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Why aren’t we building tools that transform the experience of being an engaged citizen?

From  By Frank Hebbert

At FOCAS13 I was lucky enough to spend several hours talking about citizen involvement in city decisions, as part of a great working group. We ultimately produced a short proposal for the Public Experience Network, to help city staff directly tap experience around specific issues.

During our presentation back to the group, I described our suggested approach. Build the tool, and get it widely in use — a tool-centered approach, but one that was guided by municipal staff and citizen needs...

Feedback from the group was near-unanimous: we should start with people first. Start by building a network, understand the issues, and bring the tech much later. 

This response clarified something that has been bothering me. Why aren’t we working on transformative tools that reshape the experience of being an engaged citizen? Don’t tell me our current trajectory is really the best we can all collectively manage.

Are we scared or otherwise incapable of imagining consumer-style tech for city governments? Can’t we expand the business and scale models that we’re prepared to consider for government tools? Why aren’t we more entrepreneurial, thinking much, much bigger and more at web-scale?

Where are the products? We should be seeing many more consumer-style tools for small government tasks. We’re all anxious to see municipalities become better at communicating with Twitter, Facebook, Mailchimp and others. And with MindMixer, Textizen, Shareabouts and more, municipalities can do some really sophisticated public involvement. In between these two groups of tools seems like a fertile area for new projects. For the Public Experience Network example, where is the next MailChimp or Google Docs for outreach tasks that thousands of small cities do daily? Are we settling into a misapprehension that are cities just too small, their needs too specialized, and informationally low-density that product at scale can’t reach them?  

Selling to cities is really hard, so that’s one possible answer for our timidity, but is the grind of selling getting in the way of other opportunities? I don’t think this is just a procurement issue, especially in smaller places. If the opportunity is so big, how come we’re all so focused on sustainability first? Maybe we can’t see for all the blood and sweat in our eyes.

Maybe we’re over cautious because of civic tech’s problem of build-it-they-will-come attitudes. Without users at the table to drive needs, the wrong tools are created, serving the interests of developers rather than users. I agree with all this. But why can’t an organically adopted tool be as responsive to needs? Can’t it have the same ultimate impact as a carefully assembled top-down approach? In fact, shouldn’t the organic tool have a bigger impact? 

I’m not asking these questions rhetorically. I want to work out the answers. If there are real barriers to organic, widespread adoption of new tools by cities, let’s identify them and break them down.

I think there’s a huge business opportunity lying untouched because we’re too cautious. I just don’t know what it is yet.

Read more of Frank's thought-leading comments at


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