Tools often redefine a problem.… …[T]echnologies are developed and used within a particular social, economic, and political context. They arise out of a social structure, they are grafted on to it, and they may reinforce it or destroy it, often in ways that are neither foreseen nor foreseeable. In this complex world neither the option that “everything is possible” nor the option that “everything is preordained” exists.
Our Anglo-centric world has defined “civic tech” too shallowly. By focusing on the UK’s GDS and the US’s USDS and 18F (where two of us work) to the near-exclusion of anyone else, we are inadvertently undermining our own efforts to help build freer, more democratic, and more inclusive societies.
We do not believe this is malicious, but that doesn’t matter. Despite our best intentions to help government better serve the people, the power structures within Anglophone civic tech communities follow the same patterns we’ve seen for thousands of years in international relations Destined to Disappear and the global movement for human rights. Decolonization—not western liberals—established human rights on the global agenda
To be clear, we are intensely proud of and grateful for what GDS, USDS, 18F, and Code for America do. Together, we’ve done incredible work to make our nations’ government services better and easier to use. We also know providing access to existing resources is critical, especially given current institutional constraints.
But we also believe creating successful long-term social change will require a healthy diversity of methods. And by defining ourselves as the core of civic tech, we are overlooking a tremendous number of voices who would deeply enrich our work.
This is a problem of what we prioritize:
- Better social services but not protecting and expanding human rights and justice
- Transparency but not access to the political process
- Design approaches based on what we’re interested in building, not the community’s needs and demands.
It is also a problem of how we work:
- Recruiting people from underserved communities for jobs, but not creating environments for them to succeed
- Relying only on best practice written in English
- An US-centric definition of diversity and inclusion that often oversimplifies race, ignores class, and other power dynamics inherent in white supremacy culture The Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture.
- Assuming our frameworks and cultural norms are universally applicable
And it is a problem of who is allowed in the room:
- Who is invited to leadership convenings
- Who has the resources to attend these convenings and conferences
- Who has the resources to take up civic tech jobs
- What skills are prioritized and hired for those jobs
Increasing diversity is not enough for systemic change. If we are to create a more equitable civic tech community, we must reshape the very power dynamics that are designed to subjugate the people we are trying to serve.
We call on other US and UK technologists to decenter ourselves as the leaders in civic tech and rebuild our role in the movement as:
- Public personas who speak well and listen better, not revolutionary geniuses
- Plumbers, not “starchitects”
- Supporters, not saviors
- Servant leaders, not thought leaders
We aim to center voices from indigenous and marginalized communities where we work, the Global South, and civic technologists promoting democracy under the threat of authoritarian governments and in young and fragile democracies. We prioritize messy democracy over quick solutions.
We also call on civic technologists in the Anglosphere to engage with and learn from civic tech communities outside of Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic countries The weirdest people in the world?. We want foundations and investors to put more resources towards civic tech and open government work beyond government service design. And finally, we ask our fellow designers Decolonizing Design to shift our practices of building for communities to building with communities using collaborative and participatory co-design practices.
We are not the ones we’ve been waiting for. But we can hold the door open for those who are.
[I hope that you will use your freedom to help fight for our freedom.]
Design is no longer about designing the thing, you design the conditions for the thing to emerge, the conversation.
You Only Code as Well as You Listen
The workshop at Code for America Summit 2019
Slides, notes, and summary of conversations from the workshop coming soon.