Civic Innovation

We can do more with our government than just voting and paying taxes. How can Illinois use innovation and technology to make our government and communities function better?

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What is Civic Innovation?

Civic innovation is about finding new and creative ways for communities to take part in the public decision-making process that affects their lives.Using technology to interact with government allows residents to share important information and to participate in government decisions, with the goal of creating a more responsive and more reflective democracy. 

Civic Innovation in Illinois

By definition, civic innovation projects start local – there are plenty of examples of people in Illinois innovating new ways to be engaged on a community scale. For example, the Sunshine Accountability Project allows residents to go online to see campaign contributions, locate government grant recipients, and compare school report cards statewide. This type of data allows Illinois residents to come up with creative solutions to social problems while making government more accountable and transparent. 

Chicago’s Data Portal makes city data publically available, and can be harnessed by anyone who has a great idea for how to eliminate inefficiency or improve a system. The Data Portal is an important tool that helps to foster civic innovation by supplying city data. One example, the app SpotHero, uses the data generated by the city to help parking spot owners rent their space when it is unoccupied.

Another example of civic innovation can be seen in the 49th Ward of Chicago, where citizens have pioneered participatory budgeting, a system that allows residents to vote on how money is spent in their community. Residents voted to fund neighborhood street repairs, tree planting and bike lanes.

Challenges in doing civic innovation well

Three potential challenges to designing and implementing civic innovation projects include speed, cost, and depth.

Speed: Government is often slow to make big changes. Bureaucracy generally progresses slower than new technologies are developed. This is not always a bad thing, since technological advances may quickly rise and fall but consider how much time it would take for a government to actually implement any civic innovation ideas you may come up with. Some governmental departments are finding that by the time they can purchase and implement technological systems to support civic innovation, the equipment or programs are already out of date.

Cost: Implementation of civic innovation ideas may also be costly for governments. Whether it means purchasing new technology, hiring people with the needed expertise, or simply managing the project, implementing these new structures can be expensive. For many civic innovation ideas to be effective, governments need to organize, invest hours and effort, and often build new infrastructure to get important voices into an idea. This can be at odds with a local government’s tight budget.

Depth: When it comes to depth, ideas like crowdsourcing or citizen participation don’t work for every problem. It’s easy for a community member to answer where they think a new bike lane should go, but harder for people without training to weigh in on how to change the legal code that governs housing statutes. It’s important to think about how civic innovation projects can generate meaningful interaction.

Resources on the challenges of civic innovation

A Definition for Civic Innovation

In an Open-Source Society...

How the Internet will (One Day) Transform Government

The Promise of Idea Crowdsourcing

Why should we engage in civic innovation efforts?

Making government more accountable and transparent can counter corruption and allow voters to follow issues they care about. Poll after poll has shown that voters don’t trust their government to correctly represent them, but the more governments their actions visible, the more that trust is rebuilt and the problems are resolved. Like the Sunshine Accountability Project, projects around the country are attempting to shine a light on government systems in an attempt to reveal inefficiency and corruption in order to reintroduce faith in the system. 

The problem? It’s not always clear that more transparency results in more civic engagement. Transparency related civic innovation projects often work within the current systems of government, and when they find information about something that needs to be changed, people still need to step up and figure out how to make things better. Openness does not automatically lead to accountability.


Sunlight Foundation

Transparency and Open Government

Open Secrets

To build new and better systems for our communities

Governmental entities are a source of valuable information because of all the systems they run. How we harness that data can lead to innovation on many scales, from making our transportation systems more effective to reducing crime to fixing potholes. 

Government data portals, like those for the City of Chicago and the State of Illinois, consolidate information collected by local governments into a platform that is easy to search, share and use. Government agencies, private entities and citizens alike can see what we know about the city of Chicago or the state of Illinois, and use that data to find ways to fix or improve government services or our communities. The Data Portal isn’t civic innovation itself, but a tool to help foster civic innovation

Examples of civic innovation building new and better systems:

  • An interactive map called C U There!, which acts as a tour guide when visiting Champaign-Urbana.
  • An app that connects parking demand and parking supply called SpotHero, which allows parking spot owners to rent their space when unoccupied. 
  • A system for tracking when buses and trains will arrive in New York or D.C., to give commuters more information about their travel. 
  • A doctor in Camden, New Jersey used public health data to figure out where people were using the emergency room actually lived. After mapping that information, he saw locations that lacked public clinics and preventative care, where patients were instead going straight to the ER. By introducing preventive medicine into their lives, he was able to improve outcomes and save the medical system millions of dollars. 

The problem? New systems can cost money and time to implement, and government isn’t always ready to jump at a new idea without proof that it will work. Further, these huge data sets can be complex and hard to work with, meaning that sometimes only certain segments of the population (those with internet access and technology literacy) can see the full benefit of these new systems. Sometimes, the information itself isn’t readily available, because to amass and share it is a huge task in and of itself. Sometimes an openness and accountability project is needed to get the government to release the information.

What can you build with the information that we already are collecting? 


Chicago Data Portal

Illinois Data

Open Data in Chicago


C U There

Doctor Hotspot

To create more opportunities for direct citizen input

The 49th Ward in Chicago pioneered participatory budgeting in the United States, a system in which residents vote directly on money spent in their community. The process actively invests people with the ability to make decisions over what their community most needs. 

The 49th ward has voted to spend money on:

  • repairing neighborhood streets and sidewalks
  • planting trees and installing a water fountain in a neighborhood park
  • installing a bike lane on a local street

Participatory budgeting represents civic innovation because it changes the way citizens interact with their government. The process makes it possible for citizens to make tough decisions about what their community needs, together. 

There are other systems that change the way citizens interact with their government that are not as engaged or as complex. For example, a group in New Haven, CT found a way for citizens to point out where the city should step in. A platform called “See, Click, Fix” gives people the ability to mark things that need attention, from potholes to downed trees, and submit that information online or via a mobile app. Chicago has adopted a similar format for reporting road problems to their 311 non-emergency line. 

The problem? Direct input methods are difficult to implement, and require sustained effort and budgets to be effective. Building the audience for a participatory budgeting project, or even a new app like See Click Fix, is difficult and time consuming. Finally, not every problem is easy to break down into constituent parts that can be answered by the public. When thinking about creating something that asks for direct citizen input, look for ways to keep the interaction meaningful, but not so complex as to be off-putting. 

How can you bring more voices into real decision-making spaces?



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