Predictions and hopes for the next decade of civic tech

Angelica Quicksey
10 min readJan 25, 2021

Reflecting on the past and looking toward the future of the field

Quote from the article positioned over an image of a design workshop with San Francisco in 2012.
Image: Design workshop for the City of San Francisco Recreation & Parks Department in 2012 | Source: Author

The second decade of the millennium is well and done, and we are inching our way into the early days of civic technology in 2021. Over the last ten years, the field has certainly grown and become better defined. In Cyd Harrell’s recently published Civic Technologist Practice Guide, she describes civic tech as a “loosely integrated movement that brings the strengths of the private-sector tech world…to public entities with the aim of making government more responsive, efficient, modern, and more just.” This definition simply did not exist ten years ago.

As the movement enters its teenage years, there are fewer one-off hackathons and more sustainable, embedded teams. Traits that concerned me in the early days — disdainful attitudes toward civil servants, a stark lack of diversity, lack of sustainability — have been, if not resolved, then at least acknowledged and acted upon. Below are some of my reflections on those traits, followed by three predictions for the next ten years and three hopes for the future.

Civic tech and civil servants

Early in my career as a civil servant, I interacted with technologists in a certain fellowship program who would parachute into a government agency, bright-eyed and eager to solve intractable problems in 6-to-9 months.¹ I found their enthusiasm and talent impressive. I also remember them disparaging my colleagues.

“Why can’t they just” was a common refrain as folks used to private-sector, VC-backed environments chafed against public sector limitations. The tech folks often attributed slow progress on their projects to laziness, lack of interest or ability on the part of their government partners.² These tired tropes are unfortunately common in the private sector. In one memorable exchange, a technologist I worked with learned how one long-time employee painstakingly typed information about pending Requests for Proposals (RFP’s) into an obsolete CMS to publish to an offshoot of the city website. The techie mused out loud about how a solution might enable the city to cut the government worker’s job. He did not realize that the goal in government is often not to cut jobs but to enable people to shift their attention from menial tasks to higher level work. He also didn’t understand the long-standing power and influence of public-sector unions. More importantly, this technologist simply lacked empathy for a civil servant that had dedicated a career to government work.

Fast forward to 2021 and emotional intelligence or EQ is critical for technologists to be hired into the U.S. Digital Service (USDS) or a local government team. Empathy is table stakes. I saw this when I sat in on a USDS all-hands meeting just as the organization hit 200 people. In that meeting, I distinctly remember the language people used. I remember how Erie Meyer spoke respectfully and generously of the group’s agency partners. Throughout the session, teams provided updates on their work. Even in describing failed projects, they acknowledged the constraints their civil service stakeholders faced and attributed difficulties not to the intractability or lack of imagination of those public servants, but to the environment they all worked in.³ They were all in this together.

Meanwhile, rather than send unfamiliar but tech-savvy volunteers into new communities, Code for America’s latest Community Fellowship provides resources and training to local community members and partners them with their local government to improve service delivery. This community organizing approach — supporting people that are already embedded in their communities — is a radical departure from the technocratic and largely community-agnostic ethos that characterized an earlier era of civic tech.


Civic tech as a field has made marginal improvements in inclusion and diversity over the last decade. It is a domain at the intersection of two industries lacking in diversity. In tech, the racial diversity of the big tech companies has barely budged, and women still face pay and other disparities. In government, you’ll find that the population of workers looks more like the American population as a whole. However, the higher you go in any agency, the whiter, more male and monolingual it becomes.

Early on, attending CfA brigade events, govtech conferences, or hackathons organized by the SF Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation, I was often one of few (if not only) people in the room with my background: black, female, the daughter of people without college degrees, and the recipient of many of the public services under discussion. Today, some of the organizations that make up the civic tech ecosystem have made diversity and inclusion an integral part of building out their teams. In particular, I see far more women (some of whom are women of color or LGBT) leading teams and organizations at places like CfA, USDS, 18F, and the San Francisco Digital Service. Government contractor Nava PBC became majority women last year. (Full disclosure: I’m a designer at Nava.) Yet for all the good intentions, the progress in building diverse and inclusive teams is still uneven. Other facets of diversity still require work.


Civic tech is slowly becoming a more sustainable and robust enterprise. Hackathons, prototypes, and volunteer work can only get you so far. (Plus, the early emphasis on volunteerism helped cause the inequities I mentioned above. Who can afford to work for free, in their abundant free time?) Between 2010 and 2021, permanent digital service teams emerged at the federal level and in states and cities around the country, from Colorado to New Jersey. These were not philanthropy-endowed innovation teams — though there were those too. To create and sustain these teams, budgets had to be developed and adopted, new job descriptions written and positions created (no easy feat in the government context). Those teams took on the basics (the website!) as well as the complicated, seemingly intractable wicked problems that will always be at play in government (homelessness, economic development).

The civic tech nonprofits and foundations — from CfA to the Knight Foundation to single-issue groups like the Human Utility — have thrived. They have remained nonpartisan through political upheaval. They’ve helped people access benefits, cleared their criminal records, or paid their utility bills.

On the private side, I recall a lot of hand-wringing early on about the sustainability of the civic tech startup. Govtech and civic enterprises will likely never achieve the kinds of 10X returns expected by Sandhill Road, but the second decade of the millenium did see some major acquisitions that bode well for future exits. Companies like Mark43 and OpenGov successfully raised VC capital as well. And new consulting firms like Nava and Ad Hoc successfully vied for government contracts that enable them to build digital services for veterans, medicare beneficiaries, and the unemployed. It remains to be seen if they can unseat the bigger incumbents and Deloitte of the world.

Finally, these four chaotic years in the executive branch have brought renewed emphasis on the importance of government working, full stop. Whether you want it to be large or small, run by Democrats or Republicans, you at least want it to work. And the pandemic highlighted many of the gaps where our government doesn’t deliver as well as it should. I am hopeful that this desire for an effective government, combined with the knowledge of where it isn’t quite working, will draw more people and resources to all parts of public service, civic tech or otherwise.

Three predictions for the next ten years of civic tech

1. Civic tech will see more specialization around subject areas

In the next decade, civic technologists will increasingly specialize not merely in disciplines but in subject areas. We’ll have designers who focus on service design patterns for mean-based benefits programs. Data scientists who have spent their careers in criminal justice. Content strategists that are experts in financial notices. There will always be a place for generalists, but specialization will benefit the field.

2. Academia and civic tech leaders will develop a better maturity model for digital services

There have been early attempts to create a maturity model for government digital services, including one attempt out of the Harvard Kennedy School. These were not particularly robust nor sufficiently evidence-based. I expect that as academic powerhouses like the Kennedy School and the Beeck Center at Georgetown and think tanks like New America and the Aspen Tech Policy Hub turn their prodigious brainpower to better understanding the civic tech space, they will create a better maturity model for digital services. One that indicates the different models digital government teams take, where they start and their trajectories, what skills matter, and what metrics matter. This will help new teams starting out to chart their path and will help all of us evaluate the impact of these initiatives.

3. Civic technologists in the public sector will begin to focus more on the machinery of government — project management and risk, infrastructure, platforms and shared services

Efforts like and are evidence that government technologists are already realizing the value of shared platforms, following in the steps of their UK counterparts who built platforms like Gov.UK Verify and Notify. Focusing on the “plumbing” of technology — notifications, payments, cloud infrastructure — is not shiny but it has a huge impact and enables more modern services and interactions down the line. One of the most fascinating projects I ever worked on was a budgeting-and-project-management system for an unnamed civilian agency. Michael Lewis’s The Fifth Risk details what happens when project management isn’t sufficiently valued and addressed in government. (Think explosions.) Beyond the plumbing are related initiatives like case management. A government colleague once told me that she had developed some version of case management for every agency she’d ever worked for. Rather use precious time and money to re-solve case management for every agency, we can develop common platforms and approaches that can be scaled across government.

Three hopes for the future of civic tech

1. The field will become more diverse and inclusive

I want civic tech teams in the future to be more racially and gender diverse. I want them to have more socioeconomic diversity and neurodiversity. Civic technology must serve everyone (there is no alternative DMV, no IRS competitor), so it follows that everyone should take part in building it. I want many different kinds of people in leadership positions (and teaching positions) and I want the stories and cases that are written about their triumphs and failures to feature a diverse cast. Finally, it’s not enough to merely have new and diverse people in the room. They need to have a seat at the table.

2. Civic technologists will move upstream in the policy cycle

Digital services are built to deliver government services. There are many more parts to policy, including priority setting, policy formulation, and evaluation. I want technologists (designers, engineers, product people) to be part of the conversation throughout this process, and I certainly want a tech-perspective present in any policy conversation that will lead to digital delivery down the line. Years ago, an early USDS-er Matthew Weaver shared with me “A Tale of Technology Policy” in which he was working on a troubled technology project that required the use of a convoluted pipeline of software to get a bit of data from one place to another. His conclusion was that “almost all the outcomes generated by technical policy will be unintended consequences.” My conclusion is that you should have people like Weaver in the room when policy decisions are made.⁴

3. More traditional policy and political roles will be filled by people with technical and design expertise

What if the Mayor’s Chief of Staff had a UX background? What if more of our congressmen-and-women had engineering backgrounds (the 116th congress had 11 engineers and 6 software company executives). Today, initiatives like TechCongress bring technologists into sorely needed advisory roles. But I would like to see people with technical expertise moving into roles as agency heads, politicians and their staffers, local commissioners, nonprofit leaders. As civic technologists increasingly specialize (see above), they may find themselves in a position to take on programmatic roles at transit agencies, health and human-service departments, or housing-related teams.

The mission to transform the civic landscape and make it more accessible, equitable, responsive, and modern will take many more decades. Personally, I see this as a career-long ambition. As a field, we are positioned to correct some of the mistakes of the last ten years and build on our emerging successes. If we do, I’ll be able to look back on our collective impact in 2030 with pride.

Thank you to Cyd Harrell, Eric Chiu, Erie Meyer, Nick Sinai, Matt Weaver, Sha Hwang, and Zoe Blumenfeld for reading early drafts and providing invaluable feedback.


[1] No shade to fellowship programs. I got my start in government through a fellowship, though this one had a different goal: Steering recent grads into long-term public sector careers to begin addressing the talent cliff posed by the many civil servants on the verge of retirement.

[2] Helping technologists internalize the complexity and context of the problems they are up against can be a difficult endeavor. Matt Weaver explained to me that he used three rules, presented as inescapable laws of physics, for trying to speed new US Digital Service recruits through this often months-long process:

1. We tried that already. 2. We are the problem. 3. There is no bottom.

#1: Whatever idea you just had, even if it’s a few steps inwards toward the problem from “why don’t they just,” has been tried.

#2: In fact, it’s been tried by a group of people who are just as special and clever as you are, and the net result is the multi-layered mess you are now trying to Do Something About.

#3: Under every apparent problem is a deeper, more entrenched dysfunction leading to it. There is no end to that, there is always another, more deeply entrenched layer of the problem.

[3] The USDS has been criticized — with good reason — for the abrasive white knight attitude some teams took in the early days of its existence. Where the agency-based digital teams relied on relationship-building and empowering their civil service partners, those teams are still in place with a trail of wins behind them. Where they did not, those teams are less likely to still exist and future digital efforts will receive a frostier reception thanks to their missteps.

[4] This is tricky. I think oftentimes there are technologists who help write legislation like the rules that afflicted Weaver’s project. But these are often contractors and they have an incentive to write themselves into the process, guaranteeing contracts into the future. Moreover, technology changes so fast that it’s likely the solution mandated in policy will be obsolete by the time it’s enacted. It certainly will become out of date soon — the legislation Weaver was dealing with was passed in 1999.



Angelica Quicksey

🤠 Cowboy boots & community 👾 Urban planner for the internet at New_Public ⚡️ Board at Technologists for the Public Good 👉🏽 Opinions mine