The Case for Engagement

Contemporary democracies face challenges of building inclusive governance given bureaucratized governments tasked to make policy for large populations. Governance is viewed as a matter of technocratic elites grappling with interdependent, highly challenging problems.1

— Hollie Russon Gilman: Democracy Reinvented

Government employees collaborating with volunteer technology groups at weekly “hack nights” or at periodic technology events may seem like a recent phenomenon, but it can be viewed as part of a larger (and longer) tradition in government of accessing expertise and special skills outside of the bureaucracy to improve public services.

Engagement with outside stakeholders and experts is an important component of successful policymaking, and for designing and implementing effective public services. Governments have traditionally used a wide variety of mechanisms to engage with outside groups but the rationale for engagement (and the methods employed) typically falls into one of three general categories.

  • Governments solicit input from outsiders using processes like community planning or participatory budgeting to help gauge strength of sentiment, or to help balance competing priorities among disparate stakeholder groups.2

  • Governments can engage directly with the consumers of public services and solicit their feedback and insights to help improve those services using an approach called “coproduction.”

  • Governments use an array of legal and administrative tools to directly access the skills and expertise of outside individuals or firms, particularly when the problem or issue being addressed is new or complex, or the skills required to address it are scarce inside the bureaucracy.3

This section will discuss the last two categories in more detail, as they relate most directly to engaging with outside technology groups to leverage their specific skills and expertise around technology and data.

Building Better Services Together

There is a rich history of research and practice around the idea of “coproduction” of public services which is directly relevant to the discussion of collaborating with technology groups outside of government. That being said, there are lots of people in the world of civic technology that are unaware of this long history of study and practice, and there are many people inside government familiar with coproduction that are not aware of how this concept relates to outside engagement with volunteer technology groups.

In explaining what coproduction is and how it works, one of the most commonly used examples is community policing, where policing services are improved by directly interacting with residents in a neighborhood. Through personal interactions, police officers working in a particular neighborhood may gain insights and information that help them develop better strategies for crime prevention, and ultimately provide better service to the community. In this coproduction example, the residents of a neighborhood provide a kind of expertise—their intimate knowledge of a place and the people in it—to help refine and improve a public service.

In a 1983 article published in the journal Public Administration Review, Jeffrey Brudney and Robert England (from the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University respectively) offered the following summary of the idea of "coproduction," which we could use almost word-for-word to describe the modern civic technology movement.

Coproduction is an emerging conception of the service delivery process which envisions direct citizen involvement in the design and delivery of city services with professional service agents. In this manner, coproduction proposes an answer to the more services-less cost dilemma: By supplementing—or perhaps supplanting—the labors of paid public officials with the service-directed activities of urban dwellers, coproduction has the potential to raise both the quality and the efficiency of municipal services.4

One of the most broadly accepted definitions of what coproduction is comes from a 2003 study in the Journal of Developmental Studies by Anuradha Joshi and Mick Moore. They described coproduction this way:

The provision of public services…through regular, long-term relationships between state agencies and organized groups of citizens, where both make substantial resource contributions.5

Though written in a different context—what we know today as “civic tech” didn’t exist until several years after this study was written—it's worth noting that this definition could very accurately be applied to the modern civic technology movement.

Brudney and England make special note in their work of the financial plight at the time in the City of Detroit, where then-Mayor Coleman Young proposed a new approach to city services that leveraged the efforts of ordinary citizens. This approach was derided at the time by some as an example of “self-service government.” Brudney and England’s response to this criticism could very well have been written as part of the lexicon of the 21st century civic technology movement:

Government is a reflection of those who define the city – the local citizenry. The ‘self-service’ concept constitutes a redefinition of traditional service delivery patterns.6

The modern civic technology movement was incubated in urban areas. Governments in big cities like Washington D.C., New York City and Chicago were among the first to actively recruit outside software developers to build solutions on top of government open data. There are some obvious reasons why big cities have been among the first to embrace the idea of leveraging the talents of outside technologists.

Cities provide a more comprehensive and intimate range of services to citizens than other levels of government. And they are also limited—far more so than states or the federal government—in their use of various revenue sources to fund their operations.7 The pressure for governments to do more with less is felt most acutely at the municipal level. Cities, then, can be viewed as the inception point for both our understanding of the idea of coproduction as well as the modern civic technology movement.

Many of the examples of successful collaboration with volunteer technology groups that will be discussed in this book, as well as examples of the barriers to collaboration, are gleaned from responses to a survey of current and former city employees. The cities that were surveyed are leading the way in developing new strategies for external engagement that are built on our traditional understanding of collaborative services design through coproduction.

Governments use coproduction to tap into the expertise of people that consume public services so that they can make those services better. It is a collaborative undertaking that affords people outside of the bureaucracy an opportunity to lend their insights and their specialized knowledge to improve how government works.

Volunteers in the world of civic technology work on solutions to civic problems with data and information provided by governments. This is also a collaborative undertaking that lets people outside the bureaucracy apply their special knowledge and skills to improve how government works.

A New Way of Collaborating

The kind of collaboration discussed in this book—government employees collaborating with volunteer technology groups—fits well into our understanding of coproduction, an approach that governments have used for the last several decades. However, there are some differences between the way traditional coproduction has worked and how engaging with outside technologists to foster new solutions can work. We need to understand these differences and be able to describe them.

One way to do this is to classify these activities not as coproduction, but as something new:

Exoproduction of public services can be said to occur when all or part of a service typically provided by a government or a public sector entity occurs outside of, or exogenous to, the agency of government explicitly (or implicitly) charged with providing that service, or a component of it.

This description accommodates an important difference from the traditional idea of coproduction. In coproduction, a public service is provided by a government agency and the agency (or some other arm of government) invites the direct consumers of that service to provide their input in order to improve it. Something slightly different is happening when governments work with volunteer technologists, and we need to expand our definition of this new concept to accommodate this.

Exoproduction of public services can be said to occur when all or part of a service typically provided by a government or a public sector entity occurs outside of, or exogenous to, the agency of government explicitly (or implicitly) charged with providing that service, or a component of it. While governments do not directly provide services or information in scenarios where exoproduction occurs, they do make available the raw materials or components necessary for the service to be provided by an outside party.

A clear example of this concept can be seen when looking at information on transit services. Transit authorities are charged with operating and maintaining public transit systems, and as part of their responsibilities they must communicate to transit riders the schedules for transit services, the fares for such services, and even the current status of various transit assets (e.g., is the R3 train running on time?).8

However, through efforts to share the raw data on transit schedules and real-time vehicle location information, many transit agencies are encouraging the development of third-party applications and solutions that can fill this role.9 A non-trivial number of transit riders now obtain information on transit services from a source outside the official purview or control of transit authorities.10

There are other examples where outside parties develop solutions on top of government provided data to fill a role or address an issue that would typically fall under the official responsibilities of a government agency. In Philadelphia (as in many big cities) there are volunteer efforts underway to encourage the repurposing of vacant properties, even though official responsibility for this falls under the duties assigned to specific government agencies.11 These outside efforts are enabled by the deliberate release of property information by the City of Philadelphia.12 The city encourages the development of these third-party solutions by releasing data openly, and helps maintain them by keeping that data current and updated.

The new concept of exoproduction extends the traditional notion of coproduction because it can involve accessing expertise from people outside of government that are not necessarily the direct users of a government service. The expertise lent by these individuals is not a personal experience with a specific service, but rather their ability to, among other things, develop and deploy new technologies more quickly and more cost effectively than governments can.

The challenge then is ensuring that the design, implementation, and marketing of civic technology solutions is properly aligned with the needs of those to be served rather than the predilections or preferences of those building these solutions.13 User-centered design is a fundamental principle of good software development, but proficiency in this discipline may vary across different volunteer technology groups. And while there is a growing body of resources available for volunteer technologists who want to engage with end users as they develop civic applications, some technology communities—particularly those that are smaller in size or newly formed—may not be as well-positioned to leverage those resources as others.

It’s worth noting that although a sizeable body of research and practice exists on coproduction, this approach is not always utilized by government agencies when implementing new services or enhancing existing ones. Undertaking collaborative service design successfully often requires new resources, specialized training, and expertise. Developing the organizational capacity to do coproduction well can take time, and not every government agency is equally well-positioned to do this even if they desire to do so.

And so it is with collaborative solution development by volunteer technology communities. Developing the organizational capacity within these groups to collaboratively build civic apps with those intended to be served can take time and should appropriately be viewed by those in the bureaucracy as an ongoing process, one that they can help inform and assist.

It is important that our formal understanding of volunteer technology activities occurs within the framework of coproduction because of the strong focus that coproduction has on soliciting input and feedback from the direct consumers of a service or solution. In instances where exoproduction occurs, developing feedback mechanisms to ensure that a solution best meets the needs of those intended to be served can sometimes be challenging. This underscores the importance of direct involvement and stewardship by governments with those working in the world of volunteer civic technology, to help ensure that these feedback mechanisms are in place and being used.

Tapping the Experts Outside

Governments have an array of different tools available to tap into expertise or special skill sets outside the bureaucracy.

Most people know that the government can use the procurement process to buy services from outside parties. Many of the technology solutions and other goods and assets used by governments to deliver services and information directly to citizens are built by (or with the help of) outside parties.14

Social and mental health services may be provided by outside parties like neighborhood-based agencies or church groups. Some cities have specially-created business improvement districts with quasi-taxing authority to support things like trash pickup, graffiti removal, and security. 15

Legislative and regulatory bodies solicit public comment on proposed laws and regulations. This allows outsiders with specific knowledge on the activity or issue being regulated to offer insights. In some cases, soliciting public input for a prescribed period of time is explicitly required before a regulatory change can take effect.16

Another common way for governments to tap into outside expertise is to appoint a panel or commission, which typically includes representatives from outside government.17 Membership on one of these bodies, particularly if it is of the “Blue Ribbon” variety,18 is usually reserved for people not connected to the bureaucracy who have established expertise in a given area. Establishment of these bodies typically follows the passage of a statute or resolution, or the adoption of an executive order that vests authority in the body, articulates the appointing criteria, and lays out the scope of work.

It is not uncommon for governments to use special panels or commissions in an effort to address issues with technology implementation. In 2001, then-Governor Ruth Ann Minner established the Delaware Information Services Task Force comprised of both state officials and outside technology experts in the wake of several large-scale technology project failures. This task force recommended a new IT management structure for the state, including the establishment of an independent technology department to oversee statewide projects, and the creation of a cabinet-level CIO position.

In discussing the rationale for establishing the task force, the Governor noted the lack of expertise within state government:

Many of us don't have the expertise to know exactly what we need, and by establishing the task force and bringing together a group of people from the business community as well as from government, we found out exactly where they thought we should move and moved in that direction.19

These examples almost always involve the direct oversight and control of government through a formal contract, or through some other vehicle like enabling legislation or a resolution. Governments typically provide money or explicit authority to outside parties to act as a proxy on their behalf for the delivery of a service. These channels for collaboration are usually highly formal and very organized, and it is typically possible to evaluate how specific submissions impacted (or did not impact) a policy outcome.20

Engagement with outside technology communities to foster exoproduction is different in several important ways.

Instead of money, the currency of exoproduction is usually data that has been specifically formatted by governments for use by third-parties. This is especially true when such data is staged on an open data platform or provided through an API. Unlike with more traditional collaboration efforts, there is a direct relationship to the quality of outreach (i.e., the data provided) and the magnitude of the response: even a poorly written RFP may draw a large response, while a data set of poor quality or that is infrequently updated will mostly likely be ignored.

Governments typically do not exercise direct control over how outside parties use data or APIs to build new solutions, conduct studies, or build visualizations.21 A government RFP can be designed to solicit responses for building something in a very specific way; a government-appointed panel or commission is given a specific scope of work and often assigned a specific set of deliverables that must be provided within a set time frame. Governments do not have the same level of control over things built by volunteer technologists through exoproduction.

When selecting vendors, or members of a government panel or commission, governments can leverage existing networks and communities.22 In other words, they know who to reach out to and communicate with about these collaboration opportunities. Though it is possible to critique these existing networks as being overly narrow, governments already have access to them and use them every day as a way to identify and solicit input from people outside government with special knowledge or skills.

When governments want to collaborate outside of these more traditional methods—say, by releasing open data and communicating the opportunity to use it to members of the local technology community—they often don’t have existing connections or relationships that they can leverage. And they may face some challenges in developing connections to the members of this community.


Governments can craft policies and deliver services more efficiently and successfully by engaging outside stakeholders and experts.

There is a long tradition of practice and body of research around the idea of coproduction that governments have used for many years to collaborate with groups of people outside of bureaucracy to improve the way that public services are provided.

Governments use a variety of existing mechanisms to leverage the expertise and skills of people outside of government to help them fulfill their mission. These mechanisms are almost always under the direct, formal control of government and involve the transfer of money or authority (or both) to outside parties to act on behalf of government or in some other official capacity.

The modern civic technology movement sits firmly in the tradition of coproduction and helps extend it by enabling services and solutions to be developed in ways that don't fall under the direct control of government and do not require governments to transfer money or authority to outside parties.

Identifying, communicating, and collaborating with groups in the world of civic technology engaged in exoproduction can be a challenge for governments given the existing tools available to them to collaborate with outside experts.


  1. We might also include input like that which is given at public meetings, like testimony at legislative council meetings, in this category. Those familiar with Sherry Arnstein's "Ladder of Citizen Participation" may place these mechanisms in the consultation rung of the ladder.

  2. For example, the government procurement process.

  3. Toward a Definition of the Coproduction Concept. Jeffrey Brudney and Robert England. Public Administration Review, 1983.

  4. Institutionalised Co-production: Unorthodox Public Service Delivery in Challenging Environments. Anuradha Joshi and Mick Moore.

  5. Ibid.

  6. Since local governments are ‘creatures of the state,’ state governments dictate the various revenue options available to local governments. See

  7. The R3 line is the Media/Elwyn Line Regional Rail line operated by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Regional Transit Authority.

  8. The General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) provides a standard way for transit authorities to share data in easily usable formats. See

  9. For a more comprehensive lists of third-party transit apps see

  10. For example, see Grounded in Philly.

  11. For a list of available datasets on property from the City of Philadelphia, see

  12. This issue is discussed again in Section 3.

  13. Governments may also issue RFPs to acquire goods and services from outside parties to take advantage of efficiencies. In some cases, particularly with IT projects, governments could develop solutions in house but may opt to use COTS or other pre built solutions.

  14. For example, see the Community Development Corporations in the City of Philadelphia.

  15. For an example of this, see the federal rulemaking process, and the requirement for outside comments from experts here

  16. Additional rationale for appointing outsiders to a panel or commission are impartiality, objectivity, and political neutrality.

  17. In an RFP process, a winning submission is identified and entities submitting proposals that were not selected may be informed why their submission was not chosen.

  18. Though most government open data releases include a set of terms and conditions that provide some limited governance over how it may be used - typically by listing the ways in which its use is prohibited.

  19. Vendors that wish to bid on government contracts are typically required to be registered with the government that is issuing the RFP.

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