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Future Civic Technology: A Talk with Jeff Maki

Last month, OpenPlans and Living Cities published a brief but poignant field scan on the “State of Civic Technology” providing an overview on the industry Code for America and dozens other non-profits, startups and governments are growing. The report defines civic tech as “the use of digital technologies and social media for service provision, civic engagement and data analysis.”

I sat down with Jeff Maki, a Director at OpenPlans, to take a different look at what the future of our industry might be. We’ve both worked in civic tech in non-profits (Code for America fellow, Jeff at OpenPlans) and as entrepreneurs in this arena. Building on the report’s suggestions to “share success and failure” and work toward a comprehensive “ecosystem” to support our line of work, we dove into the “how.” What are we doing wrong? What are we doing right? And, how, if at all, can we take this industry further?

AR: Why are you working in civic technology?

JM: I believe government is capable of more than people give it credit for. However, there is a certain lack of capacity within government. The ultimate challenge is to find folks that want to help government build capacity operationally and technically, while simultaneously maintaining an understanding of what potential exists to push the envelope on how those same things are done. That tension is the trick.

I want to be very specific about what the term “civic technology” refers to. I’m using the term to refer to the notion of doing things outside of traditional procurement approaches that dictate certain (some would say tired) outcomes: projects that are shorter-term, maybe a little risky, ones that test new ideas — projects that don’t necessarily exist with a long time-scale contract behind them. Projects that aren’t fixed and final; ones that allow failure.

AR: What’s missing in this space?

JM: I think civic tech is useful for cities to try out new ideas—it’s a laboratory to understand what potential might exist in terms of developing models for longer term, more sophisticated projects that do have “scary RFPs” behind them. I think the civic tech world lacks a long-term horizon. At the same time, a lot of the projects done in the civic tech space miss the (messy but critical) organizational change component. From a management consulting perspective, that integrated approach is classic: you see these problems as both the technology and the organization that will support that technology. I feel like the civic tech world forgets about that latter component which is perhaps an advantage.

AR: I’ve had conversations with civic technologists who have expressed a desire for a more robust “entrepreneurship mentality” or higher design in civic tech. Do you think this stems from a lack of rigor?

JM: A lack of rigor? Perhaps as a deliberate choice, yes. Again, in some ways it allows outcomes that are not possible when you consider the “full problem”. I’m personally very interested in applying so called design thinking to the public sector. But I think making the case for design is tough because it’s a question of values. Government tends to exclude itself from the “values world”. The government isn’t one to dictate an aesthetic…

AR: What’s funny is the public sector tends to tacitly dictate quite a specific aesthetic — bureaucracy — defined the 90s, we all recognize a government website or brand when we see it. Whether we like it or not, it’s very recognizable. I think it has become accepted in this space that something there needs to change. So how does that fit into sustainability?

JM: Good point–I think there’s a useful role for someone on the outside to drive these “values explorations”. There’s the role of the public and private sectors. What is the role of the third sector? What can exist in more a of a neutral position to facilitate between those two?

The notion of an outsider is useful here — and I don’t want to take this to a place that an artist might take it: ‘you have to be an outsider in order to exist.’ That’s not strictly true here. It’s more about a useful tension. The notion of agonism —a certain healthy discord, a check and balance, a push and pull. It’s a dialectic of sorts—a struggle. It keeps us honest as practitioners to face our “opposite” as it were. Let’s say you’re part of an organization you wish to change — you become implicated in the issues just by the very fact the organization pays you, and you don’t want to challenge that status quo too much. Can anything be done about that?

As an outsider, the potential for creating change is a lot lower–there’s a very strict firewall between the inside-the-organization and outside-the-organization world. At OpenPlans, I’m trying to bridge those two worlds from the “third sector”. We’re working with the biggest transit agency in the nation, but we also have a bit of an outsider perspective: I’m not a transportation operations engineer. I approach our work from a very different conceptual frame. One of passenger outcomes first, intense collaboration, iteration. One that asks questions and participates in tough problems others want to avoid in order to drive real outcomes forward. To bring back the “art” framing, it’s almost a notion of bureaucracy-as-media: how can one use the opportunities and difficulties of change presented to craft something pleasing, a win to everyone? I want to embrace what I most dislike as part of what makes the situation unique. I’m reminded of Frances Whitehead’s Embedded Artist project and its values.

AR: We talked about a need for interdisciplinary lessons in this space. What is the potential for non-profits and for-profits to collaborate? If there’s a need for more entrepreneurship in this space, how do those pieces fit together? How do you maintain a competitive market in civic technology by balancing a “do- goody” collaborative spirit, both in the open source community and within the planning community but still create viable businesses?

JM: The ‘McKinsey’ answer would be to be bold in measurement and the evaluation of programs separate from the more “values” questions. More about making things about observable metrics and making those things absolute. McKinsey famously eliminates the bottom third of its staff to keep a certain creative churn. I start to think what that would look like in the civic tech sector. I think the ‘do-goodiness’ comes from the framing of a non-profit as an organization measured by the societal value it creates or perpetuates. I’d like to re-imagine the word “values” from being less about human desires on how things ought to be and more about measures that view these projects in terms of networks/externalities—the other meaning of “value”.

Outcomes need to be sustainable. Governments operate on tremendously long time scales. For this reason, I’m a little cool on the startup-for-government notion. The idea has applicability in terms of trying out ideas and concepts. But I think we need to be very careful to make sure that doesn’t start to become or replace what government actually uses to deliver services citizens rely on —those things need to be stable and very measured in terms of change. The model needs to be “try ideas as startups,” and integrate them back into a stable operationalized governmental practice as they are proven to work.

AR: To return to this idea of problems in procurement — part of it is a marketing/visibility problem: opportunities aren’t being made available to smaller, more nimble organizations. On the flip side, government has every right to say no to smaller companies that have only been around for 2-3 years. Why should government trust a startup to provide citizen services that require a level of reliability and runway only a larger, older company could provide? Is there a middle ground?

JM: I think Bus Time is a perfect example of this model. We partnered with Cambridge Systematics on the project— a company that has a forty-year history in transportation modeling and is now in the software world. We partnered with them because they provide the longer horizon context for the project. We brought an innovative approach to solving the problem at hand, with a piece of technology to do the work. And that kind of fusion is exactly the kind of thing I hope the public sector would demand. There’s a lot of great people who created a contract vehicle in this structure to allow this outcome to happen at MTA. I think that partnership model should be replicated. Yes, award the contract to the big leaguers if you have to, but require certain smaller players to be involved to allow new perspectives on solving the problem.

AR: In describing problematic relationships around closed data and proprietary IT systems, governments are often “sold the car with the hood welded shut.” How can we raise the standard on being able to manipulate a product or service that’s built for a public agency (retaining rights to the code and your own data)?

JM: One way MTA BusTime was successful in this regard was the MTA mandated that what was built be open source. So they have the rights to the code in perpetuity and the right to change or modify it with or without us involved.

AR: Do you think that kind of expectation only happens in the more formally “innovative” governments (NYC, Chicago, SF)?

JM: Maybe, but it certainly serves as a model for the way things could be in other places. There may very well be practical reasons why things aren’t that way everywhere—attracting bidders is certainly one. Also, the problem of getting internal expertise to manage the types of contracts at smaller agencies that aren’t “marquee names” like MTA is likely a problem. But I think we need to approach that staff attraction problem as a problem separate from how we define an ideal outcome. We should be very precise about what we want the outcome to be and then figure out a way to make that happen. I think we’re getting there.

Jeff Maki is a director at OpenPlans: a non-profit building software to makes cities run better. Jeff currently works on the MTA BusTime project, NYC MTA’s official bus time tracker.

Alicia Rouault is founder of a new civic startup, LocalData, a 2012 Knight News Challenge Data Winner and 2012 Code for America Fellow.


Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.