‘Civic Tech’ has won the name-game. But what does it mean?

This weekend Micah Sifry helpfully restarted the debate on what names we should give to the sort of stuff that mySociety does, or that Code for America does, or that Meetup.com does.

In the time since I last wrote on this topic, it seems that one term has emerged as the clear brand-of-the-minute, and that’s the term Civic Tech. Here you can see how it has bested some veterans like ‘eGovernment’ and ‘Gov 2.0’ (although ‘Digital Government’ is a clear outlier, too).

If I were to speculate why it has won out, I’d go for two things. First is that it is easy to say.  Civic Tech has just three syllables and trips off the tongue quite easily. Second, the Knight Foundation (disclosure – a mySociety funder) has had a big impact by publicly mapping the field using civic tech as their key term.

So what does Civic Tech mean?

And this is where things get immediately tricky. Because in the last week I’ve seen and  heard people using it to mean both:

  • Tech that’s all about citizens exerting and obtaining power
  • Tech that’s all about improving government services

With the exception of voter registration, these are normally quite separate things, so this term is definitely a big tent.

Personally I have no problem with a high level term encompassing diverse ideas. There’s a massive variety of variance and specialisation under a word like ‘lobbying’, for example, but it doesn’t stop it being a useful concept.

However, we do need to be careful to make sure that Civic Tech doesn’t simply become the new word for e-government (now that that term is  e-mbarrasingly ant-i-quated). If it does become the ‘new e-government’ then everyone who builds tools that exist to do things to governments (Change.org, Nationbuilder, etc etc) will walk away from ‘Civic Tech’ and invent yet another term to describe what they do.

Extending ‘Civic Tech’

So, how can we preserve the popularity of this new term, but not alienate people who don’t consider themselves to work in the digital government sector? Here’s a go, based on the categories I wrote about last time:

  • Meetup and mySociety are Civic Tech groups focused on citizen empowerment
  • Code for America and GDS are Civic Tech groups focused on better digital government
  • Netroots Nation and Nationbuilder are Civic Tech groups focused on regime changing
  • Wikileaks and 38 Degrees are Civic Tech groups focused on influencing decisions

As always with this debate, these examples are more tentative suggestions in an ever-fluid field. I don’t for a moment mind that the somewhat-clunky ‘Civic Power Sector’ has died the death, names have to be catchy to stick.

I hope these bullets and ideas stimulate a bit more discussion, and who knows, maybe even some day some sort of rough consensus…

Lastly, I’m conscious that most of Micah’s post was actually about evaluating success or failure in civic tech. That’s a vital issue, but one that I think can be separated from the basic language of the field. I hope to come back to that in future posts.

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