The Challenges to Engagement

Our findings show a critical link between cities and practitioners. Civic tech is not a sector that has been driven forward entirely outside of governmental systems. Rather, it has been built in partnership with key stakeholders inside and outside government…1

— Omidyar Network: Engines of Change

The prospect of partnering with innovators in the local technology community has many potential benefits for those working in the bureaucracy. This is particularly true for state and local governments, which can face more acute challenges in acquiring and managing technology, and in attracting employees with the skill sets to build new solutions and use data in creative ways.

But working with outside groups of technology volunteers is not without challenges either.

Managing a Volunteer Army

In surveying a group of current and former city government employees with experience working with outside technology groups and similar kinds of volunteers, a common set of issues appears.

Project scoping and sustainability were mentioned as challenges by almost every survey respondent:

One challenge is the external parties' time and commitment to the project. Cities should not rely on these partnerships to provide enterprise level solutions for big city problems.

Most of this is done on a volunteer basis, which necessarily limits the scope to tiny, weekend- or evening-level wins, resulting in criticism that our ideas and solutions aren't big enough. Expectations on the government side for what people can/should do without any form of compensation are unrealistic.

One way to view the efforts of volunteers from the local technology community who want to devote time and energy building solutions for their city or community as part of a larger tradition of volunteerism which has benefited governments for many years. Government collaboration with volunteers may be new to the world of technology and software development, but in other areas of public service delivery it is far more common. Volunteer fire and ambulance companies are probably the most well-known example of volunteer efforts providing critical services in some communities, where government-supported professional services are used in other communities.

This does not mean, however, that volunteer efforts to supplement or improve government services can exist only in areas where governments are unable (or unwilling) to provide such services. There are some prominent examples where volunteer efforts operate side-by-side with government-supported professional services, even in the case of critical services like fire and emergency services. For example, the Hatzalah is a volunteer emergency medical and ambulance organization that serves Jewish communities in cities around the world, but most notably in larger urban and suburban areas (like the New York City area, where paid ambulance services already exist) that have large Jewish populations.2

Neighborhood watch groups, adopt-a-highway programs, and community cleanup efforts are other common examples where volunteers are helping to provide (or enhance) a service that would ordinarily fall to government alone to provide. In many of these examples, the level of specialized skill needed to participate in a volunteer activity is relatively low, which contrasts with volunteer activities focused on building technology or using data, which may require very specialized skills.

There may be personal motivations for engaging in certain kinds of volunteer activities over others. Self-interest may serve as motivation (at least in part) for participating in a community clean up or neighborhood watch effort, where volunteers can benefit more directly from the activities of a group. The motivations for participating in a volunteer technology effort are more nuanced than for other kinds of volunteer activities because the people creating a civic technology solution may not be the people who end up using the solution. In addition, neighborhood watch and community clean up groups typically don't require investment in infrastructure that must be maintained over time, which can differ significantly from volunteerism that generates technology solutions which must be maintained and updated over time.

In the case of volunteers from the world of technology, government employees may face barriers in accessing the tools and platforms that these groups use to congregate and communicate. Some government agencies place strict limits on access to certain websites that can extend to the most common platforms used by civic technologists (Slack, Github, Trello, and some social media) to collaborate on projects and share ideas.

One respondent to the survey of current and former city government employees described these limitations this way:

There are many restrictions on what technologies I can use, which makes it hard to collaborate. We are generally set up only to work on projects we either own completely or take no responsibility for. Working in true partnership is extremely difficult to do.

In addition, opportunities to meet and collaborate with the local technology community in the same physical space often occur at inopportune times for government employees. Technology meetups and hackathons typically occur after traditional work hours or on weekends, and often take place outside of official government offices. The previous section touched on efforts in the City of Chicago, where government officials are regular participants in events organized by the local technology community. However, this is often the exception rather than the rule — it is rare for governments to have official remote work policies that would better enable public sector employees to participate in these events.3

Beyond just a minor inconvenience, this limitation goes to the heart of what some experts believe is a key ingredient in fostering innovative partnerships. As an example, consider the work done by Bell Labs and the culture of creativity fostered by its longtime leader, Mervin Kelly.4 As research director at Bell Labs, Kelly had very specific thoughts on the need for physical proximity to foster innovation and new ideas:

His fundamental belief was that an 'institute of creative technology' like his own needed a 'critical mass' of talented people to foster a busy exchange of ideas. But innovation required much more than that. Mr. Kelly was convinced that physical proximity was everything; phone calls alone wouldn't do. Quite intentionally, Bell Labs housed thinkers and doers under one roof. Purposefully mixed together on the transistor project were physicists, metallurgists and electrical engineers; side by side were specialists in theory, experimentation and manufacturing.5

This same thinking underlies the creation of new public and private collaboration spaces like Civic Hall in New York City and Superpublic in San Francisco.6 These are places where government employees and those from the technology community and other sectors can work in close proximity to share ideas and create new solutions to persistent problems.

The absence of opportunities for government employees to work in close collaboration with outside groups can foster apathy and frustration. In Philadelphia, one recent government employee with close ties to the local technology community opted to leave government service—in part—because of restrictions on working remotely that stifled opportunities for closer physical proximity and collaboration with outside groups:

Little things, like time tracking and a byzantine work-from-home policy, eat away at creative workers used to a more enlightened approach.7

The Free Work Problem

As noted above, it can be challenging to scope work for volunteers on civic technology projects.

Since many of the other mechanisms governments already use to tap into outside expertise operate under the direction and control of government, it can be tempting at times to view civic technology volunteers as direct extensions of government IT staff. This can lead to problems if government employees view the efforts of outside experts simply as a way of achieving their own project and policy goals.

In Madison, Wisconsin, a nascent engagement effort between city officials and the local technology community got off to a rocky start when city officials presented a list of projects to the civic technology community.8 Government officials presented this list as an expression of their own priorities, with the expectation that the technology community would embrace these priorities and begin working on the identified projects. It didn't work out that way.

The civic technology community largely ignored the recommendations from the city. Public comments suggest they reacted negatively to the idea that they should primarily be focused on working solely on what city officials believed was important.

Taking the "free work" view of a volunteer technology community can be counterproductive.

Interacting with a volunteer community—particularly one that is comprised largely of technologists, developers, and creative individuals—is more complicated than interacting with other outside constituencies. Since the market values the skills of this community highly, they are typically very aware of the value of their efforts. Engaging this community requires an understanding that members want to be a part of both building the solution and helping identifying the problem to be worked on.

Alex Hillman, cofounder of the pioneering Philadelphia coworking space Indy Hall and an expert on building and nurturing creative communities, offers the following observation on engaging a community around a specific problem or issue:9

People don't like a story where they know what happens (or is supposed to happen) at the end nearly as much as they like a story with potential and possibility. You can tell people how it's going to go, or you can learn to let them co-author the story with you.

The Inclusion Problem

Another issue raised by respondents to the survey of former city government employees is that of diversity and inclusion in the volunteer technology community.

As previously discussed in Section 1, the practice of exoproduction extends the traditional idea of coproduction to include the development of solutions by people outside of government that are not necessarily the direct users of those solutions. While this practice enables new opportunities, it does raise a concern that the development of civic technology solutions may not always be properly aligned with the needs of those to be served, but rather with the preferences or perspectives of those building the solutions.

Governments serve a wide variety of stakeholders and some of the groups that rely on government for the provision of essential services may lack access to technology or certain communication channels. Access to web-based services can be more challenging for some groups in need of public services, which can impact the efficacy of certain volunteer-driven technology projects. Outside technologists may not have the same insights into the challenges facing consumers of these services as those in the bureaucracy charged with serving these constituencies. And the composition of volunteer technology groups may not reflect the diverse range of stakeholders that benefit from specific public services.

As one respondent to the survey of current and former city government employees put it:

Who can work at length for free? Not many people, and those who can are typically in positions of extreme privilege, which narrows the scope of what we even think about building and in some ways reinforces or exacerbates existing inequities in our society.

Helping to ensure that the efforts of volunteer technology groups are appropriately aligned with the needs of different constituent groups that government must serve is an important role for government partners to play, but it can be tricky. This is especially true in light of the free work problem discussed above, which suggests that governments should provide the volunteer technology community some degree of latitude in the identification of issues to be addressed.

Finding the right balance can be a challenge.

The Sustainability Problem

A persistent problem that vexes many volunteer technology communities is the long-term sustainability of solutions that are development, and transitioning them to governments where appropriate.

This problem was raised by several different respondents to the survey of current and former city government employees:

The usual red tape of procurement which is not set up to make use of smaller, shorter engagements with individuals and small companies [is a challenge]. Reform is needed.

There's literally no mechanism by which government can "catch the ball." The way we procure and build software is out of sync with both user needs and the realities of the modern market.

In 2011, a small group of technology volunteers began a project to develop an application for San Francisco's Municipal Transportation Agency (MUNI) that would allow MUNI managers to track the position of city buses in real time. The goal of the project was to improve on and eventually replace the existing paper-based system used by MUNI track vehicle location by using modern software development techniques and commodity mobile devices. Developed in less than two weeks, the solution developed by the group was lauded by the city officials who viewed it.10

But the application was never adopted by MUNI, where managers went on using their existing paper-based tracking system, and city officials later acknowledged that they did not have the resources or the mechanisms to bring such a solution in house. As one respondent to the survey of current and former city government employees put it:

...if we can't maintain it after it's built, it is kind of useless to us.

Identifying ways to sustain and expand awareness of solutions developed by the volunteer technology community is often a more challenging problem than fostering interest in building apps. Ensuring that all parties' expectations for long-term maintenance and enhancement of volunteer-built applications are aligned is a key to their ultimate success.

The technology community in Madison, Wisconsin, identified a pet registration application as a worthy project and invested time in developing an application called PetPass, which officially launched in 2013. Like the previous example of a tablet-based tracking application for San Francisco's MUNI, city officially initially praised the work and vowed to use it inside the city government.11

Several months later, however, the city launched a competing pet registration application, which strained relations with the volunteer technology community. The community eventually abandoned their project and a growing sense of frustration dramatically reduced interest in working on civic technology projects.


Governments will face challenges in engaging and collaborating with outside groups of volunteers that want to devote time and resources to building technology solutions.

There may be limitations on the kinds of tools and platforms government employees can use, which can hinder communication and make cooperating on projects more difficult. In addition, there may be limitations on the ability of government employees to work remotely in venues where technology groups congregate or during non-traditional work hours.

Traditional approaches to external engagement where governments seek to leverage outside expertise may not be a good fit for engaging with volunteers from the world of civic technology. Traditional methods often don't accommodate a more collaborative approach to problem scoping and solution identification which can be essential to working with a community made up of highly-motivated, highly-skilled, and creative members.

The composition of civic technology communities may not be representative of the community as a whole, and may underrepresented constituencies that are most reliant on government services. Governments need to be aware of this and may need to invest time helping to ensure alignment of volunteer activities to outcomes that serve a broad constituency or that provide maximum community benefit.

Long-term sustainability of civic technology solutions is a common problem, and existing procurement and budgeting processes may not provide adequate ongoing support for such projects, even if they are widely viewed as being valuable.


  1. Coverage areas for Hatzalah affiliates are listed here A discussion of how Hatzalah interacts with 911 dispatch and professional EMS and fire service see

  2. There are many examples of government officials who attend regular technology meetups, but it’s not always clear if these officials re attending such events in their official capacity or if they are carving time out of their personal schedules to attend.

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