Whose Side Are You On? Digital Transformation of Civic Engagement

By Eric Jackson

Face-Off. Photo by Abhishek Shrivasava

As a co-captain of Code for Asheville and digital services architect for the City of Asheville, I have an interesting dual role in conversations around open data, civic tech and the digital transformation of civic engagement.

That they are at least complementary is clear from several years’ experience here in Asheville and from the experience of over 80 brigades around the country. But in some ways I’ve come to see the two organizations almost as mirror images of each other. Our CIO, Jonathan Feldman put it pithily today: we are the IT organization for City government, Code for Asheville is the IT organization for the community.

Obviously we’re not talking about “dial-tone” services – the basic infrastructure of servers and radios, email and ERP. That’s a vital part of our job in IT and no part of the job of civic volunteers. Nevertheless, there are certain important parallels.

Both organizations act as enablers of innovative solutions to community challenges. Both act as guides in working with and using data. Both are implementers rather than policy-makers. And, perhaps most importantly, both organizations live in between. We are facilitators and connectors rather than advocates.

I’d put it even more strongly: our effectiveness depends directly on our ability to work well with all participants in every engagement, to be proactively pro-user for all of our users. We have professional principles that guide us here: it is our dedication to user-centered design that powers our effectiveness, whether as IT staff or civic volunteers. One organization operates from the government side, the other from the community, but both are critical to building the hard and soft infrastructure for civic engagement and conversation.

Doing this well can certainly be challenging, but it’s a challenge most City staff face every day: to faithfully serve the community without taking sides.

Originally published February 8, 2017.

Tags: Civic Engagement, Civic Tech, Code for America, Digital Transformation

Photo Credit: Abhishek Shrivasava, Face-Off.