A Civic Technologist's Practice Guide

I had the opportunity to briefly meet Cyd Harrell at a talk hosted through my current summer internship, the Civic Digital Fellowship. If it wasn’t for this, I don’t think this book would’ve ever stumbled across my recommendations.

But I’m grateful it did. A Civic Technologist’s Practice Guide sets a really important foundation in the shifting landscape of tech careers.

For about the last 20 years, I’ve been under the impression that the space for really driven and hard-working engineers were big corporations. Places like Google, Apple, Tesla, and so on made grand promises about engineering efforts and goals – and sometimes even delivered on them.

This made for really exciting environments, and also provided a wealth of resources that could be used to recruit engineers. Let’s face it, it’s hard to say no to six figure salaries, benefits, and free lunches.

But what Harrell gets at in the Practice Guide is all of the ways that civic technology can be compelling. That there is a space for hard-working technologists in government, and that they can be rewarded with work that is just as exciting as the work happening in the private sector (and more recently, with similar compensation schemes).

Throughout the book Harrell discusses the difference between public and private team structures, incentives, and processes. Underlying all this discussion is the core value that public work is about stewardship and serving the community, and that the scale for such work is different than the scale of private corporations.

Sure, you may need to deliver some fancy app to 3 million users, but how does that compare to providing a safety net service to 330 million Americans?

And it’s this core value of stewardship that I think is really compelling about civic technology.

I mostly agree: transforming government services to be digital is a marathon, not a sprint. It will take time to get the right processes and people to ensure that our governments are able to face the next technological transformations on their own. And that to integrate contemporary technology methods requires a collaborative process which acknowledges the differences between public and private, and tries to take the best aspects of both.

But I am worried about the pace of change that Harrell proposes, and that some of the methods are too “passive” to face the issues of the 21st century.

This model seems very adequate (perhaps more than adequate) for a world in the mid-20th century. Change happens at a pace where careful, gradual integration can happen across multiple generations.

I’m under the impression that 2021 is a very different time period. There are many upcoming technologies and governments that will not wait for such transformations to take place.

Very frankly, we can take the institutional response to COVID-19 as a warning of what could happen as a response to a larger event. And I hold the opinion that institutions tried their very best – but still failed terribly.

I don’t think we can allow this to happen for upcoming issues. Climate change will not gracefully wait 10 or 20 years for governments to transform. Terrorist groups armed with artificial intelligence tools will not wait 10 or 20 years for governments to transform.

I do not think these are issues that will happen in one or two generations. I think these are issues that will become highly relevant within the next decade, before most of us hit our mid-lives.

To prevent the worst from happening, we need government transformation to happen in the next decade. What that looks like, and how we get there…It’s still something I am figuring out myself.