05 June 2023
It’s a journey that has highlighted both the positive impact tech can make and the persistent need to stay ahead of actors that might use that same tech for less charitable purposes.
Finding ‘another way’ – Founding the ‘Civic Tech Field Guide’
From the beginning, there was a creeping sense that politics the old fashioned way, simply wasn’t going to cut it.
Matt Stempeck spent an early part of his career involved in the activist campaign to reduce the influence of money on US politics. A battle that was fought, initially, with more traditional means – in Washington DC, on the ground, rustling up support from both sides of the political aisle.
“We got 160 bipartisan co-sponsors, which is a lot of support, for this Fair Elections Now Act,” he says. “But it never went anywhere. And around the same time, the US Supreme Court passed down the Citizens United ruling that basically opened up the door to more money in politics.”
After years of work (decades for some), new law had swept through and all but wiped it away.
“I looked around at some of my colleagues who had been working on the issue since Watergate in the seventies and I thought, you know, ‘this can’t be the way’…’there has to be another way to make change happen’.”
That realisation and the successive experiences with smaller agile teams of underfunded activists and non-profits that came after, led to an increasing focus on things that did seem to work exceedingly well – namely, the tech.
“I was just inspired by all the ways that people were using the internet to help, especially in disasters and crises,” Stempeck recalls. “So I started looking at all the different kinds of humanitarian tech, and saw that a lot of it is self-organised. In a disaster, the first people to help are usually those that live in the neighbourhood, not the Red Cross or the UN.”
For Stempeck, that ad-hoc fit-for-purpose need, combined with limited resources is what fuels innovation. It’s where not only the ideas, but the impetus for change comes from.
It was while freelancing with the Google Social Impact Team in 2013, that Stempeck more and more frequently encountered humanitarian tools, democracy apps, open data resources and ‘civic tech’ more broadly. Eventually it made sense to begin taking notes.
“I just started a spreadsheet,” he says.
Not long after that, he met co-founders Erin Simpson and Micah Sifry (who also had his own spreadsheet), at which point the idea dawned.
“We should merge these and make it a resource right?”
The group soon took over an office and started plastering it with post-it notes – grouping them together into categories. That was the beginning.
‘Tech is our advantage‘
The Civic Tech Field Guide is a resource. Itself a catalogue of other resources. Yet the act of cataloguing has done more than just provide a place to go to look for useful tools – it has highlighted the strategic advantage that those working towards positive, political, humanitarian and other social change have.
But not just ideas. It’s the will and agility to get things done under difficult circumstances. People encounter a problem and they build a tool to solve it or make it simpler. If they don’t have the resources or budget, they find a way to make it happen.
For Stempeck, that capacity stood in stark contrast to conventional politics and busted a few illusions along the way.
“I showed up to university in Washington, D.C. at age 18 thinking like, ‘well, if you want to change the world, go change the U.S. federal government. That’ll be a big win. Right?” he says.
“But I realised that politicians are the lagging edge of change. If you look at something like gay marriage in the U.S., it got popular on TV well before Barack Obama or Bill Clinton supported it. They were against it until the rest of the country liked it. Working at and on behalf of these under-resourced nonprofits made me realise that tech can sometimes be our advantage.”
And an advantage is certainly required. According to Stempeck, the risk that tech tools can ultimately be used more effectively by bad-actors is “100%”. It’s not always the case, but the risk is very real.
So in the face of relentless and inevitable abuse by anti-democratic forces, what can the rest of us do?
The answer, Stempeck says, is “curiosity.”
“People assume baby boomers don’t know how to use tech. But I’ve met lots of people who might be older and are still super curious about trying out new things,” he says. “I’ve also met younger people that just accept whatever the default option is on their phone.”
Curiosity, from everyone, is what builds new tools, but it’s also what grows them, scales new approaches, widens their impact and keeps them going. Large numbers of ‘curious’ users are what turn the ripples into waves – hopefully making enough of a difference early on to counteract any bad actors that come later.
That’s our ‘tech advantage’.
“I think that at this moment in time, where there’s a lot of tech, we have this asymmetric opportunity to make change happen. It’s at a point right now where it’s proven itself.” he explains.
“It’s when it’s at an inflection point, but everybody hasn’t figured it out yet – that, for me, is where the tech fits into social changes.”
Not all smooth sailing
Whether we can leverage those advantages to make bigger, positive, innovative changes to the degree necessary to preserve democracy remains to be seen. There have certainly been periods of rapid growth.
“I think it was pretty slow growth until mobile tech came along – smartphones basically,” Stempeck says. “And then the open data movement, which I personally think failed its goals of making government more transparent and accountable in a lot of ways, but succeeded in creating an ecosystem of people using tech to improve government.”
Unfortunately, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. According to Stempeck, the proliferation of civic and democracy tech projects took a bit of a hit a few years ago, and hasn’t yet fully recovered.
“I think COVID just decimated a lot of the place-based, community-based and meetup-based culture,” he opines. “A lot of the co-working hubs shut down, a lot of the meetup groups and volunteer groups, at least temporarily disbanded. And people are only just getting up and running again.”
Innovating from the inside
Yet there may be a silver lining. According to Stempeck, as the more grassroots projects became unsustainable, or rather just before, a lot of skilled people began migrating into government jobs and have started making some much needed impact on the inside.
While not exactly fond of government work, they might now represent the best hope of scaling and legitimising the kind of innovations needed to modernise democratic governance and government services – creating overall more resilient democracies.
“They weren’t seeking jobs in government,” he says. “They thought the government was decrepit, with bad technology – closed off and opaque. But some of them got invited in to make that better.”
That ‘invitation’ would seem particularly positive – a signal that governments are acutely aware of the need for innovation in politics and recognise the contribution that private and civil society actors are making. It’s a trend that seems to be continuing irrespective of leadership as well.
“Digital services are foundational layers within the bureaucracy of government. And now they’re being funded every year. Even under Trump they got funded,” Stempeck says. They keep building over time and are creating a more lasting impact.
So while there may have been a downturn – the many projects that were lost during COVID – it now seems that both governments and the wider civic and democracy tech sector are heading in the right direction together.
We might just wind up with the combination necessary to legitimise and institutionalise positive change. And Stempeck sees other signs too.
“The Association of Civic Tech Europe is a great example that I give a lot,” says Stempeck. “Just the very fact that we now have a trade alliance and that they represent this sector to the EU government. That’s such a clear marker of development.”
“We’re becoming more professional. We have our act together. And we’re working together.”