“Opening Up” Government Software

Working with Civic Commons’ Technical Assistance program

Civic Commons works with governments and civic institutions to release and deploy open technologies for the public good — and ensure that processes are in place for those projects to flourish after our involvement.

What we bring to engagements is experience helping diverse stakeholders work together on open civic technology projects, and knowledge of the standards and practices that enable projects to succeed in attracting mutually beneficial outside contributions.  For example, we provide assistance with open source licensing, collaboration infrastructure and processes, community ground rules, guidance to contractors who are new to working in an open community environment, etc.

Projects we’ve worked with include: the Federal IT Dashboard, San Francisco’s Enterprise Addressing System, Open311, and the San Ramon Valley Fire Department’s Save-a-Life Mobile App.

Our technical assistance team consists of technology policy experts and open source software specialists with a proven track record of assisting in the development of open civic technologies.

Levels of engagement

We have two basic levels of engagement:

  • One-time. Civic Commons can provide targeted assistance on a small scale. This is usually a single conference call, preceded by a few emails, and pointers to the right resources. It’s typically for groups who have already decided that they want to release open technology, or in some cases use or participate in a project, and just need some advice on how to do it.Often the questions are very specific — about licensing, possible partners, applicable standards, comparable technologies, how to use contractors on an open project, etc — and we can work through the issues together one by one, knowing when we have reached the end. After the engagement, we’ll follow up with a few more emails to make sure there aren’t any loose ends or remaining confusion.
  • Sustained. Civic Commons can engage with your project over a longer period of time; from several weeks to several months.  During a sustained engagement, we become embedded in the technical team, providing ongoing assistance as the project is developed.We are able to participate in sustained engagements for government agencies or other civic groups whose projects firmly meet our selection criteria, and are likely to be useful to many jurisdictions, but will require sustained work to release as open technology. We often start helping these projects well before they are released, in order to talk with developers and managers early on and establish processes that can continue smoothly through the release and the transition to a broader set of participants and stakeholders.

What We Look For

We are only able to do a limited number of engagements each year. We choose engagements based partly on project’s potential to solve real-world problems, and partly on how well the engagement will fill gaps in our own knowledge and cause us to produce new resources (e.g., new case studies, practices, etc) that everyone can use. The engagements themselves are not our goal — they are a means to an end, which is to provide government technologists and their allies with the tools they need to build open, collaborative systems that can be shared across jurisdictions.

Please note that all the non-sensitive materials we produce from an engagement are eventually made public; spreading knowledge is part of our mission, so when we charge, we charge for time, not for access to materials.

Our first consideration is the kinds of processes the project will set in motion. Will it do any of the following?

  • Cause valuable civic technology to be open and usable?
  • Cause a jurisdiction to work with open technology that otherwise wouldn’t have?
  • Cause a contractor or vendor to offer or support open technology, who otherwise would not have?
  • Enable a jurisdiction and/or vendor to start collaborating with other parties, on shareable goods, in a way they wouldn’t have otherwise?

At least one of the above should be true, and preferably more than one.

We also look at the technology itself, considering the following criteria:

  • Explainability. We consider how easy it is to explain and demo a project, because this is an important factor in its adoptability. The harder a system is to explain, the more useful or enabling it has to be to win users.
  • Multi-audience. Is it useful for more than one kind of entity? E.g., not just cities, but counties, states, and other jurisdictions?
  • Vendor Involvement. If at least one vendor or contractor is involved, that’s an advantage. If two or more are involved, that’s even better.
  • Quantifiable government cost savings (or other metrics). If there are plausible metrics on how much money it will save, or how many more citizens it will engage, or how many more potholes it will cause to be fixed, then that makes it easier to justify devoting Civic Commons’ resources to it.
  • Citizen-facing or journalist-facing. Although we certainly consider apps that are used exclusively by government employees, if they meet other criteria strongly, the ideal apps are public-facing, or at least can be used by (say) journalists and other highly interested parties with a little investment of effort.
  • Ease of open-sourcing. E.g. few or no proprietary dependencies, no IP issues (ownership is documented and known and “releasing to commons” is permitted under standard open source terms).
  • Supports open standards. If the project will help strengthen a standard that contributes to transparent and equitable access to government data and services, that’s a plus.
  • Deployability, Maintainability, Extensibility. These three terms encompass a single quality, which is the degree to which the application uses well-documented technologies in comprehensible ways, such that a reasonably competent technologist can walk in and do something useful with it — deploy it, at least, and even help to maintain or extend it if they are inclined to do so.


Thanks to generous foundation support, we are able to participate in a limited number of projects on a pro bono or discounted-rate basis.  When we do take payment, our rates are comparable to the non-profit rates offered by other technology consultancies.

Interested in working with us?

To inquire about engaging Civic Commons for your project, please contact us here.