Government Should Not be a Vending Machine: The Role of Civic Tech

I recently attended the Community Information Exchange Summit, presented by 2–1–1 San Diego. Over 350 people from across North America gathered to discuss citizen-centric service delivery and bridging health and social services to build strong, thriving communities.

At the center of the event was the story of 2–1–1 San Diego and its community information exchange (CIE), a collaborative approach to sharing actionable client data and facilitating connections to services addressing the social determinants of health. The CIE takes in data from community partners, such as San Diego Gas and Electric. SDG&E and 2–1–1 San Diego know that consumers who are late or fail to pay their utility bills are more likely to become homeless. So 2–1–1 San Diego has at least four different programs to help citizens make their payments, thereby reducing their prospects of homelessness.

Notwithstanding examples like 2–1–1, government — the system we the people have chosen to organize our society — is generally not citizen-centric. Instead, I believe government has been slowly moving away from productive citizen engagement for decades. Many prolific thinkers, including Tim O’Reilly, CEO of O’Reilly Media, have described government as operating like a vending machine. Citizens collectively put our money into the machine and, in exchange, we get goods and services. Tax revenue is turned into police and fire services, clean water, electricity, roads, and bridges. When the machine already has our money and we don’t get what we want, we get upset; we feel a need to shake the machine until something comes out, even if it isn’t the service we wanted.

Government does not need to be a vending machine. For the last decade, I’ve been watching and participating in the civic technology movement. Civic tech enables relationships between the people and government via the delivery of digital services and exchange of information. It is exciting to see that there is more support than ever for increased citizen participation in government service delivery. And, within the civic tech community, there is more dialogue between the people and government.

Civic tech isn’t a person, a company, or a product; it is a model of engagement and service design. Civic tech is citizen-centric. It offers what government more broadly does not by recognizing the importance of constant citizen engagement. While the civic tech movement is rapidly gaining momentum, however, there are still too few champions breaking down the barriers preventing a modern digital government. To quote California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, despite changing expectations from citizens, “we have an institutional structure that doesn’t reward this kind of disruption.”

One of the pillars of civic tech is citizen-centric service design and delivery. Citizens must be engaged constantly and throughout the design and improvement of government digital services. Civic tech is about having a bi-directional flow of information and ideas between the people and government. The civic tech community also recognizes that government does not have all of the answers. Government must allow the people to help find and inform solutions since they are the ones who are impacted.

The United States Digital Service (USDS), a consulting agency staffed by federal civil servants, partnered with the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to improve the application process for services. USDS’ citizen-centric approach highlighted how working directly with veterans quickly identified improvements in VA service design and delivery. Those service improvements have given about 600,000 veterans the ability to apply for health and education benefits through The revamped service makes it easier to access the correct forms online. They streamlined the VA appeals processing to eliminate manual steps and errors, and gave veterans real-time status updates. Here’s an article in which you can learn more about the project and watch a video of a veteran using the system.

Code for America, a California-based non-profit, initially partnered with San Francisco County to simplify the process for applying for food assistance. Working closely with citizens and the county, Code for America was able to decrease the standard application time from 45 minutes to under 10 minutes using a mobile phone. Early project success led to partnerships with the California Department of Social Services and 33 counties. Over 260,000 people have benefited from this service. Check out this article to learn more about how Code for America worked to identify and remove the barriers for applicants.

A number of examples of citizen-centric service design were discussed during last month’s event in San Diego. 2–1–1 employees and their service-delivery partners described their commitment to the citizens of their city and county. A protocol the CIE enabled for 2–1–1 was the ability to follow-up and ensure that critical assistance was rendered. Previously, CIE employees might not have known if a homeless family would have shelter for the night. Now, those who need help can choose to opt into collaborative data-sharing that enables more-efficient and effective service delivery. While the presentations are not yet available online, here’s where you can find out more about the Community Information Exchange.

Local government was the birthplace of civic tech, in large part due to the intimacy of the governing relationship. I see my city council member and city workers on a regular basis. Had I not worked in state government, my only interaction might have been my driving test at age 16. As intimacy is lost, the potential reach and impact of state and local governments increases.

I have found that the skills and modes of engagement first pioneered within local government are equally effective and applicable at larger scale. The approach to changing the service-delivery model that I believe should be the first step for any organization is citizen journey mapping. Just like it sounds, a “citizen journey” is the end-to-end process that a person experiences when seeking a government service. What makes this process revolutionary is that it is anchored in how citizens experience the service, not in how government agencies do.

I encourage all government leaders to embrace the ideals of civic tech and spend time experiencing their services with their customers. At your next lunch break, go online and apply for your own service or visit your lobby and ask someone if you can follow them through the process. Be curious.

That’s what 211 San Diego is striving — successfully — to do. I suggest we all pay attention.

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