Values for government technology

Photo: Kevin Harber
Photo: Kevin Harber

Earlier this year, CityGrows co-founder Catherine Geanuracos proposed values for government technology, and its a great foundation for those serving government or the public to adopt.

These include:

  • Transparency
  • Interoperability
  • Reflective of the community
  • Experimentation and iteration
  • Portability
  • Participatory
  • Open source

Catherine and co-founder Stephen Corwin also touch on the term “movement” as it relates to govtech or civictech, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while now. Deeper thoughts on this are for another post, but I don’t think either are movements, particularly because there are no real fundamental principles folks in the community can agree on. In order to be a true movement, there must be hardened principles, and Catherine’s are the beginnings of this.

As Catherine mentions, I’m one who strongly believes open source should be at the top of the list, because this is fundamental to everything else below. Unfortunately, as with most government technology companies, CityGrows’ own statement around open source is fairly noncommittal. As mentioned in the post, they are “far from perfect alignment” with the proposed values, so I hope that over time they start to think more open when it comes to their own code.

For those that provide technology services or products to government in this maker meets creative commons day and age, it’s important to realize we live in different times. If you continue to use proprietary in your lexicon or business model, you’ve dated yourself and placed the emphasis on you, your motives and not those of the public.

While it’s tough to overcome the idea that we must control code to be viable, we must accept that even if your interface is better or you have a solid API, you’re only adding incrementally to the innovation and change that’s desperately needed. Eventually, your proprietary technology will be a just a modernized version of the technical morass government finds itself in today.

Open source isn’t just code, it’s culture. The technology license on your product is inherently attached to the civic culture you cultivate. Applying proprietary technology to government is giving license to closed government.

Catherine’s outline for government technology values is a great start. With more solidity on standards for each of these, govtech and civictech can become true movements. Until then, they’re still just industries with loose standards.

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

2 Responses

  1. Hi Luke. Interesting post. I’ll have to write a blog with comments, as I have issues with some of the principles. In particular, I’m not a fan of “open source” as a principle. To be blunt, the best innovation occurs in the private sector with, for better or for worse, proprietary code. That said, I think transparency, portability, and interoperability balance any negative effects of using proprietary code.

  2. Interesting to hear your feelings about “open source” Bill Schrier, and your assertions about perceived quality of proprietary code… I think the main downsides of proprietary code (and the inextricable power imbalance proprietary code creates for the benefit of the proprietor) are lack of transparency, portability, and interoperability (because proprietary software almost always eschews open standards because it tends to have a “winner-take-all” business motivation, and sees compatibility as a concession to competition). I’d disagree strongly with your assertion about proprietary code’s tendency for innovation over open source – you can decide for yourself (see my website below) if my opinion is credible… also, in gov’t there’s dire need for transparency, portability, reuse, and interoperability (helped by commitment to open standards adherence) all of which are exemplified by open source due to the incentives involved. I’ve written up a case for government mandating open standards which is, I think, a necessary first step to humanity finally realising some of the beneficial promise of digital technology and its proliferation: (in the New Zealand context, but equally applicable anywhere else)


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