Pedigree and public interest technology

The community that supports digital government services should be undeniably representative of everyone.

Luke Fretwell By Luke Fretwell · August 16, 2022

Statue of John Harvard, Harvard University

'Statue of John Harvard, Harvard University' by InSapphoWeTrust is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

There’s an increasing call and need for diversity, equity and inclusion when delivering digital government services for all.

The community that supports this effort — public interest (or civic) technologists — should be undeniably representative of everyone.

Authentically delivering on this reality means folks of all identities and backgrounds should be fairly represented in the digital government delivery ecosystem inside and outside government — in the user research process and delivery teams, but especially in leadership roles.

There’s an elephant in the room that needs addressing before public interest technology will live up to its true potential.

That elephant: pedigree

Acknowledging the issue

Increasingly, in conversations I’ve had with folks about representation in public interest (or civic) technology, the issue of academic or political pedigree is a common thread.

To date, leadership or founder roles in highly-visible and influential government and nonprofit digital service organizations have been overwhelmingly held by folks with pedigree academic backgrounds, from boarding school upbringings to Ivy League universities to esteemed private colleges.

This isn’t meant to call out anyone personally. There are many people with pedigree that are my civic technology heroes. And this isn’t to say that folks in those roles aren’t qualified, don’t deserve to be in these roles or haven’t earned the right to be where they are. In some cases they do and, honestly, some cases they don’t.

But when we survey the public interest technology power and influence landscape, it trends heavily towards pedigree, and this is far from the diversity public interest technology seeks.

If you’re not convinced, play this game: Pick a person of high public interest technology visibility and look at their academic background on LinkedIn.

As the field of public interest technology matures, we’re now starting to see the revolving door effect and pedigree effortlessly moving from one influential position to another.

This dynamic plays out professionally, who gets appointed to government and nonprofit senior level government positions, on social media, in publishing, the media, at conferences and other more subtle ways.

This is a systemic issue. Public interest technologists, funders, board members, politicians with appointment power all play a role in changing this dynamic.

What we risk

The impact public interest technology pedigree has is that those with economically diverse backgrounds — especially lived experiences — aren’t included in high-level, meaningful conversations and decision-making that impact disadvantaged communities. It begins to mimic white saviorism.

The savior complex comes more into play when pedigree always sits at the top of the hierarchy, leading the charge to “rescue” those in need of public services.

On the professional front, folks with whom I’ve talked with about this don’t feel fully included. In some cases, it’s caused them to feel significantly “less than,” traumatized even.

To some, it feels like they’re just the help. As one person told me, “It’s easier for us to just shut up.”

If the lack of access to leadership roles by non-pedigree folks continues, people will read the room — some already have — and move on to other communities that are inclusive and authentically merit-based. There are many opportunities to “work on things that matter” beyond public interest technology, and brilliant, creative people don’t waste their time.

While less common these days — but alive and well in other forms — in pedigree academic institutions, there’s a social activity known as the eating club. It’s an opportunity for folks to convene and build lifetime relationships so that these can be leveraged into the future, socially and professionally.

If we don’t acknowledge and address pedigree, public interest technology risks becoming a civic eating club, an exclusive, social cause bubble constructed to support elitist notions of public service.

Beyond pedigree

If you fit the pedigree profile, take a moment to honestly retrospect your role in the future of public interest technology.

Ask yourself:

  • Have you actively and regularly elevated those outside your pedigree network? If not, why?
  • Have you denied someone highly qualified an opportunity in support of someone in your pedigree network?
  • Are you part of the pedigree revolving door and taking up space for those with less access to opportunity?
  • Who is the person you’ve looked past because you perceived they didn’t have the right pedigree?

Collectively we must ask ourselves:

  • Who gets to participate in the public interest technology origin stories?
  • Who’s included in the narratives?
  • Who has a seat at the executive tables?
  • Who gets elevated, socially and professionally?
  • Where do we find the people we want and need to elevate?

As executive roles open up for key public interest technology organizations, who gets those positions will be a pedigree litmus test for this community.

Is public interest technology just for the pedigree?

Or will it truly be for everyone?

Luke Fretwell is founder of GovFresh. He is the co-founder and CEO of ProudCity.

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This work by GovFresh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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