What the government innovation community needs, according to its members

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Don’t freak out, but “technology” is becoming a divisive word in the world of government innovation.

According to a new report written by two public interest technology fellows at New America, some civic tech workers are moving away from phrases like “civic tech” or “public interest technology.” Why? The word “technology,” these practitioners assert, is too narrow. The work of government innovators, they say, isn’t just about building a website or deploying a new tech tool — it’s fundamentally about improving government systems and organization.

“It’s not about technology,” says the report, which cites the likes of Garren Givens, former deputy executive director at 18F, Beth Noveck, former deputy U.S. CTO, and many more. “Or, rather, not only about technology. Or always about technology. And thus, neither are the people doing the work.”

But of course, this holistic interpretation is difficult to communicate with a pithy phrase.

“For me, ‘technology in the public interest’ brings up associations of like open data, hackathons, and easy and useful greenfield projects,” one designer cited in the paper told the authors. “But the real thing underneath it is organizational and procurement change inside government. That’s not sexy. That’s not easily consumable by the public. So, I say ‘government digital transformation’ is the space I’m in.”

“A better way to talk about the work” is just one thing report authors Sara Hudson and Hana Schank say this effort at government digital innovation needs. “Practitioners, funders, government leadership, and the constituents we serve all need better language to describe what is this thing we do,” they write. “The field has yet to settle on ideal terminology, and if we can’t talk about it we can’t scale it.”

In interviews with over 60 government innovators at the state, local and federal levels, Hudson and Schank identified four other similar areas for improvement.

These include “a way to share resources and solutions,” “help shaping career trajectories, including entry points and ways to move up” and more professional development opportunities.

In some sense, the authors write, the report itself is a step toward these improvements. In a field where opportunities for professional development are slim and experiences are siloed, for example, reading about the work and thoughts of your peers can break down some of those barriers.

“When government works the way it should, we are all better off,” the report concludes. “We hope that this report has provided others with a sense of community and a way forward. As with everything else in this field, we know it is a small, slow step. But we see it as a meaningful, important one nonetheless.”

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civic tech, New America, public interest technology
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