13 Conference Report #techonomy13

180° Shift: Betting Big on Civic Innovation

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  • (Photo by Asa Mathat)

    (Photo by Asa Mathat)

Speaker

Kate Krontiris
Fellow, Berkman Center for Internet & Society


Civic researcher and strategist Kate Krontiris discusses the current and future relationship of technology and the election process.

Read the full transcript below. (Transcript by Realtime Transcriptions.)

Krontiris: Thank you. Good morning, everybody.

So by a show of hands, how many of you voted in the last presidential election? Okay. What about a mayoral election maybe? A few less. What about, like, local city council or special ballot measure? Okay, this room is unique. We’re going to come back to this in a minute, but I want to try and convince you this morning of sort of two main arguments.

The first is that the next wave of civic innovation is going to require civic entrepreneurs to tackle really unsexy, highly complicated, largely behind-the-scenes challenges that will not be fixed by developing an app that solves a purely informational or technical problem. Think fixing American elections.

And the second argument that I want to make is that what this burgeoning sector needs is risk capital. In other words, risk-taking people and organizations who believe in the quality of a civic and public life and want to help fix some of these deeper public problems that we confronted.

So we figured out how to use technology to order Chinese food, to go on a date, to buy clothes, to share the experience immediately across a variety of different social platforms, and those things are fine. They drive economic activity, they save consumers time, and they seem to give a lot of people pleasure. But the digital leaders of our generation—and to be clear, that’s me, that’s you, that’s our friends living seamless lives in some of the world’s most cosmopolitan places—need to be solving harder problems.

And there’s actually a lot of opportunity here. So Stacy Donohue and Matt Bannick of the Omidyar Network have pointed out the bulk of government innovation comes down to IT spending and implementation. Here federal-level IT spending will total about $74 billion. That’s just at the federal level.

James Manyika, who’s here in the audience, from McKinsey, just released a report saying that if we can unlock open data, we have the potential to create $3-to-$5 trillion of economic value annually across seven sectors. And we know that releasing data is just the beginning, but it is an important start.

So to savvy tech entrepreneurs, this spells sort of opportunity, and I think reinforced with the right guidance and the right resources, they have the potential to disrupt major government IT enterprise industries and to do it with tools that are cheaper, faster, and more personalizable than what’s currently available, and the ability to sell them into government-funded markets at state and local levels.

So one organization that’s taking advantage of this opportunity to revolutionize elections is TurboVote. TurboVote has built an elections reminder system that allows any individual to get the information that they need in order to get registered to vote, stay registered, and vote in every election, from municipal to national elections.

So I’m a user, and last week, before the election, I got a text message reminding me to go vote and an e-mail with information about my polling place, which had recently moved, a link to maps and some directions and some information about voter identification information in New York.

So turning people out to vote is actually only half the battle. As TurboVote has come to realize, all elections activities eventually require the participation of government.

So what’s the challenge there? Well, there are literally 8,000 different local elections administers across the United States, all charged with overseeing different processes and regulations and forms and deadlines. And while these public innovators are working really, really hard behind the scenes—and you can actually meet some of them at the future of elections panel later this afternoon—they’re confronting lumbering bureaucracies that are dependent on legacy technology systems. They are dealing with legislative environments that are often very hostile to voter-centric efforts, and they are seeing funding diminish for even the most basic of services.

So learning from this government research that TurboVote did, they are going to be building this year on existing innovations actually that they discovered elections officials themselves have pioneered over the past couple of years. They have a great group of beta testers in elections offices across the country who are going to help them iterate and refine these tools so that they can eventually be available for their peers, all 8,000 of them, across the country.

Here’s what’s interesting about this. In all my research, I have literally only found TurboVote working on this challenge in this way. They are taking a lean and agile approach to the challenge of elections, revolutionizing elections, and they will be the first to tell you how exciting it is to do that when they have literally no competition.

Like TurboVote’s founder, civic entrepreneurs who are tackling these really difficult challenges are reliant on just a few resources. There are three to four major philanthropic actors in this space. There are a variety of generally low-yield and time-intensive crowdfunding sites and a couple of sort of time-bound elite fellowships to help resource their activity.

And in addition, this is work that takes time to see real impact, which means they need to build and sustain teams over longer periods of time than traditional commercial startups.

And this is where risk capital comes in. Foundation support, while desperately appreciated, is simply not enough. We have learned a lot from the social impact investing space, but we haven’t yet applied those learnings to the civic innovation space. We suspect that the returns may be slower to come in, but that it could be worth the wait.

So as TurboVote has experienced, the new social innovation is about working with and for government, not just acting in spite of it. And as for other civic issues, perhaps the people who are going to unlock those challenges are sitting in this room today. You have the opportunity to get in while of the people, for the people, and by the people is about to take on a wholly reinvigorated meaning.

The next wave of civic innovation is here and I would encourage you to get involved. Thank you.

[APPLAUSE]

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