Civic tech has lost its way…again

Two years ago I was hopeful about the future of civic tech, but now we’re (1) extracting people’s stories in the name of research and movement building, (2) re-entrenching in Washington, D.C., (3) dismissing valid critique, (4) rejecting imperfect institutions in favor of revolution over reform, and (5) ceding our place at the table.

A photo of a large white room, populated by a few luminaries from the worlds of public interest technology and tech-for-good. People are trickling in from a reception where there was not enough food — mostly fruit and water and alcohol. There is a dark, red overlay on the image. The words “civic” and “tech” are written in bold letters. The definitions of these words are written beneath them, using the definitions that come up when you Google “define civic” or “define tech.”
Source: Author’s photo and illustration. Alt text: A photo of a large white room, populated by a few luminaries from the worlds of public interest technology and tech-for-good. People are trickling in from a reception where there was not enough food — mostly fruit and water and alcohol. There is a dark, red overlay on the image. The words “civic” and “tech” are written in bold letters. The definitions of these words are written beneath them, using the definitions that come up when you Google “define civic” or “define tech.”

My name is…

My name is Angelica Quicksey. My family is from many places, and for many years I’ve worked in civic tech and government digital services. At various times before (and during) the years that I worked in civic tech, I relied on nearly every public benefit offered by the various levels of the United States government.

Unfortunately, while I once was hopeful about the future of civic tech, in the year of our Lord 2022, the field has lost its way…again.

01. Stories and shame

Extracting people’s stories in the name of research and movement building

Human-centered design in the way it is practiced by civic technologists is an extractive practice, both in our design work and in our organizations. If you’ve worked with me in the last 10+ years, you won’t have heard most of my stories. You probably don’t know the level of government support that I’ve received in my lifetime or that I possess the “lived expertise” you’ve been referencing.

Frankly, I’m not quick to share my personal narrative because hearing it is a privilege to be earned. It is not a right.[1]

This is how I prefer to operate in professional settings. I discovered early on that civic-and-gov-tech organizations try to make people with lived experience the poster children of their movement. Personally, I’m less than interested.

To be clear, I’m extraordinarily proud of where I’m from. While my WASP-iest acquaintances may mislabel my tight-lipped approach to the past, I am the product of my environment and my family makes me feel all kinds of emotions, but never shame.

In fact, at a recent team retreat, I realized something about the shame I do carry. I feel shame most acutely about my many credentials — the laurels I spent years accumulating so that people in positions of power would listen to what I had to say. These things make me feel the distances I’ve traveled from my neighbors and cousins. All those degrees because I wanted to be invited to the table.

Now that I’m here, I kind of resent all the effort. What I have to say hasn’t changed much at all.

02. Power in the capital

Re-entrenching in Washington D.C.

Tech saviorism is back in the federal government with a vengeance. During the Trump years, I watched U.S.D.S. shrink and their recruiting efforts yield fewer technologists. Some of the people that left Washington, D.C. landed in state and local government. Some in academic institutions. Some made their way to consulting.

I was hopeful with the new administration that these organizations would be re-injected with life. They were.

But many of the same white knights who came to DC between 2012 and 2016 came back in 2021 for a second “tour of duty”. From what I’ve heard and seen, they brought with them their disrespectful attitudes toward civil servants and service-men and -women.[2] With this kind of attitude, they dishonor (yet again) the very notion of service to this country.

03. Feedback is a gift, sometimes poorly wrapped

Dismissing valid critique

“Feedback is a gift” is a phrase I hear a lot in civic tech design circles. But I’ve also heard the folks that repeat it—usually the ones most proximate to power—ask others to share their concerns with a specific person-of-authority at an appointed time. A wise colleague once pointed out to me that when you give someone feedback about a system or an organization that’s not working for everyone, and the recipient criticizes how you say it or when it was said, that response is a form of dismissal. Gifts don’t always arrive at the time of your choosing or in the most beautiful packaging you can imagine. Imperfect feedback is feedback too. And if proximity to power has made you numb to that fact, then perhaps you’ve also lost the privilege of receiving such gifts.

Feedback is a critical part of our work, and my approach to it has evolved to focus on the giver and the receiver of valid critique.

  • Giving: Feedback should be constructive and actionable; honest but kind. We critique the work, not the person. We do not give destructive criticism, meaning we never tear down another person or their work. I’m better able to tell now when a critic is aiming to destroy someone instead of building them up. Tear-downs of this sort are not a valid form of feedback.
  • Receiving: I encourage myself and others to receive feedback in the spirit it is given. Sometimes it takes me time to look past the packaging too.

Like all things, my feedback philosophy is impermanent and will continue to change over time.

04. Imperfect institutions

Rejecting imperfect institutions in favor of revolution over reform

Our institutions have never been perfect. They are deeply imperfect. But there are two reasons I have chosen a career of making incremental change and not revolutionary change.

  • First, the people who tend to lose their livelihoods in revolutions are rarely people in positions of power. They are the folks in my family — caretakers, medical assistants, teachers, welders, EMTs, carpenters, general contractors, social workers.
  • Second, the people who tend to die in revolutions are infantrymen and not officers. Despite how progressives may feel, the United States military is still one of the best paths to stability for young brown men with-or-without college degrees. Because I am a proud army sister, I would rather work with our defense agencies than throw our brothers and sisters to the next insurrection.

History has taught me that there has never been a perfect institution. We are all merely works in progress, semi-organized groups of people in the process of becoming something better.

05. Giving up ground

Ceding our place at the table

Recently I’ve noticed a funny trend. It started with Serena Williams’ husband. He left the board of the company he founded to make space for a woman of color. And then people of all stripes and sizes — many white men, but also others — started taking themselves out of the running for leadership positions.[3]

Seeing this phenomenon happen again and again made me realize I was doing it too. I am very conscious that I came out looking like a glass of milk with a drop of coffee instead of the other way around. That high yellow women have chosen to pass in order to access an easier path, and colorism is terribly real. For a long time, I have consciously decentered myself in conversations and organizations that center blackness because with my light eyes and the white voice I use on the phone when I handle business, I have been mistaken for someone I am not more times than I can count. I will probably always do this.

But recently when I asked a colleague for feedback, they shared that they wished I showed up more in the black ERG at work. I had made assumptions about how I ought to show up. But my kind colleague suggested that sometimes ceding your place at the table isn’t making room for others; it’s just giving up ground that perhaps you were meant to occupy.

Still processing

So why say y’all are off track at this moment?

For a very long time — as long as I’ve been doing this work — I’ve been hesitant to criticize what I see as a fledgling movement of people attempting to do good. Everyone is cultivating the karass. And I genuinely believe that most people in civic tech are doing their best most of the time.

Also, even though I’ve always been a bit of a civic-tech-critic, I’ve also frequently felt like I wasn’t part of the club. Civic tech is clique-y that way. So when I finally felt invited, I dismissed my discomfort. I was happy to be part of something bigger than myself, thrilled to work on systems that benefited people like me, and eager to celebrate the incremental progress I had seen over the years.

But something disconcerting happened in 2021 and 2022. I watched the movement backslide. Not just a little, but a lot.[4]

To be clear, I didn’t leave my last role for the above reasons. I left because I was invited to do something different by two leaders that I respect. When we’re ready, I’ll write about what we’re up to. For now I’ll only say that I’m flexing facilitation muscles that are very rusty, and I’ve discovered I’m shockingly good at budgeting. I’m also still processing what I want to take with me from my many government digital service roles, as well as identifying what I want to leave behind.

I’m also discovering, day-by-day, that I still have quite a bit to say. I’m bubbling over with energy and enthusiasm, interrupting people with my excitement (sorry!), and it quickly became clear that some of that excess energy had to land on The Internet.

While processing the past, I’m still somewhat hopeful for the future of civic tech and government digital services. Any person or organization that has lost their way always has the opportunity to move toward a different path, fix their own d — house.

Someday, down the road, I may re-join you.

[1] I also don’t believe in extracting stories from research participants. I believe in inviting them to share, with the understanding that they may be unwilling and justified in feeling that way. But that’s for another post.

[2] A quiet colleague unintentionally showed me that one of my many blind spots is gender and gender fluidity. I am a cis-gendered hetero woman of color and my language is still evolving in this respect. I am also a work in progress.

[3] Another funny truth is that a white man I worked with once, and greatly respect, has helped me obtain every role I’ve had since I left graduate school. For that reason, I’m helping him promote his book.

[4] I think the unionization efforts were a reaction to this backsliding. And by the way, I instinctively have a hard time supporting white collar unions. I was dragged to picket lines as a child to hold signs I didn’t understand. The (mostly) men on those picket lines were fighting for working conditions that wouldn’t damage the nerves in the arms of the people riveting planes and wages that were far less than six figures. I may never understand unions for knowledge workers who work from home. But that is my personal bias, and I will also never stand in the way of progress.

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Angelica Quicksey

Angelica Quicksey

Civic technologist • Urban planner for the internet, New_ Public • Board member, Technologists for the Public Good & CMCAA • Opinions = mine