When we are working for citizens, we should provide solutions rather than deliver products. Governments and civic organisations should not feel comfortable simply bringing in “cool” technological tools. Instead, we should all work together to develop processes, define impactful problems and discover effective results.
A core mission for civic technologists such as myself is to support governments and enable them to deliver better services to citizens. My organisation, ePaństwo Foundation, has experience both researching and developing models of collaboration between civic tech groups and their governmental counterparts.
Most recently, we have had the opportunity to devote our time to government collaborations, as we have worked on the recent report “Social Innovation in Digital Democracy Era. Towards Synergies between Citizens and Governments” within the DSI4EU project. The DSI4EU is a consortium of several leading European organisations coordinated by Nesta (UK) which aim is to boost Digital Social Innovations in EU.
Collaborations such as these can take the form of joint projects which involve non-governmental groups and representatives of governments, as well as developing services and tools independently from public institutions.
One of the biggest challenges in working with the government is to find the right person within its structure
The latter is very important as these tools and services often fill the gap left by governments, who are not truly engaging with citizens, and give citizens alternative ways to control public institutions and participate in public life. Unfortunately, the lack of direct government engagement means that the experience is often disappointing for citizens and these initiatives, which were supposed to strengthen the relationship between governments and citizens, often leads to bitterness and a loss of trust from the public.
So what can we do about it? In this article, I will concentrate on the collaborations that bring together institutions or introduce reformers in governments to civic tech activists.
Inviting people who are outside government silos to coordinate projects often improves the internal performance in a government office or departments. The reason is that these outsiders, be it citizens or people from the civic community, often have more courage to propose solutions that are atypical or outside the box, because these outsiders don’t feel the influence of professional hierarchies, and thus won’t have any qualms about destroying official silos or veering off the beaten path.
Who is collaborating?
When we say we collaborate with institutions it is not really true. The truth is that we collaborate with the living human beings who work in these organisations — not the institutions themselves. Apart from working towards the institutional agenda, these people have their own motives, inspirations and dreams. The same is true for civic tech activists. It sounds obvious, but too often we find ourselves in formal and strict interactions rather than just have an honest talk on what it is we really want to achieve.
From the outsider’s perspective, one of the biggest challenges in working with the government is to find the right person within its structure. Very often, the right person to talk to is not the high level official who officially represents the institution, but rather the person who is rather is supporting this senior public servant. So very often, this person remains “anonymous” for the broader public. Therefore it is good to follow the actual authorship of governmental documents such as strategic reports or legislation, as well as taking part in working meetings rather than only official and open events.
Also, we have to face the fact that not everyone from the civic tech organisation is fit to collaborate with external entities. Sometimes, civic activists are not the most patient and their rush in implementing joint projects with public entities will have a negative effect on the institution’s openness to collaborate.
To build better connections between government and the private sphere, we should all make use of the opportunities we have at less formal occasions to meet. Don’t be afraid of approaching a person during an event! We are also not risking much if we engage some networking techniques during official conferences. If you do not feel like doing a pitch in front of a person you don’t know yet, simply ask for a card and connect later via email. At worst, we will lose couple of minutes, but we may also find a common soul who understands the benefits of working together.
Why we choose to collaborate?
Before engaging in any collaboration, it is crucial to understand the motives of the different people you are trying to work with. By doing this, you ensure that both sides are aware of each other’s expectations and there is no “hidden agenda” which may undermine mutual trust. Quite often the collaboration is based on a financial goal or aspect, such as cutting costs, where simply replicating a tool or dividing costs of activity can make it easier to fund the joint project.
Connected with this are organisational goals and aspects. In this perspective, collaborators might be motivated by their lack of sufficient internal capacity or because they can’t perform certain activities alone.
This is often the case in the various “smart city” projects, where technological partners work with sociologists, public officials and local activists. The project is so complex, that it would be impossible for any one person or organisation to deliver on it by themselves.
A lack of collaboration with potential users is often the main reason of the project failure
Sustainability of projects are one of the main topics being discussed in the civic tech community. The need to maintain a given product after it has been created, is very often the best motivation for cooperation with governments, as governments have vast resources and capacity, which may secure its future operation. We can see the struggle to maintain a project in the example of the “Transparent Cracow” project where the platform, which hosts open data on municipality performance, was implemented by activists, but lack of further support has led to the decrease of publishing the updated information.
This is also tied to the motivation you or your partners will have to increase the impact of the project, as governments are likely to be the most effective transmission belt of improving public services, and publicly minded civic tech startups see that as a way to make a positive difference.
The quality of the project may be also improved by means of collaboration as there is a need to connect different actors with different abilities and potentials. This is especially important when complex projects need complex solutions and the involvement of users.
A lack of collaboration with potential users is often the main reason of the project failure, so this is extremely important. Despite this, we also keep forgetting about this within the civic tech community. When we are organising hackathons, we are concentrating on gathering different stakeholders but often we don’t focus on citizens who are meant to use the tool in the end.
How we collaborate?
So, what can we do to collaborate better?
In our research one can find some examples of models of collaboration with tips on how to make the best use of them. A few of the most important are:
Fellowships/internships. These are short-term collaborations between IT/civic tech activist and government on tools/user experience analysis/processes of opening data/creating public services. According to Sheba Najmi from Code for Pakistan, “there are at least 4 goals in conducting this model: improving citizen services, increasing government efficiency, changing the culture of government performance and capacity building of fellows”. Fellowship model suits well if we want to upgrade the general culture of work thanks to have a temporary but stable support from a fellow who can bring more innovative approach to the office.
Providing services to governments. These collaborations come in all shapes, sizes and even legal forms. One example is public procurement, where collaborations focus on using regular procurement channels for civic tech projects but with a more agile approached, for example in the GovTech Poland scheme. The scheme is inspired by the UK GovTech Catalyst where innovative solutions are conducted in the close cooperation with the contracting authority.
Hackathons. These kinds of collaborations very rarely generate sustainable solutions. There are several reasons for this, one being the lack of capacity on the side of the government to absorb the solutions. Therefore, we recommend to concentrate more on the design process, rather than try to built a complex IT system within 48 hours.
To learn more on specific models, please have a deeper look into ePaństwo Foundation research or have a quick overview on our tips and recommendations.