Action Lab #1

What would help the global civic tech community to work more effectively with public and private institutions?

mySociety convened an Action Lab (aka working group) of 6 individuals, who worked together to answer the above question and then commission a paid piece of work based on their conclusions.

About

This Action Lab (aka working group) is being convened as part of mySociety’s TICTeC Labs programme. 

On 28th October, mySociety convened a Civic Tech Surgery that brought together a group of 100+ civic tech practitioners and researchers from across the world to discuss common challenges of working with governments and public authorities on digital projects to enhance public participation, transparency and accountability, as well as possible solutions to these. You can find resources from this Civic Tech Surgery here, including minutes, a summary of inputs, a Padlet of contributions, and the full recording.

The Action Lab’s mandate

The purpose of this Action Lab was to use the information gathered at the above Surgery to discuss and decide what would be most useful to produce in order to help the global civic tech community address common challenges of public-private collaborations. 

Common challenges identified at the Civic Tech Surgery were:

  • Procurement in government It can be hard for small organisations to compete against the big players, especially because bidding for a piece of work often involves jumping through many bureaucratic hoops.
  • The structure of governments Set ways of doing things can often be incompatible with the Agile approach that is most favoured by civic technologists. Also, if you are affecting how one department of government works, ideally the benefits would ripple out across all other departments, but the siloed nature of government departments often prevents this.
  • The short-term nature of governments When building anything, of course you want it to have a lasting effect; but elections and changes in political control often mean that a project is thrown out when a new regime takes over.
  • The knowledge within governments As government staff often don’t have detailed technical skills themselves, the door is open for big players to demand high dollar contracts that lock clients into a single vendor.
  • The world view of governments An added task comes in educating governments about the motivations of civic technologists, and the value of putting citizens at the centre of work. They also need to know about the benefits of keeping projects running longterm.

The below possible solutions to the above challenges were identified at the Surgery. These, and others, were discussed by Action Lab members to decide which should be taken forward:

  • Shaking up procurement: One solution that can be effective in enabling civic tech groups to work with public sector organisations is in ‘micro contracting’ – breaking a large requirement into several smaller pieces of work, thus allowing smaller organisations to bid for them. Mandates that procurement should be for open source development would also be beneficial. Research, “how to” guides, or learning materials on how to encourage and perform micro contracting through procurement would be useful to inform both public sector organisations of the benefits, and civic tech organisations of how to tailor their approach.
  • Clever contracts: Civic tech providers can add clauses to their contracts which mean that time is dedicated for user-centred research, for example, or make clear that Agile methods will be used. Adding goals around impact is one way to try to ensure that the real reason for the development isn’t forgotten. Once contracts have been drawn up, the templates could be shared for other governments or civic technologists to use. Examples of contract inclusions may be helpful for civic tech organisations looking to ensure that their contracts include the necessary items for them to perform their roles successfully.
  • Nurturing government staff:  If they are around long enough for relationships to be built, staff can be inducted into healthy civic tech approaches. As an  example they can be included in bootcamp sessions or wider civic tech events/seminars (such as TICTeC) to embed an understanding and appreciation of how civic tech can benefit public services.
  • Case studies: It is useful to be able to share concrete examples of where civic tech interventions have resulted in tangible improvements, and government clients can find these very motivating and exciting. Equally, we could look to write case studies with examples of where the problems identified in the civic tech surgeries were solved, eg by introducing Agile methods into the work.
  • Research: We can learn a lot from existing research, as many of the issues with public/private contracting have been explored in detail, however much of this research is buried within academic journals. We also need new qualitative data from the people working on data projects, and a way to get that information to a wider audience. Summaries of useful existing research (‘literature reviews’) may be helpful to the community, as well as completely new research examining how partnership with the public and private sector works in the real world.

Action Lab #1 members

You can see biographies of Action Lab #1 members here.


Action Lab #1 meetings

Action Lab #1 met on 27th January and 21st February 2022. Below are the minutes from these meetings:


Commissioned work by Action Lab #1

TICTeC Action Lab #1 members agreed to commission a piece of work that showcases examples of where civic tech interventions have resulted in tangible improvements and benefits for governments/public institutions and their citizens.

The Action Lab believes highlighting successful examples will help civic tech organisations across the world to work more effectively with governments, as it will help them to promote the benefits of civic tech and inspire and motivate government actors, as well as themselves, to start similar civic tech projects in their contexts. 

The Action Lab #1 subgrant was awarded to People Powered, who will solicit and create case studies from the platforms that were highly rated in their digital participation platform ratings. They will reach out to platforms to ask for specific case examples where their platforms have resulted in clear improvements and benefits for governments, institutions, and communities. Following interviews with the organisations involved, they will create blog posts to showcase the examples, including key information on the cases and personal narratives from the participant interviews.