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Virtuous civic circle

By adopting a simple public engagement framework, we can build a more inspired government, together.

Estimated read time: 4 minutes

By Luke Fretwell · March 4, 2023

Borrowing from Donald Kettl’s “The Next Government of the United States,” the vending machine government analogy was popularized by Tim O’Reilly while socializing his idea of government as a platform.

“We pay our taxes, we expect services,” writes O’Reilly. “And when we don’t get what we expect, our ‘participation’ is limited to protest—essentially, shaking the vending machine. Collective action has been watered down to collective complaint.”

While the intricacies of government as a platform, socialized circa 2010, appealed mostly to early civic technologists, O’Reilly’s analogy is a proper one that any of us can grok:

“Citizens are connected like never before and have the skill sets and passion to solve problems affecting them locally as well as nationally. Government information and services can be provided to citizens where and when they need them. Citizens are empowered to spark the innovation that will result in an improved approach to governance.”

Virtuous civic circle

We’re still very much experiencing vending machine government and what Jon Alexander refers to in “Citizens” as the Consumer Story – government serves us a unilateral experience “with the role of the individual limited to voting at most.”

But when citizens and public servants collectively adopt a virtuous civic circle approach to governing, we all become “the government” and, together, can experience a more collaborative, inspired, joyful democracy.

As Merriam-Webster puts it, a virtuous circle is “a chain of events in which one desirable occurrence leads to another which further promotes the first occurrence and so on resulting in a continuous process of improvement.”

A virtuous civic circle works like this:

  1. Submission: Citizen submits an issue
  2. Recognition: Government acknowledges the issue
  3. Collaboration: Citizens and government work together
  4. Resolution: Issue is closed
  5. Celebration: Public ceremony of joy

Issues in the virtuous civic circle can range from general feedback (a new idea or ‘bug fix’) to non-emergency reporting (211 or 311). Note that more issues can arise during the cycle, which would then be considered new submissions or additive to the current one.

A number of frameworks go beyond the virtuous civic circle, such as participatory budgeting. PB is a proactive way of engaging communities early on in the bureaucratic process to generate an outcome that produces better democracy (and continuous moments of civic joy).

As the Participatory Budgeting Process says, PB is “a democratic process in which community members decide how to spend part of a public budget. It gives people real power over real money.”

Participatory government models are ideal, but we also need a mechanism for plugging in at micro moments, any given time. The virtuous civic circle creates informal, serendipitous opportunities for the public to continuously tweak the small things about our democracy that, added up, can make a big difference in how we think about “the government.”

The virtuous civic circle is especially important as the government digital service and customer experience movements think about how they can extend their work beyond the experts and embrace a more participatory culture of delivery.

For members of the public, the virtuous civic circle:

  • Embeds a sense of pride in actively contributing in a constructive way
  • Creates a sense of trust and appreciation in government
  • Inspires other citizens to follow suit

For (official) public servants, the virtuous civic circle:

  • Embeds a recurring, collaborative sense of service
  • Gives a better sense of public sentiment
  • Inspires other public servants to follow suit


When the Library of Congress ceremoniously released its API, my son and I developed a legislative tool using the data. We found two problems with the API and, because there was a mechanism (a public GitHub repo) to report this, we did (issues #33 and #50).

LoC is close to employing the virtuous civic cycle. For technologists especially, the public repository is a place to submit issues and get them acknowledged. The closed issues list is the encouragement others need to submit their own as it’s an indicator that government is actually recognizing and resolving.

Eventually, our issues were closed (resolved). LoC didn’t embrace the celebration phase of the virtuous civic circle, which isn’t the end of the world, but it did miss an opportunity to close the loop and facilitate an infectious sense of joyful, collaborative democracy.

While LoC wasn’t part of it, we felt like we were part of Team Library of Congress and had our own joyous moment of celebration. It would have been nice to share that with the official public servants, who hopefully would have experienced a small, shared moment of pride in their work.

It was also a missed opportunity for each of us to show our appreciation for one another.

The repo in this example is just one mechanism for employing the virtuous civic circle, and there is an endless number of opportunities for government to create micro moments of joy.

With the people

“For the people,” parsed from President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, is a mantra the government community often uses to evoke its mission-driven approach to public service.

With the virtuous civic circle, “for” can become “with.”

The digital services movement and the customer experience efforts across government are heavily operational focused, employing human-centered design practices, agile procurement and other bureaucracy hacking techniques important to building a more effective government.

However, they don’t holistically harness the collaborative potential of government with the people.

The term ‘delightful’ has been socialized in design circles, including digital government services. Delightfulness is a noble goal, but its emphasis is less about with and more about for – a one-way transaction. Government digital service, customer experience and ‘delightful’ are certainly improvements, but these movements have yet to effectively realize a collective sense of democratic collaboration and joy.

Singularly focused on the for, they are the vending machine that accidentally drops an extra snack.

Beginners as public servants

Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi wisely said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

By relying solely on the experts – product owners, user researchers, developers, designers, policy experts, consultants and other formal maintainers of government bureaucracy – we limit democracy’s possibilities. Democracy’s potential is in the collective minds of beginners.

Without the virtuous civic circle, we still have vending machine government, one that now accepts credit cards and gives us that occasional extra snack.

With the virtuous civic circle – from submission to celebration – all of us are public servants and can experience the many joys democracy has to offer, together.

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Luke Fretwell

Luke Fretwell is the founder and maintainer of GovFresh. More from Luke.

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