Defining civic tech

Over the past few days, I’ve been thinking about Omidyar Network’s recent report, “Engines of Change,” and the need to better label and define the movement happening around civics and government with respect to technology.

We’ve seen terms like e-gov, Gov 2.0, open government, govtech, open data and other iterations and variations over the last few years, and there always seems to be confusion over what to call the work civic hackers, public sector technologists and civic-focused entrepreneurs collectively do.

The report has been helpful (to me) in providing larger context as to why “civic tech” is appropriate to coalesce around and has convinced me to adopt it within the work I do, both here at GovFresh, but also ProudCity.

There have been numerous attempts to define this, but Omidyar’s is concise yet comprehensive:

any technology that is used to empower citizens or help make government more accessible, efficient, and effective

But more than the simple definition, this chart of the subset — “Citizen to Citizen,” “Citizen to Government,” “Government Technology” — is what provided clarity for me:

Source: Omidyar Network

I do think, however, much like we’ve seen with “green” terminology inside the environmental movement, we need to better define principles around what differentiates the genetically modified versus natural versus organic civic technology.

The next step for the civic tech movement is to better frame what’s expected of the core technologies that drive it, specifically open source and open data. While there are many companies operating under the civic tech umbrella, we’re still a far cry away from most operating under sustainable civic principles.

How many civic tech companies can say they operate with a true open ethos? Unfortunately, not that many.

Today, much of what we have is genetically modified civic technology.

After thinking more on Omidyar’s report, I’m putting the civic tech sticker on my computer (who has one?) and look forward to continuing to encourage and champion those under its umbrella to actively adopt a more sustainable approach to its growth.

Only then will the definition of civic tech have true meaning.

About Luke Fretwell

Luke Fretwell is the founder of GovFresh, co-founder/CEO of ProudCity and co-host of the podcast, The Government We Need. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn or email at


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