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Bridging the Bicoastal Bubbles on Civic Tech

By Chris Nehls / 2016 September 12th

For all of their enormous clout globally, Washington and the San Francisco Bay Area can be pretty insular places. It’s a dynamic that’s reinforced by the know-it-all attitude of the dominant professional class of each. Washingtonians working in governmental circles think nobody understands politics like they do, while Bay Area tech professionals claim to be transforming humanity through lines of code.

I recently had the opportunity to travel to the Bay Area in an effort organized by the Lincoln Initiative to bring these two dynamic but distant communities closer together. They actually have much more in common than it seems: Plenty of Bay Area technologists are deeply passionate about government and politics, while D.C. supports a vibrant and growing civic tech scene. But the bicoastal bubbles still have a lot to learn from one another.

The Lincoln Initiative invited me and other D.C.-types on a tour of several Bay Area civic and political tech firms, including Crowdpac and Brigade. The leaders of these start-ups demonstrated a deep commitment for improving American politics by making public participation easier and more satisfying. They have developed sophisticated new online tools designed to draw more people into the political system and make it easier to find and organize like-minded fellow citizens. The scale of their ambition to help Americans re-engage with the democratic system is inspiring.

I was struck along my tour by how the tools these firms were developing focused on a single critical problem within the current political system, whether it be the dominance of mega-donors in campaign finance or the difficulty of building networks of like-minded voters. In the context of the Silicon Valley bubble’s fondness for elevator pitches of business plans, this makes sense (Brigade’s Matt Mahan, for example, described Brigade as the “LinkedIn for politics.”)

But few in Washington would take the approach that the difficulties of effective governance at the federal level can be solved by a killer app. Our system of government is shaped by countless competing priorities and power dynamics. Simply adding more of something to (or taking it out from) the system is unlikely to generate much change in a modern democracy.

Democracy Fund’s Governance Program, for example, learned in the process of constructing our systems map that problems of campaign finance and civic engagement combine with other factors to affect the performance of the federal system in complex ways. As some D.C.-based civic tech firms and nonprofits believe, there may be greater leverage in improving the responsiveness of federal politics by focusing first on solutions that can strengthen government institutions. Without doing so, devising new online tools to amplify the public’s voice simply adds more noise to an already cacophonous system.

Congress can be a peculiar and frustrating place. The perspective of Washington insiders can help Silicon Valley create tools that align with how the institution really works and how members and staff do their jobs. With this awareness, the enormous technical talent present in the Bay Area can better be brought to bear on the challenges facing our democracy.

The work of bridging the bicoastal bubbles on civic tech by groups like the Lincoln Initiative is a great first step in this effort. Hopefully in the near future, techies can leave their own bubbles and head east.

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