Notes from TICTeC Civic Tech Surgery #1: Public-private collaborations

Last week saw the first TICTeC Civic Tech Surgery, a new format for us and a hands-on approach to fixing some of the pervasive problems in civic tech.

The TICTeC Labs programme goes like this: we gather experts together to lead a discussion on the challenges, potential solutions and ideas within one topic area affecting the civic tech community. If interested, participants can apply to take suggested ideas forward in a smaller working group, building solutions with the aid of a grant to support their work.

Our first Surgery saw four experts tackling the problems that occur when NGOs and non-profits take on work within governments and public authorities, something mySociety is well acquainted with thanks to our activity — now all under the banner of SocietyWorks — selling Software as a Service.

Adding their ideas and experience to the conversation were Aline Muylaert of CitizenLab; Amanda Clarke, Associate Professor at Carleton University; Gabriella Razzano of OpenUp in South Africa and Ebtihaj Khan from Code for Pakistan.

Notes from the meeting can be seen here, as well as the full recording of the session here, but we’ll summarise the main points here.


Procurement in government It can be hard for small organisations to compete against the big players, especially because bidding for a piece of work often involves jumping through many bureaucratic hoops.

The structure of governments Set ways of doing things can often be incompatible with the Agile approach that is most favoured by civic technologists. Also, if you are affecting how one department of government works, ideally the benefits would ripple out across all other departments, but the siloed nature of government departments often prevents this.

The short-term nature of governments When building anything, of course you want it to have a lasting effect; but elections and changes in political control often mean that a project is thrown out when a new regime takes over.

The world view of governments An added task comes in educating governments about the motivations of civic technologists, and the value of putting citizens at the centre of work. They also need to know about the benefits of keeping projects running longterm.

The knowledge within governments As government staff often don’t have detailed technical skills themselves, the door is open for big players to demand high dollar contracts that lock clients into a single vendor.

Possible solutions

Shaking up procurement One solution that can be effective is in ‘micro contracting’ – breaking a large requirement into several smaller pieces of work, thus allowing smaller organisations to bid for them. Mandates that procurement should be for open source development would also be beneficial.

Clever contracts Civic tech providers can add clauses to their contracts which mean that time is dedicated for user-centred research, for example, or make clear that Agile methods will be used. Adding goals around impact is one way to try to ensure that the real reason for the development isn’t forgotten. Once contracts have been drawn up, the templates could be shared for other governments or civic technologists to use.

Nurturing government staff If they are around long enough for relationships to be built, staff can be inducted into healthy civic tech approaches; for example they can be included in bootcamp sessions.

Writing case studies It’s really useful to be able to share concrete examples of where civic tech interventions have resulted in tangible improvements, and government clients can find these very motivating and exciting. At the same time we could look to write some case studies with examples of where the problems we’ve identified were solved, eg by introducing Agile methods into the work, as a persuader.

Research We can learn a lot of research conducted 40-50 years ago, when many of the issues with public/private contracting, a new idea back then, were the same as they are now. We also need new qualitative data from the people working on data projects: if we can uncover corruption (which we know is an issue in places across the world) it will cause an uproar.

Action lab

Some of this discussion also took place on Padlet and you can see more ideas there.

We are now inviting people to join the working group (aka Action Lab), which will comprise up to 6 people who are keen to further develop solutions together, for the benefit of the wider civic tech community.

To keep an eye on this progress, and to know more about the next Surgery, see the TICTeC website or sign up for email updates.