Getting Political

Historically, I haven’t talked much about my voting habits. But with a healthy amount of regret, I must admit that I supported a write-in candidate in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. I had many very valid-seeming reasons for that decision at the time, but my chief motivator was a sense of inevitability around Hillary Clinton’s presumed presidency. As most of us recall, the polls all pointed to a healthy margin of victory for Secretary Clinton, and with that in mind, I figured it would be more consequential for me to let the world know who I really wanted to be president rather than contributing to a foregone conclusion.

Of course, that foregone conclusion never came about. The impacts of the 2016 election, and its defiance of inevitability, have damaged the United States (and countless people impacted by U.S. policies around the world) in ways we won’t fully understand for decades to come. Some of the fallout from that election is in the infrastructure of our politics, in the expectation that certain processes should be followed by the executive branch and its agencies. Some of it is more visceral, in ways you no doubt can immediately bring to mind: children forced from their parents in squalid detention facilities, second-class treatment of hurricane victims in Puerto Rico, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi with zero consequence…

Around the same time that Donald Trump overcame the inevitable to become president of the United States, another inevitability was starting to fall apart in front of my eyes. For years I have been heavily involved in Chicago’s civic tech community, a local outpost of a global “movement” of volunteers, government technologists, academics, and more who want to improve the way governments serve their constituents through data transparency, community-driven tech development, and human-centered design. The first decade or so of civic tech in the U.S. was filled with hard-fought wins: the Obama administration and countless local governments established open data policies so that journalists and activists could understand more about day-to-day government operations, cities and states began to hire data scientists to put that data to use in positive ways, and digital service teams were established within agencies that had previously seemed staid (like the General Services Administration) in order to bring agile processes to historically slow-moving public projects. To many civic technologists, it seemed inevitable that improving the scaffolding with which governments built technology would result in more just and equitable policy outcomes.

But political will (or lack thereof) can upend inevitability, too. The civic tech community today is showing cracks, especially along ideological lines. Various military branches have started digital service teams, and there’s controversy over whether those teams should be allowed to participate in civic tech conferences or even call themselves “civic tech”. The same goes for highly politically polarized agencies, like the EPA. Many bright-eyed civic technologists are now more hardened, realizing that contemporary tech tools alone will not solve the problems of government accountability or move policy in healthy directions. In some cases, a well-equipped government agency that knows how to develop software effectively simply causes greater harm than it could before (hello, ICE).

Not every violation of the promise of civic tech is explicitly political. Sometimes it can simply look like deflation, or lack of interest. Here in Chicago, we’ve been without a Chief Data Officer since the departure of Tom Schenk, Jr. almost two years ago. We’ve been without a permanent Chief Information Officer since mid-2019, when Danielle DuMerer joined the Shedd Aquarium. In the vacuum they left, the city has decided to merge its Department of Innovation and Technology with its department of Fleet and Facility Management, a move that runs counter to established wisdom for how to make local government tech teams work well. Five years ago, it seemed inevitable that Chicago would be a world leader in equitable, innovative local government technology. But now, even though there remain plenty of passionate tech folks within city government, that inevitability has evaporated into uncertainty.

I’ve learned since 2016 not to trust the inevitable. If I want to see my government respect the rights of traditionally marginalized groups, or enact policies that might just stave off oncoming environmental catastrophe, or even make sensible decisions about how to structure its tech workforce, I can’t just trust that what seems reasonable to me (or what’s predicted by pollsters) will win out in the end.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to move the needle on my own professional work in the direction of “political”, rather than just “civic”. I no longer feel that it’s enough to improve the scaffolding of government for the future; I want to also enable those who are speaking truth to power today. And while there’s tons of great work within the civic tech community that is political at its heart, I believe framing the foundations of my work in explicitly political terms will help focus that work. Civic tech communities are incredible in their own way, and I owe my career to Chicago’s vibrant population of civic technologists, but right now I want ideology, rather than technology itself, to be my basis.

I’m happy to announce that I’m joining The Movement Cooperative, a collective nonprofit governed by more than 50 national progressive political organizations. Those organizations, in turn, have more than 500 local chapters who do work across the U.S. They focus on issues ranging from criminal justice reform to ballot access, and The Movement Cooperative exists to equip these progressive groups with shared technical power. Our members can make use of each other’s successful projects, learn from each other, and spend more time on the ground pushing for a better world rather than spending resources duplicating each other’s tech work. The opportunity to work directly for these advocacy organizations, and to create tools that will contribute to the progressive tech ecosystem more broadly, is one that I relish.

If there's any time to confront the inevitable, or the perception of inevitability, it's now. I’m very lucky to be able to choose to contribute to the issues I care about in this way, and I hope to do justice to the causes that The Movement Cooperative’s members advocate for. And of course, I’ll also continue to be a dedicated civic technologist. After all, pushing from outside government is so hard in part because pathways to power are so obscure. If progressive tech can build political will for the policies I care about, civic tech can help put those policies into practice and make them work better for everyone. If we want to truly succeed to create a better government (and a better world), we need both.