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Public Innovation

What We're Learning About Public Innovation

We're halfway into the first month of 2014, so now's a good time to reflect on what we've learned since publishing our business plan last November.

Apparently, we're pretty awesome

Let me put this in no uncertain terms: regional leaders love what we're doing. I was initially skeptical, to say the least, but there's a growing realization that our theory of change is needed. Does this mean we've made it? Nope. But what it does mean is that we're plugged into a network of influencers who are committed to our success and the ball's in our court to strategically tap those individuals when the time is right. Oh, and I should also mention that our international web traffic often surpasses our domestic hits.

Demand for civic tech is booming

I wasn't in this space when it started, so I'm not a credible source for the history of civic tech. I spent the early part of my career working toward wholesale policy changes, a.k.a. "reform." I got involved with civic tech, frankly, because Public Innovation's goal to make the Sacramento region a global leader in public sector innovation needed a revenue model that didn't rely on playing the lottery for grants. Although there's some criticism of the methodology, the Knight Foundation's report on civic tech identifies $431 million in investments between 2011 and 2013. It's both a revenue source for us and a good strategic fit.

It's hard to compete with free

In my conversations with civic technologists, government professionals, and regional leaders, there are widely differing views regarding how civic tech should be developed. Many of the folks who work in this space do so out of a sense of civic purpose and under the auspices of volunteer organizations. On the flip side, government doesn't know how to procure free technology and the lack of project management sometimes lessens civic tech's impact. Yet, the civic tech space is so large that the opportunities far exceed the number of people who want to play a role. But the tension between what should be free and what should be fee-for-service still needs to be worked out.

We lack brand awareness

As well as Public Innovation is received by people in the community, we're sorely lacking the brand awareness we need to grow as an organization. And I'm not talking about our name, but rather what we do. So let me break it down real quick (although, each of these is worthy of it's own blog post):

  1. Civic Tech: We work with clients on a contractual basis to develop software that solves a problem within their organization and they give us money in return.
  2. Social Entrepreneurship: We want to launch an incubator program to help more people in the Sacramento region become social entrepreneurs.
  3. Organizational Development: We also want to recruit public servants and nonprofit professionals with the explicit goal of helping them change the internal culture of their organizations.
  4. Community Building: We occasionally bring people together to problem solve and help launch civic projects. In the process, we're hoping to create a constituency that supports risk-taking and experimentation in government.

We believe that this suite of activities will create a civic innovation and social entrepreneurship ecosystem in the region—the corollary being that they're interconnected and shouldn't be done in isolation.

It feels like we're always behind

Not only is the civic technology space booming, but so is the civic innovation space, more generally. We're seeing more civic incubators popping up across the country and even university-supported curricula being developed. These programs are backed by institutional investors, so it's incredibly difficult to keep with just a small two-person team. While we're currently earning revenue, it still feels like we're in the Valley of Death. Our plan to survive is to stay as focused as we can on the civic tech component of our model until we're able to grow.

You can help

Overall, I'd say we're exceeding even our own expectations and I'm cautiously optimistic about our future. But that doesn't mean that we're not under constant stress about what's coming next. We've got big plans to drive measurable impact and absolutely must grow as an organization to get there. The lesson? We need your help. Specifically, we need more opportunities to create value for paying customers. Got an idea? holler [at] publicinnovation [dot] org