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Bridging Distant Worlds: Innovation in the Civic Space

a digital white paper by Public Innovation

4. Civic Innovation Themes

Through our exploration of the what it means to innovate, the strategies by which organizations pursue innovation, and the variety of ways that pursuit is structured within the civic space, we may now draw upon the most salient themes that emerge. These civic innovation themes include:

Digital and Open by Default

In the past, access to government through digital platforms was nice to have. Today, citizens expect their government to be digital by default. Similarly, the approach to how agencies publish their data has been flipped on its head, lead in part by the Obama Administration’s Open Data Policy that states:

“To promote continued job growth, Government efficiency, and the social good that can be gained from opening Government data to the public, the default state of new and modernized Government information resources shall be open and machine readable. Government information shall be managed as an asset throughout its life cycle to promote interoperability and openness, and, wherever possible and legally permissible, to ensure that data are released to the public in ways that make the data easy to find, accessible, and usable.”

Therefore, public agencies that adopt this mindset need to approach their work in a fundamentally new way. Exceptions to this default standard are raised only when there are privacy or security concerns.

Standards for Interoperability

In order for government to effectively function as a platform, government must be interoperable with itself. That means adopting open data standards that include consistent definitions to ensure apples-to-apples compatibility across the government enterprise–including across agencies of different jurisdictions and levels of government. In many cases, however, such standards cannot be established by fiat. Instead, open data standards must be developed in collaboration with stakeholders, both inside and outside of government, along with the general public. Moreover, the strategic value of these standards should be clarified at the outset to strike the right balance between ensuring standards meet the respective needs of the public, private, and nonprofit sectors.

Cross-sector and Interagency Collaboration

The civic space is not solely dominated by government; the private and non-profit sectors also play key roles that influence quality of life. And when organizations from all three sectors work in a coordinated way toward shared goals, greater social impact is often the result. A popular methodology, known as collective impact, seeks to establish the conditions necessary for cross-sector, multi-stakeholder efforts to succeed:

  1. Common Agenda
  2. Shared Measurement Systems
  3. Mutually Reinforcing Activities
  4. Continuous Communication
  5. Backbone Support Organizations

If innovation is the bridging of distant worlds, collective impact efforts are platforms upon which those worlds may be bridged.

Experimentation and Organizational Learning

Many of the efforts to establish public sector innovation labs are driven by the need to carve out a safe space for experimentation. Government is risk averse because citizens choose to be critical when government makes mistakes mistakes, but explicit testing and validation of assumptions can be accomplished without significant resources and in spaces that are outside government’s traditional boundaries. This approach, particularly in the context of service delivery, yields a culture of learning within government, sparks curiosity about what’s possible, and makes government more adaptive to the challenges of a rapidly changing world.

Emphasis on Service Delivery

Traditionally, efforts to “fix” government have focused on governance reform. Good government groups have advocated for policy changes to modernize the elections process, fiscal systems, and legislative ethics. While those policy changes have value, transforming the ways in which government delivers services has greater impact on citizen attitudes because they directly enhance the touchpoints through which citizens interact with government. By focusing on the openness and transparency of these touchpoints, greater public trust may result.

Citizen Experience Focus

The use of design methods such as ethnography, prototyping, and user research help establish empathy for citizens and the problems that they seek to solve when interacting with government. For example, the UK’s Government Digital Service uses the following design principles to inform their work:

  1. Start with needs (user needs, not government needs)
  2. Do less
  3. Design with data
  4. Do the hard work to make it simple
  5. Iterate. Then iterate again.
  6. Build for inclusion
  7. Understand context
  8. Build digital services, not websites
  9. Be consistent, not uniform
  10. Make things open: it makes things better

This citizen experience lens enables a more human centered orientation to service design. Quick iterations and feedback loops help evolve civic systems to better meet citizen needs over time.

Procurement Process Reform

One of the challenges to how government does business lies in the rules around procurement. Because government can’t hire for every competency necessary to build, deliver, and maintain public services, it often contracts with the private sector. However, as evidenced by the early troubles with, these rules of the game benefit those organizations that are best at playing by those rules, rather than the organizations best equipped to effectively meet or exceed citizen expectations. Similarly, procurement processes inhibit government’s ability to do business with local startups and spur economic development due to the complexity and unfamiliarity associated with these rules.

Support for Entrepreneurship

McKinsey estimates that open data has the potential to add $3 trillion in additional value to the global economy. Much of this value will be contributed by open government data, which improves the efficiencies of markets by breaking down information asymmetries. We’re seeing new civic startups and social enterprises that are able to build better interfaces to government and solve old problems in new ways. These ventures often reduce costs and improve outcomes for public agencies. Government can help these startups by providing access to internal business processes, committing resources to innovation funds, and supporting local incubators and co-working spaces.

An Increasingly Engaged Public

New modes of citizen engagement surround civic technology and don’t resemble traditional public engagement processes. Software is not only eating the world, it’s enabled a new metaphor for building the things we want to see in the world. Volunteer civic technologists gather at weekly hack nights to design and develop better tools to solve problems in their local communities. Ever since Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, thought leaders have worried about declining civic engagement. However, it turns out that engagement is not only occurring in new and different ways than previously imagined, but that it may, in fact, be on the rise. This also reflects a desire among Millennials to find meaningful work in their lives.

Inclusive Design

As the cost of technology and devices continues to decline, civic technology becomes a tool to empower underserved communities. Public programs and nonprofit service providers can better connect with their clients to ensure these programs and services are accomplishing their goals. For example, the City and County of San Francisco’s Code for America fellowship team developed an app called Promptly to help the county’s Human Services Agency communicate critical information to clients via text message.

Emergent Innovation Ecosystems

As metropolitan areas begin to connect the activities happening between civic technologists, entrepreneurs, and forward thinkers inside and outside of government, civic innovation ecosystems are blooming. Again, no single civic innovation structure specified in the previous section may comprise an ecosystem alone; it is more likely that the ecosystems sits in the space between these structures. More importantly, civic innovation ecosystems are emergent. We are only at the beginning of a process that will fundamentally transform governance over the next hundred years.

A Shift in Culture

Many of the ideas reflected here require a level of humility within public sector organizations not taught in public policy and administration programs where expertise and rigorous analytical skills are valued. While specialization is useful in many areas of government, co-creation and co-production with citizens requires a broader skill set that is more focused on understanding the patterns and connections across civic systems. Moreover, collaborative government also must understand itself by enabling bottom-up ideas to emanate from anywhere within an agency.

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