Should The Next School House Rock Video Be About Civic Tech?

Growing up in the 90s, School House Rock taught me all about how a bill becomes a law and how the U.S. is a melting pot of cultures. But today, there’s no School House Rock video to explain to me what civic technology is. And I could really use one. 

If you’re like me, you may have heard of the term civic technology – but you’re not 100% sure what it is, how it works, or why it matters for government.

The good news for all of us is that Knight Foundation recently released a new report that will answer all of our questions. They define civic technology broadly as, “Technology that spurs civic engagement, that helps improve cities, and makes government more effective.”

Jon Sotsky is a Director of Strategy and Assessment at the Knight Foundation, and one of the principal authors of the report, “The Emergence of Civic Tech: Investments in a Growing Field.”

Sotsky sat down with Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program to talk about why now is the perfect time for civic technology to take off in government.

Civic technology has recently emerged as a grassroots effort to help connect residents with one another to improve their cities. Instead of a government-wide enterprise approach, civic technology relies on the power of the public to make changes happen.

“Over the past two years, we’ve witnessed a groundswell of interest in the nexus of technology, civic innovation, open government and resident management,” said Sotsky. “Technology has transformed our lives as consumers, but it hasn’t yet transformed our lives as citizens.  So, really a pivotal moment for technology to play a larger role in helping us not only improve our cities, but also fulfill civic duties and, really shape our society that we live in.” 

Technology + Open Government = Civic Technology

Sotsky cited a few examples of civic technology success that have recently taken off:

  • Turbo Vote: Turbo vote is really focused on helping individuals register to vote, and stay registered throughout their lives as they move from city to city.  
  • See Click Fixes: See Click Fix is about residents getting involved in the provision of public services, like there’s snow that’s unplowed on my street.
  • Mind Mixer: Mind Mixer is a technology that governments have started to use for urban planning efforts, so large, deliberative democracy processes to help guide citizen input on bigger decisions being made in communities.

The idea of civic technology has taken off in a relatively short period of time, said Sotksy. In 2000 there were only 16 companies working in the civic technology field – and now there are well over 100. 

“It’s a sizeable growth where I think a little over 20% between annual growth in new organizations started in this broad space,” said Sotsky.  “I think technology’s been a disruptive force in all facets of life, and now we’re seeing it disrupt our life as citizens.” 

Civic technology is also having real implications on what is viewed as traditional government work.

“Technology is an enabler to help people provide more costs and input.  Civic technology is a vehicle for residents to engage on a continuous basis,” said Sotsky. “Elections are so sporadic that I think residents are looking to be involved on a more continuous basis.  So what we see is a whole host of technologies that enable them to have more constant contact with government, to provide their input, to help improve the services offered by their governments, as well as weigh in on big decisions in their cities.”

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