People have long had a complicated relationship with their governments — a tension that often is exacerbated by government policies and processes that cannot keep pace with today’s on-demand culture.
It doesn’t have to be like this. The tech community — especially those working in civic tech — know this to be true. From enabling crowdfunding campaigns to revamping entire cities’ tech infrastructure, civic tech empowers people to turn challenges and frustrations with government into opportunities for a new business, a new career or a new voice.
With the growing interest and support from the investment community, there has never been a better time to jump in to the civic tech movement.
The momentum is truly a tribute to those who have championed civic tech for years, including Jake Brewer, the senior policy advisor to U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith who died in a bicycle accident during a cancer charity ride. As President Obama noted, Jake “dedicated his life to empowering people and making government work better for them,” and his legacy will certainly help propel forward the civic tech movement for generations to come.
Here are three ways those in and out of Silicon Valley can help create positive change in the relationship between the governing and the governed.
Make It Personal
Civic tech entrepreneurs look at pain points as fuel for change. In fact, some of the best civic tech businesses have been born out of the challenges their founders faced.
Take Dan Brillman, an Air Force pilot who grew increasingly concerned as his military friends struggled with the difficult process to search for services and programs available for veterans. Brillman, fellow veteran Taylor Justice and military supporter Andrew Price didn’t wait for the government to come up with a solution. They took matters into their own hands and started Unite US, a free online platform that connects military members, veterans and their families to resources both in their local communities and at the national level.
Similarly, Rose Broome of HandUp created her company after coming across a homeless woman on a cold San Francisco night. Her realization and frustration that there was no sustainable way to help that woman led her to found HandUp. The site and its initiatives such as Homeless Outreach Day enable donors to connect directly with those in need in their communities, helping provide them with everything from funds for basic necessities to medical procedures to college tuition.
These are just two examples of how personal frustrations with government can translate into innovative businesses and offer entrepreneurs the chance to bring communities closer together.
Take A New Career Step
Civic tech is reshaping the resumes of Silicon Valley veterans, new tech talent and those preparing to graduate and enter the workforce. These individuals see the tech deficits in government as career opportunities and the chance to do meaningful work that improves the lives of millions of Americans.
Within the last year, Megan Smith and Alex Macgillivray left tech titans Google and Twitter, respectively, for top positions at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Minerva Tantoco, New York City’s first-ever chief technology officer (CTO), joined Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration after more than 25 years in the private sector. Peter Marx, now Los Angeles’ CTO, was once at Qualcomm Labs and Mattel. Today, he uses his background as an engineer, producer and technical director to drive innovative initiatives such as Los Angeles’ partnership with the popular traffic app Waze.
Civic tech can play an important role in empowering people to take action.
Opportunities to do meaningful work in this intersection are only increasing. President Obama recently announced that the Presidential Innovation Fellowships program — an experimental program to bring tech talent into federal government for “tours of duty” to enable innovation and best technical practices — will now become a permanent part of government.
Rethinking how your tech background could be applied in government could lead to a purpose-driven career trajectory that you never imagined.
Become An Active User — And Citizen
While the civic tech movement is inspiring many people to start businesses or use their skills to serve in government, there are also easy ways for everyone to make a difference in their communities.
You can invest in city infrastructure projects instead of waiting for tax dollars to trickle down through platforms such as Citizinvestor and Neighborly. For example, you can fund a new bike rack downtown or new trash cans for a park, improving your community at an on-demand pace.
Platforms such as SeeClickFix allow individuals to report and track unresolved potholes, graffiti, broken streetlights and vandalized playgrounds, putting a transparent spotlight on government responsiveness. An estimated 25,000 issues were addressed in September alone through this civic tech platform, fostering collaboration with other residents, local government, partner organizations and media.
From long lines at the DMV to ineffective procurement processes, our 21st century challenges with government shape many Americans’ negative perceptions. But for those in the civic tech community, these challenges are an opportunity to give back and make a meaningful difference in our society.
Technology is not the solution to every problem, to be sure. But in an era marked by political pessimism and ever-increasing frustration with government, civic tech can play an important role in empowering people to take action — as entrepreneurs, as public officials and as engaged citizens.