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7 Tips for Civic Tech Organizing, No Matter Where You Live

Juan Sanchez, a Code for Mexico City fellow, worked with the Health Secretariat to develop an application that maps all of the health centers in the city.

Almost a year ago, Code for America embarked on its first partnerships with international groups that were interested in running Code for America-inspired civic technology programs in their own countries. We chose three brave pilot partners: the SlashRoots Foundation that would run the Code for the Caribbean Fellowship program, the Berlin chapter of the Open Knowledge Foundation, that would run Code for Germany’s “OK Labs” program, and Mexico City’s Government Innovation Lab, that would run the Code for Mexico City Fellowship program. Each organization tailored the program to their own local context.

How did these partnerships pan out? What did we find out about how variations of CfA-style programs translate to other countries?

We learned a lot throughout the year but seven lessons rose to the top:

  1. Keep it simple. Our partners had the most success when they didn’t try to do anything too fancy with the technology and kept it to improving existing government digital services or solving very small pieces of larger problems. Design-thinking approaches, such as those used by the Code for the Caribbean team, are a great way to figure out what part of a problem to tackle using technology.
  2. A local government can be really effective at running a civic tech program. Working from within government, like the fellows did in Mexico City, can make it easier for an application to be sustained after the Fellowship ends. However, it’s really important to keep citizens at the center of these projects and not let political agendas hijack the program.
  3. No matter the country, we have to be really intentional about involving women, minority groups and those from lower economic classes in our efforts if we want their voices heard through civic technology projects. Across borders, people from higher classes and men tend to be more drawn to civic technology work.
  4. Procurement policies can be a barrier to good civic tech. While procurement policies originally started to try to protect people from corrupt practices, a lot of rules make it really hard for governments to pay for fellows, end up upholding special interests, and make government beholden to large vendors who sell them clunky systems that don’t work. We, the people, then have to pick up the tab.
  5. Philanthropy culture is very unique to the U.S. Fundraising was a big challenge for all three of our international pilot partners
  6. In a country with low income levels there is a big opportunity cost to volunteering one’s time. Income levels and free time for volunteering appear to be inversely correlated. Code for Germany was able to tap into a vibrant volunteer civic tech community and organize their efforts for benefit local communities. This is much harder in lower-income countries (though some exceptions could shed light on how to get these efforts going in more places).
  7. There’s a global community that’s hungry to participate in civic technology programs. People all over the world see value in collaborating to make their government work better through technology – the greatest challenge is finding the best possible ways to harness those efforts for sustainable and effective impact.

If you’re interested in learning more about our international partnerships, browse three case studies:

It is our sincere hope that other groups who are considering running similar programs in their own countries will learn from the successes and challenges our partners encountered and that, in the true spirit of collaboration, we will continue to build off of each-other’s endeavors, not reinvent the wheel, and that all of our work will get better and better because we are connected.

As always, we’d love to hear what you think. Hit us up @codeforamerica and learn more about the work of our first international partners and how to join an international network of people doing this work all over the globe at: codeforall.org, slashroots.org, codefor.de and codigo.labplc.mx.