Scaling for Success: Best Practices for Sustaining Civic Tech
Words by Amanda Zink and Mar Marín • Mar 20 2023
In today’s rapidly changing world, technology has played a vital role in promoting democracy and good governance. However, as the civic tech field continues to evolve, there are many challenges that need to be addressed in order to ensure that these tools are sustainable and scalable. One key actor equipping democratic actors with digital skills, tools, and understanding to tilt those challenges in ways that promote the democratic cause is the International Republican Institute (IRI).
IRI is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that advances democracy and freedom around the world. IRI works with local partners to link people with their governments, guide politicians to be responsive to citizens, and motivate people to engage in the political process. IRI operates in over 100 countries around the world, with a focus on developing and transitioning democracies.
We had the opportunity to hear from the IRI’s Technology and Democracy Team on their work to prevent and build resiliency to the threats of the digital revolution, and to capacitate democratic actors to embrace that revolution in ways that further the democratic cause. They shared an exciting new resource for the global civic tech community: Sustaining and Scaling Civic and Government Technology: A White Paper on Challenges, Best Practices, and Recommendations.
IRI’s White Paper was created with insight from the Code for All Network and the civic tech community, through over 50 interviews, desk research, and validation sessions. IRI’s findings have been distilled into key lessons on how to sustain and scale civic tech tools, particularly those that focus on strengthening governance. IRI’s findings are designed to serve as a guide for funders, governments, and implementers who wish to support and better advance digital democracy work in the field.
On the eve of their publication, we are providing an overview of the key challenges and highlighting their best practices and recommendations for addressing them. We believe this white paper will be useful for anyone interested in understanding the challenges of civic tech and how to overcome them in order to promote democracy and good governance.
Can you share with us what’s the report’s main objective?
Its main objective is to serve as a resource for key stakeholders in the civic and govtech field – namely civic tech and govtech practitioners, funders, and governments – to better understand how to sustain and scale initiatives in the longer term, and how to create enabling ecosystems to help projects achieve greater and more sustained impact. The white paper synthesizes core challenges and lessons learned from these key stakeholders to help answer the questions of why civic and govtech initiatives struggle long term and what can be done about it. Our hope is that the white paper will be a useful reference tool for practitioners seeking best practices to overcome frequent challenges, and for government officials and funders interested in better understanding, supporting, and advancing digital good governance. IRI hopes the lessons in this white paper will help foster an ecosystem more conducive to the long-term success of civic/govtech initiatives.
Who have been your main contributors to the paper?
Our key contributors have primarily been civic and govtech practitioners themselves, in addition to a smaller number of contributors from academia and local and national level government agencies. IRI conducted more than 50 interviews with practitioners around the world, with a focus on gathering perspectives outside of North America. In fact, only two of our over 50 interviewees were in North America, with the rest spread across Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Europe.
IRI intentionally focused on interviews with individuals who had been working in the civic/govtech and digital governance space for many years, with many interviewees speaking to more than a decade of experience and to the changes in trends, challenges, and best practices they’ve seen over time. IRI also organized two validation sessions to invite feedback on early findings distilled from the interview process, resulting in an additional 20 civic and govtech practitioners weighing in on draft results. Finally, IRI contributed its own experience to the findings as a funder and supporter of civic and govtech initiatives, complementing practitioners’ experiences with lessons learned as a funding entity.
What are the key takeaways around findings, challenges, and best practices?
Surprisingly, key takeaways remained largely consistent across regional and country contexts. Almost all interviewees pointed to the same key limitations no matter their geographic location. These centered primarily on frustrations with inadequate or counterproductive funding models; challenges generating government buy-in; frustrations with skill acquisition and retention; and challenges with user uptake and growth. While the white paper breaks these four core challenges into more granular details, these four represent the most common barriers civic and govtech practitioners face in achieving long-term success.
Throughout the interview and research process, IRI was able to distill a diversity of best practices to respond to each of the four core challenges listed above. Key best practices include diversifying funding and income sources when possible; identifying government champions across seniority levels and roles to generate sustained buy-in; relying on support communities and fostering diverse partnerships to overcome limitations to skill acquisition, retention, and user uptake and scaling.
A common theme amongst best practices – as well as challenges – is that timing is key. Many of the best practices suggested require practitioners to think ahead, establish relationships with relevant government officials, funders, and support communities before a project begins, and identify appropriate staffing structures and timelines well in advance. This is why white papers such as this are so critical to help practitioners consider proven best practices and common challenges not only once a project is underway, but even as a project is conceptualized.
What are the key recommendations for civic tech funders and organizations?
Building upon these challenges and best practices, the white paper concludes by providing key recommendations to better scale and sustain civic/govtech initiatives by key stakeholder groups: funders, practitioners, and governments.
To give a quick snapshot of priority recommendations, the white paper includes a strong suggestion for funders to re-evaluate their funding timelines and project-based support; donors to consider the negative impact of trend distraction; practitioners advocating for organizational investment from donors in addition to investing in promotional campaigns; and governments committing support early and across staff and leadership levels in addition to ensuring clear lines of accountability exist. Many of the best practices for practitioners center on building key support relationships, including CSO coalitions and connections to academia, and advocating donors for appropriate funding support, timelines, and mentorship. For funders, key recommendations center on reconsidering the status quo of support to date, considering funding ecosystems and organizations rather than projects, and reconsidering how funding priorities are defined.
It’s critical that the civic and govtech community, including funders and governments, think outside of the box as they try to sustain civic and govtech efforts in the long term. Spending time considering the recommendations and best practices in the white paper can be the first step in achieving that.
What’s coming next on the project?
IRI is excited to share these findings with the broader digital good governance community. Our aim is to find ways to promote these results widely to encourage funders to function more innovatively and practitioners to be better informed, so keep an eye out for opportunities to learn more in events like RightsCon later this year. We also hope to implement many of these lessons learned in our own work and plan to revise IRI’s own funding structure for our next call for applications for civic/govtech support in summer 2023. Stay tuned!
How can people contribute or send feedback on the key findings?
We’d love to hear from the broader civic/govtech community, including from practitioners, funders, and government officials and staff. If you have feedback, questions, or additional contributions to share, please reach out to Amanda Zink (firstname.lastname@example.org). We’d be more than happy to chat.
If you’re interested in connecting, collaborating, or receiving support related to digital democracy efforts, we have an open door.
IRI’s “Sustaining and Scaling Civic and Government Technology: A White Paper on Challenges, Best Practices, and Recommendations” is a comprehensive resource that dives deep into key lessons on how to sustain and scale civic tech tools, particularly those that focus on strengthening governance.
Our friends at IRI have conducted extensive research and analysis to develop these findings and recommendations, and we believe that they will serve as a valuable guide for funders and implementers who wish to support and advance their work in the field of digital democracy.
We encourage you to take a look at their White Paper and share it with your closest communities. This is an opportunity to learn from the experiences of others, and to apply those lessons to your own work within civic tech.
We welcome your comments and look forward to continuing the conversation on Code for All’s Slack Channel on how we can work together to create more sustainable and impactful solutions.