There’s a huge amount going on in the civic tech space. Governments are rapidly adopting digital technology via organisations like GDS, PDS, USDS, AusDS (I could go on, a lot). Political parties are likewise moving to interact with their members and donors online. The UK Parliament is thinking about digital democracy. Businesses like the Co-Op are getting a digital make-over. There’s great NGOs like mySociety, Democracy Club, 38 Degrees, Change.org and so many others.

On top of that there’s organisations that are starting to bring these groups together like Newspeak House, CivicistTech for Good and more (spotting a theme yet?). There’s even specific civic technology conferences like TICTeC.

Not to mention a Manifesto for Public Technology.

So, why am I confused about the state of the civic technology community?

I’ve just finished reading communities guru Emily Webber’s great book Building Successful Communities of Practice. I’ve written some cliffs-notes about it here.

In it she talks about:

  • Communities of interest : “people who meet based on a shared passion”
  • Communities of practice : “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly” (Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner)

From the book’s definition it seems to me that the current civic technology community is very much the former. The question is – is there consensus amongst some people to attempt to turn it into the latter?

Let’s assume for a moment that we do. The book contains a maturity model for communities of practice. I’ve converted that to a google spreadsheet with a specific version for civic technology which contain my personal opinions of where we are currently. Where I feel we’re strongly lacking is a common vision, goals (needs) and any kind of shared backlog of work.

What we have at the moment can best be expressed as a marketplace where, for example, three different petition systems compete against each other in the UK for both developer and citizen involvement.

In addition, what we see over and over again is individuals and groups creating the same kind of technological solutions to problems without either finding out what is already out there or engaging extensively with their targeted users. This lead to my tweet:

Every time I see “new online platform for facilitating conversation between citizens and representatives” I’m going to kill a kitten (*)
(*) This message will not involve actual damage to real kittens

To their credit some folks like Ed Saperia, of Newspeak House, have already started to discuss how to measure the success of a community.

The question is what should be any additional next steps?

Here’s a few suggestions:

  • The creation and promoting of communication channels like Slack for the general civic tech community rather than something project specific
  • Plan some workshops in various places round the world to discuss the vision and goals of the community and then communicate the results
  • Begin work on a list of civic tech groups and projects. Naturally this has the possibility of running into the XKCD problem but I hope if it was backed by some of the “big names” in civic tech it could start to get some traction. Ideally, I’d like to see it done on something like Referata so that organisations can maintain their own pages. Tagging could be used to link things together that are solving common problems.
  • In the same vein create a place where these groups and projects can start collecting the user needs they are fulfilling making it easier to point out overlaps and gaps.
  • Start thinking about how we might start a voluntary list of people in the community. My blog post discussing Beth Noveck’s appearance at The Institute for Government covered the concept of a skills list for people that may be available to work on common problems.
  • Motivate more groups and people to contribute short videos about the civic technology work they are doing – perhaps to the same YouTube channel
  • Foster an environment where people are encouraged to produce regular “best of” collections of updates of projects of a similar kind (like Civicist does already but more specialised).
  • I think we should also discuss potential models for finding ways to pay for someone to be a full time community manager for some of this work. I would certainly contribute to a Kickstarter / Indiegogo / Patreon model.
  • Speak to Emily and other community experts on the best way to “get there from here”

Naturally, none of these things are going to happen without a lot of work from a lot of people. To me it feels like that to get the ball rolling we need some of our existing community leaders (or, more accurately, prominent members) to get behind this.

I’m going to be raising this with those I already know and again at TICTeC but at any point I’d be interested in everyone else’s opinions.

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