Or at least, that’s what a former boss of mine used to say. Undeterred by his wise advice, I was totally won over when Bryan Sivak , DC’s Chief Technology Officer, came to the World Bank a couple of months ago to present his vision of a Civic Commons, under the tagline of “sharing technologies for the public good”. Here is how Civic Commons’  recently launched website summarises the objectives of the initiative:
In the face of budget crises, government entities at every level must cut costs and find efficiencies. An enormous opportunity lies in their IT infrastructure — the technology they require to provide their citizens essential services. For the most part, each city, county, state, agency and office builds or buys their technology solutions independently, creating huge redundancies in civic software and wasting millions of tax-payer dollars. They should be able to work together. An independent non-profit organization, Civic Commons will help these institutions share code and best practices, reform procurement practices, and learn to function not only as a provider of services but as a platform to which an ecosystem of industry can add value for government and its citizens.
According to the Civic Commons vision (the initiative has web 2.0 guru Tim O’Reilly as one of its advisors), once a core “open civic stack” of software and “an open civic API” are developed, all government entities will be able to adopt it, saving money and effort in the process. Relieved US taxpayers will presumably be able to measure the gains through the Government’s IT Dashboard  – and embarrassing revelations a la the UK’s Council website spending  (h/t Richard Fahey) will be avoided.
How is Civic Commons relevant to the development sector?
- To begin with, there is nothing preventing the “open civic stack” – or at least a similar approach – being adopted by local agencies beyond the US. In fact, Bryan mentioned having already had contacts with municipalities in emerging markets about potential collaboration opportunities. Anyone interested out there?
- Take “government entities” in the above quote and replace it with non-profits and development organizations… wouldn’t an “open development stack” for NGOs, international organizations and grassroots movements be a great opportunity to pool resources, avoid duplication and save IT dollars that could be used for the core mission? After all, the majority of these organizations need an IT infrastructure to service core business needs, e.g., to manage members, fundraise, campaign, etc.
- Once the software for development organisations runs out of a common platform, there would be sufficient scale for “an ecosystem of industry” to grow, catering to the specific needs of non-profits and creating apps that can be repurposed for different uses across institutions. With the growth of IT development skills in emerging markets, it is easy to imagine that these private sector players could be increasingly located (maybe even by policy requirement?) in developing countries, thus furthering the overall developmental mission of non-profits.
“Commons” initiatives are quite the rage these days, and skeptics will have an easy life pointing to past failures and competing agendas that have prevented development organizations from effectively sharing resources in the past.
Still, I find the vision of a Development Commons focusing on IT infrastructure rather compelling. But then again, perhaps it is time for me to go and see a doctor…