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Civic tech and governments: Successful models of collaboration

13th November 2018

One of the core missions of civic technologists is to support governments in delivering better services to its citizens. During the workshop we organised at Code for All’s Heroes of Tech summit last month in Bucharest, we mapped and assessed the main models of cooperation between civic technologists and the government, focusing particularly on the conditions which each of these models requires to function.

Fellowship Model Challenges

We already knew that there is not one single model for collaboration with governments, as circumstances differ depending on political and legal contexts, as well as the popularity of tech solutions among governments and those governed, the general state of civic space or the financial situation of particular countries. That’s why we gathered together an expert crowd from various countries and different professional backgrounds, with representatives from public institutions, NGOs and the IT sector as participants and speakers. Some of them had just started their adventure with civic tech and govtech, while others had already gained rich experience of collaborating with governments.

We focused on several models of potential collaboration, starting with the fellowship model popularised by the members of Code for All network, and also discussed challenges present in other models such as training programmes, service delivery, event organisation (such as hackathons), consulting and policy development.

The fellowship model was presented by Sheba Najmi from Code for Pakistan, currently working in the US, where Code for America is also implementing its Fellowship Program. This model is based on periodical collaboration between IT or civic tech activist and government on tools, user experience analysis or process of opening data.

You can also see lessons learnt from Code for Australia.

According to Sheba, there are at least four goals for the fellowship model: improving citizen services, increasing government efficiency, changing the internal culture of government performance and building fellows’ capacity to provide effective tools and services. Debating on this point, we came up with the following challenges:

  • The willingness of the fellow and their supervisor, as this model of collaboration needs to be driven by enthusiasm and openness towards innovation.
  • Sustainability of the project, as fellowships end after a fixed period of time (often only a few months), and government officials should be prepared and trained to carry on with the work.
  • Preparing the work for a fellow, as a fellowship starts long before the day of its official launch. If the government is committed to run a fellowship, it should invest in informing fellows on possibilities, priorities and challenges beforehand.

To tackle these challenges, a successful fellowship model requires a high level of coordination. Government representatives and fellows should be updated on any fellowship developments like workflow, problems detected or general quality of collaboration. Also MOUs should be signed by both parties before the start of the fellowship, with a comprehensive list of obligations and responsibilities. Successful running fellowships also requires strategic relationship building, with multiple people in specific offices and departments engaged, in order to inspire reform within the government institutions. It is also important to give the government ownership and credit for operating this collaboration model, remembering that public institutions are rarely open for innovations. Making clear governments’ contributions and efforts will will strengthen their drive and willingness to carry on similar initiatives.

This attitude contributes to building trust, which is paramount in any model model of collaboration. It removes roadblocks for other departments. By collaborating with governments, civic tech activists are in fact doing “favours” by helping public officials in their work; it is perfectly acceptable, therefore, to expect some reforms in return. It also builds up the officials’ position as “reformers” within the government.

The latter can be also achieved by delivering training programmes and building public officials’ capacity. A fruitful training programme should be focused on unearthing and understanding shortcomings, but only to propose constructive and practical solutions. Within its scope, it is wise to include the voice of governments’ beneficiaries (citizens and business) and give them a chance to share their perspective on successful service delivery.

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Civic Tech NGOs and Services

In the workshop we also discussed the collaboration model of service delivery. According to Adi Eyal from South Africa’s Open Up, there is a challenge connected with the general opinion on NGOs being only semi-professional organisations. Therefore, while communicating with governments we should talk about organisations not as a “civic tech organisations” or “NGOs”, but as a “companies”, which might seem more serious and legitimate to governments. The truth is that in most cases, public institutions want to purchase a certain product and they are not looking for the “increase of democracy”. Further challenges include:

  • Donating a product to the government may not be possible as public procurement laws may be an obstacle in allowing for “free” product delivery.
  • The government can be slow to pay (sometimes you have to credit your project)
  • Timelines and other regulations are not always synchronised with the startup-like operating mode.

These challenges should be primarily tackled by changing the legal environment to provide a more agile public procurement approach. There is also a challenge related to combining the role of an advocate or a watchdog with a service provider, as it may look like an organization is not credible enough to control the government, at the same time being dependant on its money. The solution might be obtained by means of the in-depth discussion within the organization on its mission and potential conflicts of interests.

Sustainable Solutions

Where collaboration with governments takes the form of organising events, hackathons most often come to mind. In general, hackathons do not generate sustainable solutions and there is lack of capacity on the side of governments to absorb such solutions. That is why it is important to be prepared from the offset with a plan on how to engage the government officials after hackathons. While preparing for hackathons, we should, in cooperation with relevant institutions, present real problems and challenges and focus more on design and general concepts than just coding. It is not possible to prepare a tech solution in 48 hours or less but it is enough time to prepare good design of the tool. And it’s essential to bring in people beyond the usual suspects of coders and tech experts — we need multi-disciplinary people in the room and it’s impossible to design well for users if they’re not there at the initial stages. We should also monitor and evaluate the impact of a hackathon long after it took place, so that we can understand more about what works and what doesn’t.

The discussion held in Bucharest will be continued. Feedback gathered from the session participants will be used to create practical guidelines for governments and civic tech activists on how to collaborate with each other in delivering better services for citizens. We also hope that, in the meantime, discovering different models and their challenges will improve the daily work of “tech for good” organisations and also be an inspiration for innovation within public institutions.

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