I saw this blog post by Derek Eder of DataMade last week and it made me feel good that we are taking steps over at OpenGovChicago to have some concrete discussions about IT procurement in the municipal government of Chicago.
Almost invariably, when one looks at things more closely— as the people of Chicago should expect when the government is spending their money— things are more complicated and less glib than it first seems.
Over the last few years (we’re not a new movement anymore) we’ve had lots of great examples of innovations in the display of civic data but less innovation in the complicated tasks of collecting, managing, and publishing civic data. In order to move forward as a movement, the existing enterprise systems have to be better.
That means it has to be easier for tens of thousands of City employees enter data from across hundreds of miles of area, easier to pull data from systems in fluid & secure ways, easier to upgrade existing systems, and so on. We need to break the cycle of enterprise IT, where large companies with proprietary systems equate a one-time contract with an evergreen source of revenue. In short, we have to apply the principles that we hold dear— openness, loosely coupled systems, quick adoption of new technologies— to government IT.
But the civic innovation sector of the technology industry must mature if we want to take part in this change— to force it to happen. Currently, we’re playing around the edges. We have to move from our nascent non-revenue stage into sustained impact. That means forming real companies, creating products with revenue models, and, yes, getting business insurance and hiring accountants to create things like audited financial statements.
Here are some basic observations I have about the current state of the civic innovation sector of the technology industry as it relates to government IT procurement and systems:
- In an effort to build a supportive community, grandiose proclamations in the civic tech world are habitually high-fived and retweeted with very little analysis or fact-checking. A main thrust of this bravado is the conflation of the *display* of data & information with the far more expensive and complicated tasks of collecting, managing, and publishing data
- “Government IT procurement” is not a synonym for “Government IT systems”, though they are often conflated. Gov IT procurement currently does little to encourage innovation in civic tech. But w/o existing legacy gov IT systems, there would be no civic tech. The data we use for our civic tech projects doesn’t get collected, managed, and exported by itself
- There’s often a stunning lack of appreciation (not in the “gosh, you’re awesome” sense, but in the “gosh, I can’t do anything without you” sense) for city IT systems in the civic hacking movement
- In order to move from our nascent, non-revenue, anecdotal impact stage, the civic innovation sector of the technology industry must mature. That means forming real companies, creating products with revenue models, and, yes, getting business insurance and having accountants to create things like audited financial statements