Civic tech startups are sprouting up with increasing frequency. But what makes a quality civic tech startup? Connecting citizens and governments; improving public services; amplifying the public’s voice; and increasing transparency and accountability, are all key.
Civic tech sits within the broader GovTech landscape and, despite a proliferation of confusing and overlapping terms (civic technologies; digital citizenship tools; citizen participation; civic engagement), effectively works to strengthen democracy by connecting governments and citizens — certainly a worthy cause. And yet as some commentators have noted, the growth of civic tech startups can leave the ecosystem appearing overwhelming and unproductive with “too many projects empowered while not facing the right direction”.
This is why facilitating partnerships and contracts between startups and local governments is crucial — as PUBLIC works to do through GovStart, its flagship growth programme. Fortunately, the dramatic increase in civic tech startups is mirrored by growing interest from local councils who have been particularly responsive to these new technologies, actively seeking out innovative ways to engage with citizens (as PUBLIC’s UrbanTech Report details). And with mobile apps, and cloud dashboards which integrate seamlessly into councils’ existing IT systems, the connection between the two has never been so seamless — or so productive.
So what does this enhanced connectivity achieve, and how do successful technologies serve the public?
Amplifying the public’s voice in decision-making processes
More and more local governments are developing innovative solutions in the face of escalating financial strains, making the input of the public especially valuable. New technologies like those of novoville — a GovStart member — and Commonplace enable the public to engage with local authorities in more productive and effective ways. novoville connects citizens directly to local government, making it easy for the public to respond to local polls and surveys and to comment on their cities’ future. And Commonplace transforms the public consultation process by improving participation and data-gathering processes.
Improving the delivery of public services
Civic tech deliver services more efficiently by enabling citizens to access services securely and easily online — whether paying a fine, applying for a permit, or reporting a pothole — as well as by making use of collected data to optimise government processes. US-based mySidewalk, for instance, helps local governments get the most out of their data operationally and strategically by improving how they track, analyse, and communicate progress.
Civic technologies like these encourage local government to place public experience at the heart of policy decisions by coordinating public input to create a critical mass of voices.
Increasing transparency and accountability
Increased transparency and accountability is critical to regaining trust in public institutions. Startups like novoville make it easy for citizens to track councils’ responsiveness to specific reports — and for local governments to communicate progress on projects directly to citizens. mySociety’s TheyWorkForYou platform makes the workings of Parliament accessible to everyone, which alongside WriteToThem connects citizens directly to their representatives.
Open data platforms like OpenGov enable local government to use data productively, while other projects aim to democratise data more actively.
Barking and Dagenham Council’s Insight Hub uses data cleverly to directly relate to citizen concerns, plugging data into software that generates visualisations so that residents can understand their borough’s progress and how it compares to that of other areas.
Whether you champion the “let a thousand flowers bloom” philosophy, or think the civic tech landscape is becoming increasingly saturated, transformation in civic engagement is most productive when there is buy-in from the public sector — this is an essential part of PUBLIC’s mission.
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