Civic tech: Where is the impact?

Ramy Ghorayeb: “When it comes to civic tech, there is a clear opposition between the fans, who view the young sector as a key foundation that will change democracy for good, and the haters, who think it is simply a gadget that doesn’t have any weight on political decisions considering its position towards the existing powers/counter-powers.
I view this conflict of opinions as a general misunderstanding on what value civic tech is supposed to bring. There is a huge bias towards civic tech ecosystem. It is commonly presented as a challenger more than a partner for the public sector, because projects are overhyped by the legacy of disruption of tech. But there is no analogy.

Civic tech is failing only when viewed as an ordinary tech disruptor

Taking what French deputy Paula Forteza said last December, after its rebirth ten years ago with the Obama administration, the civic tech ecosystem has reached a dead end compared to its initial expectations as a challenger of the existing institutions. There is indeed a lack of political, economic and social impact:

  • Lack of political impact because citizens are becoming very exigent towards democratic initiatives and are less willing to participate without being sure that their contribution will have weight in the final decision. This is amplified by the fact that currently, even with all the collective power in the world, leveraging civic tech still depends on the good will of the elected administrations.
  • Lack of economic impact because after few years of overexcitement by investors, believing civic tech was the next big thing, everybody has realized how difficult it is to build a company with both financial and social objectives.
  • Lack of social impact because with this new digital tools is emerging a technological elite that can have much more influence than the rest of the population. This representation problem is of course not specific to civic tech but still undermines the positive outcomes.

People want civic tech to disrupt traditional political institutions, like tech did in all the other industries. But many specific issues refrain this ambition, and I already written a lot about it [1][2]. Furthermore, there is too much competition today for civic startups and organizations. The existing actors are continually improving and annihilating any chance civic tech has to become a serious opposed challenger:

  • Public administrations are recruiting the best disruptors to help them embracing digital.
  • Medias are keeping their counter-power role by being always more scattered and diversified.
  • Tech giants are developing their own tools to address civic needs.

So if civic tech failed as disruptors of the existing institutions, the question becomes: What do we want to do with civic tech?…(More)”.