The Most Important Civic Tech Product is an Effective Team

July 06, 2021

Imagine walking into a restaurant. You sit down, place your order, and wait for food to show up. It does not arrive. You do not see your waiter again. Frustrated you find your waiter and ask what is going on. You re-iterate your order, go back to your table and wait. Your food does not show. You walk back to the kitchen and ask the chefs whether they got your order, and they say no and sorry. You share your order with the chefs, and not trusting the restaurant anymore you offer to wash dishes while you wait. Under your watchful eye your meal is cooked, but the waiter never returns. You take the plates with your food and return to your table.

This may be an absurd way to run a restaurant but it is how many government organizations operate. When people talk about stakeholder alignment they are referring to the work of getting the waiters, chefs, and even accountants to agree what the meal is, to do the work to make a meal, and how they are going to serve it to a particular customer. It is executed both in large meetings and short conversations. It is challenging, expensive, and, done poorly, can kill faith in an organization. Customers stop returning when the restaurant takes too long to deliver food. Chefs quit when they spend more time meeting about how to make food and what food to make than they do making it. The organization languishes from neglect.

Teamwork is dependent on trusting the other folks to come through with the other part without watching them all the time. That’s what we do really well. - Steve Jobs

In a dysfunctional restaurant the astute people realize that stakeholder alignment is the work. You start with one customer’s meal and manage its delivery from beginning to end. Building confidence you do it again. And again. Then you see if the individual actors can deliver a meal with less or no involvement from you. If they succeed you have made a transformation. If they fail you have created a dependency on yourself. Is success without transformation still success?

18F does not think so. They incorporate transformation into their engagements through coaching product owners and transition planning. They believe in the power of effective teams. While the apps or websites used by citizens may be exciting, the most important Civic Tech product is an effective team.

I realize now that this is what made the early months of my transition to 18F difficult. I had to learn how to unbecome a hotshot. The problem space that 18F works in isn’t well suited to hotshots. It’s a space where teams thrive, and have impact that can last, and be expanded, and be replicated. - Mark Headd

In my years of being a part of civic tech and government I have easily found case studies on building software, procurement, and human centered design. Conferences have sessions on sexy topics like diversity and ethics of artificial intelligence. Lacking is the literature and training on being a good coach and building effective teams. If the Civic Tech movement is to continue to grow and have a long lasting impact, this is a gap we must fill.

Want to get posts like this in your email?

This work by Matt Zagaja is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.