In 2015, inside the Miami-Dade Permitting and Inspection Center was a small dark box affixed to a wall; next to it hung a giant poster that beseeched community members to “Give us your input.” The box itself made its purpose clear, proclaiming: “SUGGESTIONS COMMENTS.”

Despite its earnest plea, the feedback system was useless for most of the people it hoped to engage. The poster was in English, but almost three-quarters of Miami-Dade households do not speak English at home.

Beyond the language barrier that it imposed, the suggestion box had another crucial flaw. Once a person gave feedback, there was no way for them to know if anyone would read their comments. Residents described this process with the phrase “por el hueco.” Into the hole.

Luckily, the Miami-Dade county recognized the issue and outsourced assistance. They reached out to Code for America, a civic tech organization with the mission of bridging the gap between talent in the tech industry and the lagging services in the public sector. Miami-Dade enrolled in Code for America’s Fellowship program, which matches a small team of technologists with a specific problem in a city’s government (“A peace corps for geeks,” Code for America founder Jennifer Pahlka joked). The result? It is now possible for Miami-Dade residents to submit feedback online or via text message, in both English and Spanish, and get real-time responses. The Permitting and Inspection Center can also see an aggregated report of all feedback submitted to them.

In many ways, the Miami-Dade fellowship is a perfect civic tech success story. However, it’s not a success story just because of its technical merits; it’s a success story because Code for America examined the problem from the perspective of the people of Miami-Dade County. This wasn’t a magic “ask and ye shall receive” process for the county. After all, this problem with citizen engagement was created when the county didn’t consider the needs of its community.

Civic tech is unique because of its strong focus on user-centered design — a design process focused on understanding users and seeking their input throughout the development process to ensure that the end result actually meets their needs. This feature improves relations between governments and their constituents, making it one of the most important tech movements of the modern age.

Defining Civic Tech

Civic tech is a somewhat nebulous concept. Most people define it only in terms of technology and government. Christopher Whitaker, a Code for America Brigade Manager, defined it as people from different backgrounds collaborating on projects “to engage the public or solve civic problems.” Meanwhile, the Knight Foundation, an organization dedicated to promoting journalism, argued that civic technology can span many fields, but is “focused on promoting civic outcomes.” Breaking down the term “civic tech” makes it obvious that it should involve “technology applied to the government.” But this narrow definition ignores a central aspect of the movement, which is its focus on user-centered design.

A better definition of civic tech, which incorporates the idea of user-centered design, was proposed by Laurenellen McCann, a former Civic Innovation Fellow at New America’s Open Technology Institute. McCann stressed the importance of “civic tech” encompassing products that people make to improve each other’s lives, in addition to government tech. These products need to become more common in the tech sphere, but can fall under the category of “tech for social good.”

While Code for America focuses on local solutions, civic tech is not limited only to local governments. The United States Digital Service and 18F are federal organizations that use civic tech to help the federal government become more efficient and provide better services. Other groups, like Coding it Forward, help young people enter the tech-for-social-good space. Founded by Athena Kan, Neel Mehta, and Chris Kuang, Coding it Forward provides mentorship, job opportunities, and a community for anyone interested in learning more about this field, and its members work on many civic tech projects. The definition of civic tech as technology that improves government-constituent relations, created through the process of user-centered design, works at all levels of the government.

“Build with, not for”

Wherever you can find civic tech, you can find user-centered design as a top priority. Laurenellen McCann introduced a new term for this philosophy—“build with, not for”—at the 2014 Code for America Summit. Even the USDS adheres to this principle: the first rule of their playbook is to “understand what people need.” Similarly, one of 18F’s core principles is “human-centered design.” Both of these organizations promote user-centered design as a core aspect of their missions.

The focus on user-centered design is also clear when talking to civic tech leaders. When asked to define “civic tech” in an interview with the HPR, USDS Director of Design Practice, Marcy Jacobs, said that it involved “designing tech that meets users’ needs.” Similarly, the City of Boston’s Chief Digital Officer Lauren Lockwood characterized civic tech as “technology that enables an interaction between a city’s constituents and their government.”

It must be noted that the intended users of civic tech can look very different, especially when comparing projects at federal and local levels. Local civic tech projects are often specifically designed for constituents. For example, the Miami-Dade Fellowship team designed a service for the residents of Miami-Dade County. In contrast, an organization like USDS may design tools for other federal agencies. In these cases, Jacobs points out that one must also consider “business and agency needs, and technology limitations” so that “what you’re building will help advance the mission from the agency’s perspective.” Still, juggling the agency and constituent needs does not diminish the importance of designing around user needs in general. As Jacobs explains, the goal is always “building something intuitive and with an easy design.”

Ultimately, user-centered design is a more important aspect of civic technology than the technology itself. For example, as USDS helped the IRS redesign their website, Jacobs explained that they “brought some different ways of thinking grounded in user research [and] ability testing.” This involved “writing very technical legal content in a way that made sense to the audience.” While simplifying jargon does not seem like a traditional civic tech project, it still improves government-constituent relations while focusing on user needs.

A Win-Win Situation

User-centered design is so important because it allows civic tech projects to actually work for people, facilitating government-constituent relations. This connection is evident at the local level, where people directly seek services from their government. For example, Lockwood’s team designed the City of Boston website to showcase easily-accessible tow lot information that formats to mobile screens. After all, if somebody’s car is towed, they’ll most likely pull up the website on their phones, not a desktop, and will want the relevant information immediately. In this case, user-centered design allowed the City of Boston to make services more accessible for their constituents.

User-centered design can also prevent government services from harming their constituents. For example, Lockwood pointed out that if the city needs to communicate with users, they must be careful about the format of that communication; developers don’t want to text information to citizens with “big, beautiful photos” if those photos would “shoot up” their data plan. Similarly, at the 2015 Code for America Summit, Jake Solomon described how the California food assistance program redesigned its application to stop burdening applicants. The old application was intensive: residents had to answer 200 questions on a website that didn’t work at certain hours (“the websites have business hours,” Solomon noted), have their entire family fingerprinted, and pick up a critical phone call, without any warning of when the call would come. This burdensome, inefficient process made it more difficult for users to access a crucial service. But by understanding user needs and having their civic tech team make small changes, the government stopped hurting its constituents. The application length has been reduced to 15-30 questions, and is available at all hours. Other unnecessary steps in the application process have also been cut out, and people are texted in advance of the all-important phone call.

This design philosophy can prevent governments from wasting their time by ensuring that they only create services people will actually use. The USDS built a College Scorecard, which helps high school students find information about colleges, such as graduates’ salaries. Kan, who is familiar with the work of the USDS, discussed how the team was instructed to implement a certain feature for their Scorecard website. But their user-centered design testing showed that people did not touch that feature. As a result, they cut out the feature, and did not need to spend extra time developing that one feature that nobody wanted. To save even more time, organizations can do user-testing before creating the list of features that need to be implemented. Civic tech is truly advantageous to the government, as it increases efficiency. Increasing efficiency also adds another benefit to constituents; besides receiving better services, their tax dollars are spent more effectively.

Governments can also make use of user-centered design to add new services. For example, the Department of Veteran Affairs learned that veterans wanted a way to find specific gravesites in various cemeteries. They hired a programming team to tackle this challenge, which is already a great example of creating services around what users want. They also brought in user-centered design to the development process. Kan worked on this project, and at first thought a simple map with GPS locations could solve the problem, but her interviews with veterans made her realize that GPS data alone would not help people learn more about the veterans who are buried in the cemeteries. Now, she is working to create multiple tools, including a site for grave locators that adds the missing connection between visitors and the people buried in the cemeteries.

Finally, user-centered design can help governments expand access to existing services. Before 2015, if someone wanted to renew their status as a U.S. permanent resident, they would have to fill out a long paper form and mail it to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency. USDS developed an online form in March 2015, which has a 92 percent satisfaction rate. Their work in modernizing the immigration process has resulted in 25 percent of immigration applications being completed online, and 1.1 million people being able to make filing payments online. By modernizing the application process, the USDS expanded access to immigration services and met a critical user need.

The Future of Civic Tech

While civic tech is growing, it still faces many limitations. Lockwood explains that the explosion of civic tech in Boston is unique because Lockwood’s team has the “support of a great mayor, and a great Chief Information Officer who are very supportive of the work we do.” However, she admits that not “every city has this luxury” of strong administrative support. As with any new change, it takes time to convince people to radically uproot structures that may appear to work as intended.

Still, there is hope that civic tech will continue to grow and attract people who want to use their technology and design skills to help the government. Mehta hopes that civic technology will become such an exciting field that computer science students would pursue internships in this field, instead of just at big tech corporations and tech startups.

All of these benefits of user-centered design contribute to the ultimate goal of civic tech: a better relationship between people and their government. As Mehta explained in an interview with the HPR, most people’s current interactions with government are limited to two agencies, the IRS and the DMV, which usually lead to negative experiences. Lockwood adds that for the most part, constituents lack confidence in the ability of their governments to provide essential services; put bluntly, “people expect their interactions with government to suck.” However, she is optimistic about the ability of civic tech to alleviate this problem. She hopes that very soon, civic tech and digital tools will help society “move to a place where constituents have higher expectations for their government.” Civic tech can harness the wonders of tech to drive innovation in government, but more importantly, its focus on user-centered design ensures that the final products actually solve people’s problems.

Image Source: Flickr/juhansonin

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