A review of
A Civic Technologist’s Practice Guide
by Cyd Harrell
Five Seven Five Books
170 pages, 13 chapters
About this book
A good reference for Methods/How-To and Case Studies
Primary audience: Researchers, designers, and technical roles who are new or have some experience with the topic
Writing style: Matter of fact
Text density: Mostly text
A Civic Technologist’s Practice Guide is the book I wish had existed 5 years ago when I started to get interested in the field of civic technology (aka civic tech). When you want to get into a new domain, it’s not always clear how to get started or what you should consider before you make the leap. This book is like an instruction manual not only for getting started in the field, but also for learning how to navigate some of the common pitfalls once you’re working on a civic tech project. The book is written in a clear and concise manner and distills a lot of complex information into a manageable guide.
Cyd Harrell has been working full-time in the civic tech field since 2012 and was dabbling in it before then. She has a unique perspective because she has worked in almost every type of civic tech setup and generously shares everything she has learned along the way. She comes from a UX background, so she has a lot to say about incorporating user-centered design practices into civic technology work as well as broader concepts in technology, especially since she has expanded the scope of her work to working as Chief of Staff for 18F, a digital consultancy in the federal government.
Getting into Civic Tech
The book defines civic tech as “a loosely integrated movement that brings the strengths of the private-sector tech world (its people, methods, or actual technology) to public entities with the aim of making government more responsive, efficient, modern, and more just.” As a field, civic tech has only been around for a little over a decade; though there have been people doing technology in this space for longer. Because it is defined as working with any public entity, there are a vast number of organizations that qualify, including the federal government, state and local governments, government contracting companies, and community organizations. The first chapter outlines exactly what is included in the definition and the size of the scope of the field. The second chapter goes a bit further and acknowledges the presence of privilege in the field to help prevent things like tech savior complexes (where overrepresented people come in and try to save the day) and underscores the importance of having diverse teams that look like the people they’re serving.
The book then gets into the different ways to get involved (Chapter 3) and different types of projects (Chapter 4), which will be particularly useful for newcomers to the field. Many people will have heard about Code for America or the United States Digital Service, but the chapter outlines an exhaustive list of all the options that is sure to pique interest for people who are looking to find their niche.
Working in the Field
The book then dives deeper into practicalities of adapting technology and UX practices to work within government landscapes. There are chapters that cover the role of innovation (Chapter 5), working with regulations (Chapter 6), the essential skills you need to have to work within this space (Chapter 7), different models for project teams (Chapter 8), and working with policy (Chapter 9). All these chapters provided me with insight that I can immediately use on current projects to do my work better. They are geared toward people who are working in the field and to give newcomers a view into how the work might be different from what they’re working on today in other domains.
The next 3 chapters (Chapters 10, 11, and 12) are about making long-term change and working harmoniously with career government employees and other stakeholders. These things are the core of what makes government work different from private-sector work. Civic tech is such a huge space with a lot of complex problems to solve. Being able to work with the people who are already doing the work and handing it off to the next group of people coming in the pipeline are key to the field’s long-term success. Harrell does an excellent job of describing all of this and lays groundwork to start documenting things that have been learned so far, so we’re not all starting at square one.
The final chapter (Chapter 13) discusses burnout and the risks that come with doing this type of work. There is a lot of burnout in the field because of the slow pace of change that can have an effect on the passion that people bring to this field. Harrell provides some tips from her experience to help and possibly prevent this from happening to you including pacing yourself and making sure you have a system of people you can go to for support.
In short, if you have the slightest bit of interest in working in civic tech, you should read this book to find out whether it is for you and the particular niche you might be able to fit into. We need you to join us and bring your user-centered skills to help chip away at making government services modern, usable, and accessible for citizens.
Note: The views expressed in this review are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of the Interior or the United States.
Some of the most magical changes I have ever seen as a civic technologist have come from making it possible for public servants who feel disconnected from their constituents to observe user research and see the impact their work has for the people they serve. This powerful and accessible practice is one of the easiest for ordinary career government staff to adopt on their own, and it empowers them to be advocates for research and design.
There’s no question that design is an essential discipline. Pretty much the only way to ensure that software, however well built, is actually useful for its intended purpose is to design for (and ideally with) the people who will use it. As of 2020, design – with UX design as the leading component – is represented in every major digital service team at the federal, state, and municipal level.