Disclaimer: This post is not about dissing the civic tech community. On the contrary, it aims at starting a debate about what a real civic tech could mean for everyone and not just the few.
I was young, reckless — after all it was still 2016 — and I believed in what some called civic tech, now tech for good (circa 2018). Anyway, I totally dug those dream-sellers who had me believe in their promises to “help turn passion into political change” or to “take action on behalf of the causes you care about”…
How naïve of me! Despite their grand plans to help us as citizens get our voices heard while watching Netflix, civic tech companies haven’t had a major breakthrough in years. They haven’t brought more people to the voting booth, they haven’t gotten major pieces of legislation to pass, they haven’t prevented demagogues from reaching the White House, and the list goes on. Sure, Change.org and the likes are nice (I actually still love them) but what has been their impact in bringing… change? Right after the US presidential election, I was excited by the momentum in the Bay Area — I even pitched at the first Debug Politics hackathon and joined Code for America’s SF Brigade— but oh boy, what have those times of yore brought us?
I’m not too sure…
On the one hand, no truly impactful change and no sustainable business model for most civic tech companies. On the other, today those organizations have the ear of decision makers and the media.
As a recent example, Public (whose stated goal is to “help startups transform the public sector”) held the Gov Tech Summit in Paris where even fancy socks-wearer Justin Trudeau made an appearance. It was… interesting. Panelists kept arguing about the need to reach the youth, bring more legitimacy to the field, while bringing few solutions to the table.
As civic tech guru — and quasi rock star — Pia Mancini’s Twitter header proudly states let’s “change the tool”, meaning: let’s remove all those old white dudes from Congress, replace the Congress by a more tech-oriented solution and give it another go. Why not ? After all, our democracies were born several centuries ago and surely are not adapted to our new way of life, our postmodern era, and our iPhone enthusiastic crowds methinks. However, one could not help but wonder: Cui bono? Who benefits from those civic tech’s startups?
Certainly not the general public who still somehow turns out to vote but does not engage on civic tech platforms, and who doesn’t know which tech platform to use among the legion that exists in order to voice their concerns and somehow hope they be heard. Probably not the government for which those startups’ success could potentially mean its demise (because why go vote for someone when a tap is enough?).
To be fair, a tech update in governments and governance in general is long overdue (and even under way sometimes). The Obama administration is rightly credited with a number of gov tech initiatives that have had a real impact such as the USDS, Code for America, 18F, PIF, etc. However, those changes remain minor rather than structural: voting machines used across the US are still highly vulnerable, the Electoral College still exists (so long direct democracy), and open source is neither largely embraced by government nor the sine qua non condition to join the ranks of the civic tech community.
The main issue is twofold : a far from tech-savvy government and a tech community who sees common good as yet another market to conquer. But common good is not a market, its very essence demands everyone’s say in the balance if democracy is to prevail. It is extremely worrying to see so many proprietary civic tech platforms competing and trying to capture our votes while at the same time showing no hint of legitimacy : Who elected them ? Why is this platform better than that one ? What is the guarantee that they won’t use their power to sway the odds of — even minor — elections? So many questions that remain to be answered before civic tech can claim to have reached its end.