tools themselves — it’s about the process through which these tools are created. One important element of the process, for example, is that the people who will be using the tool must be involved in its creation.
In GovTech, the primary beneficiaries are governments. It encompasses a much more expansive catalog of actions aimed at making the public sector more innovative, agile, and development-oriented. Its aim is to increase efficiency in administration by digitalising work processes or bringing in new tools.
Can both coexist in the same space? Of course. That’s the sweet spot organizations are looking for. The combination of GovTech and Civic Tech will engage more citizens, help the government respond to issues raised by citizens, and make better decisions, thereby strengthening democratic processes overall.
Myth 4 – Funding in nonprofit Civic Tech is easy to secure
The civic tech industry is getting a new wave of investor attention. Technology has triggered new ways for governments to bring their activities into the 21st century, and for citizens to contribute to democracy.
Money is thought to be there (at least in the private sector). In that sense, it wouldn’t be wild for people to think nonprofit tech has a lot of funds to spare, but the reality is far from it. Most of the time, nonprofit civic tech has to focus on its sustainability struggles and try to find long-term financial resources to keep up the good work.
The funding conundrum has been increasingly observed and lamented by civic tech organizations committed to leveraging technology to promote a vibrant civil society. Our friends at Democracy Lab couldn’t have put it better:
Tech nonprofits are unique. They must build their product before they can prove impact, and they cannot build the tech product without funding.
A shortage of capital and funders is limiting nonprofit civic tech’s ability to scale. The report Scaling Civic Tech: Paths to a Sustainable Future released by Knight Foundation with the Rita Allen Foundation aims to have a broad look at the funding landscape. The piece places the accountability for financial sustainability on both organizations and those who sponsor them, expressing they ought to work harder to drive collaboration in the field, coordinating efforts through incubators and accelerators while sharing in fundraising and services.
In that line of thought, Nonso Jideofor, Funding and Partnership Manager at Code for All, compiled a list of challenges and tips for funding civic tech. Take a look and let us know your thoughts.
Myth 5 – Civic Tech is going to solve all the problems!
Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo! No, the civic tech community will not magically solve all civic issues on its own.
Luke Jordan wrote in his guide ‘Don’t Build It. A Guide for Practitioners in Civic Tech’ the following thought, which I found quite refreshing and enlightening:
If you can avoid building it, don’t;
if you have to build it,
hire a chief technology officer (CTO),
ship early, and mature long;
and if you can’t do that (or even if you can),
draw on a trusted crew,
build lean and fast, and
get close to and build with your users as fast as possible.
Civic tech is the intersection of people, tech, and impact. These three things brought together, as mentioned by Grace O’Hara, create positive social change.
Before starting a civic tech endeavor, there are four important questions to answer:
- What are the main problems you are solving?
- Who will benefit from it?
- What’s the process and approach to solving this community problem?
- Why would having technology make a difference?
You see, civic tech isn’t an object or genre of objects, but a process, or way of working.
This post was made possible through the contributions made by volunteers of our member organizations. Special thanks to Shaun Mosley, Arthur Smid, Ray Kiddy, and Audrey Dogbeh!
Do you have any additional myths you’d like us to bust? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below. If you have found this useful and would like to join the conversation, connect with us on the Code for All Slack.