Exploring Civic Tech and Gov Tech

Starting from the beginning : What is Civic Tech ? 

During the last decade, the expansion of digital culture fostered the democratization of public space and the demand for more transparency and collaboration. 

The development of what is called « civic tech » is one of the consequences of this evolution in our society. These technologies place citizens at their core : they aim at giving them the tools that will make them able to play a role within the democratic system. In doing so, they can focus the public debate on citizens again, in a world where political elites struggle to maintain their legitimacy and trust.

It’s no wonder then that investments in Civic Tech skyrocketed during the last few years. As Mark Montgomery writes in Forbes: « Local and state government will spend an estimated $25.5 billion on information technology this year. Civic tech makes up just 24% of that, according to IDC. But spending on civic tech is growing 14 times faster than spending on traditional technology. » (Why civic tech is the next big thing)

We should therefore expect Civic Tech to continue to grow and become more and more important within the area of information technologies.  

Given it is a relatively recent concept, Civic Tech does not have a universally accepted definition yet. However, we can try to approach this term a little more precisely. Basically, civic technologies are public, social or private initiatives that contribute to enhance the citizens’ power to act, facilitate public participation, increase the transparency of the public sector, and improve the delivery of services (usually by government) to the people. 

Civic Tech are technologies that create a positive impact for society, and they can be considered as a bridge between the government’s mission and the potential of modern technology. 

 Why use Civic Tech ? 

 It’s no surprise that the primary beneficiaries of civic tech are the citizens. Civic tech empowers them, by helping them engage more in the life of their community.

It plays a role in raising transparency and increasing the understanding of public institutions and the way they work. One of these ways is through data sharing for example. Civic tech consequently has the potential to greatly expand the number of contributors to public decision making.  Increasing public participation can be very useful, as it helps the governments get a good sense of what their citizens really want and need, and therefore to invest in the right projects. 

Governance can also benefit from Civic Tech, as it can grow democratic legitimacy for institutions.
Moreover, it demands more accountability for public bodies because Civic Tech creates more efficient information dissemination and better dialogue. It can therefore help reintroduce trust at the core of the relationship between citizens and their government. 

Co-building projects together can also help create more positive relations between the different communities of an urban area, thus reducing conflicts and fueling social change. 

However, there can also be some challenges to the efficiency of civic tech. For example, it has to reach a large number of citizens in order to truly foster change, when not everyone is comfortable using digital tools. 

But the main challenge for Civic Tech is its pace compared to the public sector’s. Companies are usually able to move faster than governments that are naturally averse to risk. In this regard, Civic Tech can lead to an unhealthy balance between the citizens’ demands for change and the inability for governments to respond because they’re too slow or because it doesn’t fit their agenda. In that case Civic Tech generates frustration and distrust in the government. 

 Therefore, it is paramount that the increased legitimacy and public participation from Civic Tech should be accompanied by an increase in the governments’ efficiency. A useful tool here is another type of civic interest technology like Gov Tech.

What about Gov Tech ? 

The primary beneficiaries of Gov Tech are governments, rather than citizens. While Civic tech is about increasing citizen engagement, Gov Tech aims at improving the efficiency of the public sector’s internal operations by digitizing work processes.

Partnerships with Gov Tech private companies, associations or start-ups can inject more energy into the democratic processes and accelerate decision making and implementation of projects. The time and money saved can then be invested in other areas, thus ultimately benefiting the citizens. 

As we saw earlier, Civic Tech without Gov Tech can lead to an inadequacy between citizen demand for change and government’s slower response. On the other side, implementing Gov Tech without Civic Tech would hurt the democratic process, as innovating and changing large areas of government shouldn’t be done without consulting citizens and aligning on their needs. 

Using both Civic Tech and Gov Tech as complementary tools, we can help  governments find a healthy and sustainable balance between legitimacy and efficiency. Civic Tech helps get citizens involved in decision making, and Gov Tech helps respond more efficiently to this input. 

Conclusion 

Civic technologies are oriented towards enhancing the citizens’ engagement and participation in public decision making, while Government technologies are about improving the internal efficiency of the public sector. It’s time for governments to support Civic Tech projects and create a legal environment where it can flourish. Promoting a combination of Civic and Gov Tech initiatives will foster positive innovation that can broaden citizen engagement, increase the ability of the governments to respond to issues raised by citizens and overall strengthen the democratic processes. 

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About The Author

Victoire Lemoine

Studying Political Science at SciencesPo Paris, interested in public affairs and sustainable development.