Dark Arts in Civic Tech

March 17, 2022

Going into the world of Civic Tech I felt optimistic. Like many folks that enter the field, you get excited by the possibility of technology and share a kinship with others that want to work in the public interest. After joining government I discovered how challenging the work is. Unnamed norms and invisible blockers impeded my ability to move projects forward. Stakeholders with different agendas sabotaged or hijacked projects with methods that seemed…dark. In this post I will name some of these dark arts that I experienced so you can identify them, and even propose a few of my own.

Government employees routinely deploy a variety of tactics to avoid doing things. The pocket veto is when you make a request of someone and they simply ignore it. This contrasts with the slow walk where they claim they will do something and then do not. If you follow-up once and still do not get a result it’s fairly safe to assume this is not a function of forgetfulness but of deliberate triage. You’re not a priority, and now you need to find a new path to get something done.

In many government organizations the employees are not expected to keep on top their email or other written communications. As a result one way to slow walk a request is to keep sending written communications about it as they are likely to be ignored. Conversely if you want to move something forward you can send a written communication asking if there are any objections. Many folks will not read the e-mail, but the paper trail allows you to proceed without them being able to claim they could not object. It does not work with diligent employees, but it is surprising how often it does work.

Government can be a place of limited resources but a high emphasis on inclusion and stakeholder alignment. Objecting to someone’s idea is seen as bad form. Many managers “yes and” their priorities onto money pots by getting invited to meetings about funded projects. In many cases this is the only way to move your agenda forward. Conversely this means if someone proposes a disastrous idea you can torpedo it by “yes and” a diametrically opposing idea or resource sucking project onto their proposal. The need to be inclusive will then prevent the success of the original proposal.1 People may not die on the hill of inclusion, but lots of projects do.

Government work looks like chess but is actually poker. You need to figure out when other players are bluffing. You may not know what cards they hold, but you can use context clues to guess. Finally you need to understand the rules of the game. Once you can see the plays others are making, you will be much better equipped to strategically play your own hands.

  1. Usually folks did this because they had their own agenda instead of objection to the original project, but it was amazing how brazenly and frequently I saw this occur. 

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