How can we amplify our successes beyond the civic tech community to evidence our impact through mainstream channels?
mySociety convened this TICTeC Action Lab (aka working group) of six people who worked together to answer the above question and then commission a paid piece of work based on their conclusions.
As part of the TICTeC Labs programme, on May 12, 2022 we convened a Civic Tech Surgery that brought together a group of civic tech practitioners and communications professionals from across the world. During the Surgery, attendees discussed common challenges in sharing our work with a more mainstream audience, some of the ways they’ve found to meet these challenges, and ideas for what might be missing.
The purpose of this Action Lab was to use the information gathered at the above Surgery to discuss and decide on a piece of work that would be most useful to produce in order to help the global civic tech community address common accessibility challenges. The aim is to provide a practical solution that will help organisations running civic tech projects to make their projects more accessible for everyone.
Common challenges identified at the Civic Tech Surgery were:
Resource and capacity Civic tech organisations tend to be quite small and focused on the creation of their services. Communications can be seen as a luxury, or something that is spread between the team as a bit of an afterthought. Even if there’s a dedicated comms person, they often can’t focus deeply on all the tasks that need doing, and bringing in a freelancer doesn’t always work if they don’t have a full understanding of your work.
Complexity of our offerings Talking to the public about our work often means that we’re also having to explain things that are taken as a given within the civic tech world: for example, Freedom of Information; how governments work, what open source is, etc.
Temptation to speak at a technical level It’s important to use simple language, but because we’re ‘experts’ in our field we have to make an effort to not use jargon – especially if you’ve also been involved with the development side personally. Users probably don’t care about things like how it was coded or whether it’s open source: it’s more important to talk about what it can do for them.
Narratives aren’t always clear-cut People want stories with a nice narrative, but if you are making systemic change it can be iterative and messy, and take time.
We are in a polarised world Some areas that civic tech operates within, eg migration or health, are divisive issues that get boiled down to clickbait/soundbites on social media.
Projects can be longterm but enthusiasm doesn’t last As with funding, it can be easier to get attention at launch, but it’s harder to find stories and get interest once a project has been going for a while.
We can’t always find the interesting stories We can be sure that our software is being used in some really interesting ways; but we’re not always aware of them. There’s no compulsion for users or site-runners to tell us how they’re using our sites or software.
The range of potential audiences is really broad We might be trying to talk to ‘everyone’ – or if not, we’re trying to put messaging out to citizens (with varying amounts of knowledge), governments, funders and several other potential user groups.
We don’t always reach every sector of society It takes focus and effort to reach a more diverse audience in terms of race, education, deprivation etc.
It is hard to maintain a stable team Small organisations can’t pay market rates, which means that there’s a higher staff turnover, and the narrative thread can be lost as a result.
The issues we tackle are often quite abstract It’s hard to represent concepts like ‘corruption’ or ‘transparency’ in image form.
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:
Media training for civic tech comms people.
Set up a journalism prize for the best news story to come from one of our services.
Or a civic tech fellowship for local journalists.
Run a conference specifically for journalists to meet civic tech people.
Or just pay for some civic tech people to attend journalism conferences and speak about the potential stories in our work.
Set up a portal where all civic tech groups can place their stories, and let journalists know it’s available as a resource for them.
Pool resources Look into bulk-buying Google ads or Facebook ads etc, across multiple organisations. It will be cheaper and we can also share expertise (or commission a contractor together).
Create an image library and advice around making good photographs with your phone. This could be used by all civic tech groups everywhere.
Or commission a generic set of visual explainers that anyone could pick up, alter and reuse.
Create a sharing community More widely, a space like Slack or Matrix could be used to share tips, advice, images and comms opportunities.
Make universal logos for some of our common themes There is no logo for ‘open data’ etc – we could commission one.
Action Lab #4 agreed to commission a piece of work to help the civic tech community improve/strengthen their storytelling and reach and amplify their projects and their successes beyond the civic tech community, through mainstream channels. The call for proposals closed on 22nd September and the grant was awarded to Fundación Multitudes from Chile, to create and deliver media training for civic tech organisations.