A California Bill Could Transform The Lives of Gig Workers. Silicon Valley Wants Labor’s Help To Stop It.

A BILL WITH potentially huge implications for the so-called gig economy is making its way through the California state legislature this summer, laying bare cleavages within the labor movement. Companies like Uber and Lyft are seeking a workaround to the legislation, which would classify their drivers as employees rather than independent contractors, opening the door to a host of employment benefits. Some prominent labor unions, meanwhile, have been in talks with Silicon Valley, even as they voice their commitment to securing workers’ rights.

Sponsored by Lorena Gonzalez, a Democratic assemblywoman from San Diego, the bill, known as AB 5, seeks to codify and expand Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court of Los Angeles. The landmark 2018 California Supreme Court decision made it much more difficult for companies to classify workers as independent contractors rather than employees, who have access to workplace protection laws like minimum wage, overtime, unemployment insurance, and the right to join a union.

At the center of the debate over AB 5 is its impact on “gig economy” companies like Uber and Lyft, though it would also affect older, more established industries like retail and trucking. There’s a practical reason for California to enact the legislation: The state estimates it loses $7 billion in payroll tax annually due to companies misclassifying employees as independent contractors.

Uber and Lyft have been forthright about their desire to come up with some sort of compromise deal, under which they could continue to classify their workers as independent contractors, in exchange for some additional driver benefits. They insist that the flexibility that attracted drivers to their companies in the first place would vanish if all those people were to claim employee status.

Gig economy workers who support the legislation view it as a necessary step toward their ability to collectively organize. Both the Service Employees International Union and the Teamsters union have played leading roles in advocating for the legislation. They have publicly said they will fight a watered-down AB 5, but a series of private meetings between labor leaders and tech companies have raised suspicion that the unions are more open to leaving gig workers as independent contractors than they’ve formally let on.

Opponents of AB 5 recognize its proposed classification standard could extend well beyond the Golden State and have been lobbying hard —both in California and Washington, D.C. — to stop it. Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate after Dynamex came down to narrow the definition of independent contractors, legislation that is backed by other leading presidential candidates Sens. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren.

AB 5 passed the California State Assembly in May, and last week the state’s Senate Labor, Public Employment and Retirement Committee passed the bill, moving it on to the Senate Appropriations Committee for further revisions. It’s unlikely to reach the full Senate floor until late August or September, and both sides are planning to ramp up their advocacy in the coming weeks.

The Dynamex decision laid out a three-prong test to separate independent contractors from employees. Under the court ruling, independent contractors are workers who have relative independence from the entity paying their wages, whose work is separate from the type of business the entity is typically engaged in, and who typically do the type of work that the entity hired them to do. Uber and Lyft’s pursuit of a carve-out under AB 5 is part of a larger fight over exactly which industries can claim exemption from that test.

A number of occupations already have. The bill originally exempted certain workers who set their own rates like licensed insurance agents, certain health care professionals, and some hairstylists and barbers. Last week, the state Senate labor committee added a host of additional categories for exemption, including freelance writers, grant writers, and private investigators.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democratic ally of both the tech industry and labor unions, has not taken a formal position on AB 5 but said on a podcast last month that he’s “into compromise” and has “been trying to seek it for many, many months.” The Los Angeles Times editorial board recently endorsed some sort of gig economy carve-out, calling AB 5 in its present form “overkill.”

SHORTLY AFTER THE Dynamex decision came down, the California Chamber of Commerce formed the I’m Independent Coalition to fight the new worker classification standard. Coalition members include the California Hospital Association, the California Restaurant Association, the California Retailers Association, Handy, Lyft, Uber, and Instacart. The Internet Association, a group that includes Google, Amazon, LinkedIn, and Facebook, is also a member.

As Bloomberg reported in August, the business groups mobilized to quietly lobby lawmakers for new legislation or executive action that could neutralize the consequential Dynamex decision.

At the same time, Uber and Lyft were gearing up to take their companies public, which meant they faced increased pressure to mitigate their labor costs. Barclays recently estimated that classifying California drivers as employees could cost Uber and Lyft, respectively, $500 million and $290 million annually.

In an April Securities and Exchange Commission filing, Uber bluntly wrote that reclassifying its drivers as employees “would require us to fundamentally change our business model, and consequently have an adverse effect on our business and financial condition.” Lyft laid out similar concerns in its March SEC filing, acknowledging that while “we continue to maintain that drivers on our platform are independent contractors in legal and administrative proceedings, our arguments may ultimately be unsuccessful.”

Pressure is also mounting as drivers of these ride-hailing services ramp up their own activism, in response to falling pay rates and rising expenses. The tech giants anticipate this to continue. In its SEC filing, Uber wrote that “driver dissatisfaction will generally increase” going forward, as they “aim to reduce Driver incentives” to boost their financial performance.

Konstantine Anthony is one of those dissatisfied drivers. He’s been working full-time for Uber over the last 4 1/2 years in Los Angeles County, and when he first started out, he said, he used to make almost $26 an hour before expenses. That figure has now fallen to about $22. Anthony has gotten involved with the SEIU-backed Mobile Workers Alliance to support both AB 5 and the right of drivers like him to form a union.

He doesn’t buy Uber’s line that they’re trying to protect drivers who wish to work just a few hours a week. “The way they reward you on the app is you get higher and higher bonuses when you drive 60 or 70 hours a week,” Anthony said. “They’re giving lip service about protecting part-time workers, but their actual practices are about incentivizing those driving 40+ hours a week.”

IN A STUNNING example of how much pressure the ride-hailing companies are under, Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber’s chief executive, and Logan Green and John Zimmer, the co-founders of Lyft, collectively wrote a June op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle saying their companies are “ready to do our part for drivers.” While the tech leaders argued against reclassifying drivers as employees, they said they were open to amending existing law to allow independent contractors access to benefits like paid time off, education stipends, and retirement planning, as well as better rates for time spent driving passengers (but not time spent transitioning between passengers). And rather than a union, the tech executives said they’re open to some sort of “driver association” that can advocate for the needs of workers.

To bolster their case, Uber and Lyft say that most drivers don’t actually want to be classified as employees, as most just drive occasionally to pick up some extra, flexible income. The companies point to a 2018 statewide survey of California independent contractors, which found that only 7 percent of independent contractors wanted to be classified as employees. That poll, notably, was conducted by EMC Research and sponsored by the Chamber-backed I’m Independent Coalition. It included a sample size of 1,040 respondents, including 387 gig economy workers, a majority of whom had not heard about the Dynamex decision.

A 2018 nationwide poll yielded similar results. The Rideshare Guy blog surveyed approximately 1,200 Uber and Lyft drivers and found about 76 percent of respondents said they’d prefer to remain independent contractors, including a majority of full-time drivers.

A spokesperson for Lyft said 91 percent of their drivers across the country drive fewer than 20 hours a week, and 76 percent drive less than 10 hours. They said they suspect their California-specific numbers “are the same or very similar” to their national figures.

Uber and Lyft warn that the flexibility drivers say they highly value would be lost if they were no longer independent contractors — adding that they’d likely need to limit drivers’ hours and institute shifts. They also say wages could fall further. “Lyft would only need a fraction of the drivers it has now if it moved to an employment model, meaning thousands would lose their opportunity to earn with Lyft entirely,” a company spokesperson added.

Uber did not return multiple requests for comment.

While it may be true that most drivers who sign up for Uber and Lyft drive just a few hours per week, industry researchers say the full-time drivers account for most of the revenue generated for the companies. Recent data collected by the JPMorgan Chase Institute found that almost 57 percent of transportation platform earnings go to the top 10 percent of earners.

“These data and other combine to make me believe that the majority of TNC trips are provided by drivers who rely on TNC earnings for most or all of their income,” transportation policy expert Bruce Schaller told The Intercept over email, using the initials for “transportation network company,” an industry term for ride-booking companies.

Anthony, the Uber driver, doesn’t buy the argument that he’d lose his flexible work schedule if he were classified as an employee and calls that a “false narrative.” Treating workers fairly, he argues, doesn’t inherently change the nature of a flexible business. “If Uber and Lyft tried to take that flexibility away, I don’t know any driver who would still work with them,” he said. “And there are a dozen companies that are coming up that will maintain that flexibility and pay workers as employees.” (Via is an example of a ride-sharing company that pays its drivers an hourly wage.)

Other pro-AB 5 advocates concede that some things about Uber and Lyft’s business models would likely change, but they say these changes would ultimately be for the better. For example, it’s true that the companies might employ fewer people, since the cost per trip would increase. The upshot is that the companies could also create a more environmentally-friendly business. Having fewer drivers on the road could also increase earnings for workers. The JPMorgan Chase Institute found that the growth in supply of online platform transportation drivers between 2013 and 2017 led earnings to fall by 53 percent.

The National Employment Law Project, a union-backed legal advocacy group, also notes plenty of examples of flexible work environments where workers are classified as employees. “Cake decorators, home researchers, nurses, couriers, and restaurant workers have all been found to be employees, despite the fact that they could choose their own schedules,” a recent NELP fact sheet says. “Laws don’t force workers into choosing between having basic workplace protections and having flexibility; companies do.”

Uber and Lyft’s “status as employers is really quite clear,” according to David Weil, who led the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division during the Obama administration. While there are some cases where companies really do have workers operating in an ambiguous space between employees and contractors, he wrote in a recent LA Times op-ed, “Uber and Lyft are not among those close, gray area cases.”

GIG ECONOMY WORKERS backing AB 5 have been calling both for AB 5’s passage and the path for them to form a union under state law, particularly in light of barriers recently erected by the federal government. In May, the Donald Trump-appointed general counsel at the National Labor Relations Board issued a memo saying Uber drivers are contractors, not employees. The U.S. Department of Labor came to a similar conclusion in April, in an opinion letter saying gig workers are contractors.

“It’s really hard to organize under federal labor law, and if federal law says the drivers are not covered then they could be covered under state law,” said Ken Jacobs, chair of the Labor Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “California has established its own protections for agricultural workers, so there does seem to be that precedent.”

Representatives from SEIU and the Teamsters have been meeting with tech companies and lawmakers over the last several months to discuss the proposed legislation.

Late last month, the New York Times reported that the AB 5 meetings organized by the tech companies “have created deep rancor within the labor ranks and set unions against one another.” Some workers have raised alarm at the prospect their unions may be selling them out.

The unions have defended themselves against critics who are wary of those talks. The companies emphasize that they were just invited to attend the meetings, did not organize them themselves, and were not there to negotiate any sort of watered-down proposals. As part of their efforts to support gig workers, Bob Schoonover, president of the SEIU California, told The Intercept over email that they and other labor leaders have been working “across government, labor, private, and non-profit sectors to open the door for robust conversations and the sharing of ideas and concepts.” He stressed that “these are just ideas and concepts that have been used to collaborate with partners on how we might be able to help workers find the best path forward – they are nothing more and should not be misconstrued as such.”

Doug Bloch, the political director for the Teamsters Joint Council 7, which represents 23 locals in Northern California, has also been in meetings with Uber and Lyft to discuss AB 5. He did not return requests for comment.

Though labor is taking pains to say they’re not negotiating any sort of compromise, the tech companies have depicted the meetings in different terms.

“We’ve been working with lawmakers and labor leaders on a different solution to AB 5 so drivers can continue to control where, when, and how long they drive,” a Lyft spokesperson said.

“Industry is at the table with labor and ready to find a path forward to modern protection for independent contractors that preserve their ability to work independently,” added Courtney Jensen, the executive director for California and the Southwest for the trade group TechNet.

In June, Héctor Figueroa, then president of SEIU 32BJ in New York, co-wrote a New York Daily News op-ed criticizing his state’s labor federation for backing a bill that would let unions collect dues from gig workers without giving those workers full rights as employees. He called the New York proposal “a giveaway to gig companies” and then went on to criticize his colleagues in California for “working to cut a backroom deal” that would also exempt app drivers from employee status. Last week, at age 57, Figueroa unexpectedly died from a heart attack.

The day after his death, Caitlin Vega, the legislative director for the California Labor Federation, tweeted about honoring Figueroa’s legacy, and noted that he used his power to stand with vulnerable taxi workers, gig workers, and immigrant workers.

In an interview with The Intercept, California Labor Federation spokesperson Steve Smith explained that representatives from SEIU and Teamsters have met with the tech companies, and then have come back to share with other unions in their federation what they learned and how those conversations went.

“SEIU and the Teamsters are not at a point of some imminent deal, the discussions that we’ve had have been primarily about some outlines of the proposals that SEIU and the Teamsters have been discussing with the tech companies,” he said. “We’ve had some honest and open discussions in labor, and I think generally people have been appreciative of the SEIU and the Teamsters for being able to share with other unions what is happening and the progression of those discussions.”

Smith said the labor movement is “completely unified” around efforts to pass AB 5, but he suggested that unions may be open to alternative paths for drivers of ride-hailing apps specifically. “AB 5 is much broader than just TNCs, and we understand, as I think those unions do, that AB 5 serves a purpose that’s much bigger than anything that happens with the TNCs,” he said.

While there are different ideas on the table, Smith said labor “wants to make sure we’re giving workers the opportunity if they so choose to join a union and that we’re setting a floor — not a ceiling — for the rights they’re entitled to.”

He dismissed the idea that there’s a serious divide in the labor movement over this. “I think that’s been overblown to an extent,” he said. “Obviously we’re a big movement, and we have a lot of thoughts and opinions, sometimes strong opinions, but our goal is always to come together as a movement to do what’s best for the largest amount of workers that we can.”

DRIVERS ON BOTH sides of the issue are expected to ramp up their advocacy as the bill continues to make its way through the state Senate. In late March, hundreds of Uber and Lyft drivers in Los Angeles went on strike(and turned off their apps) to protest Uber’s recent 25 percent per-mile rate cut. Drivers launched another one-day strike on May 8, timed with Uber’s IPO, and were joined by fellow drivers in Boston, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, D.C., San Diego, San Francisco, and Chicago.

Then last week, hundreds of drivers from across California went to Sacramento to rally for and against AB 5. Drivers who came out to protest the bill were reportedly offered up to $100 in extra pay from Uber and Lyft, the Los Angeles Times reported. Recode previously reported that some drivers felt misled by in-app messages and emails sent by Uber and Lyft urging them to sign petitions or call their legislators to protest the legislation.

One driver who went to Sacramento to support AB 5 was Ann Glatt, who drove for Lyft for four years before recently quitting due to burnout from falling wages. Though Glatt, who is 62, is looking for other jobs now, she’s stayed involved with Gig Workers Rising, an organizing group in Northern California backed by SEIU and the Teamsters.

Glatt said she doesn’t trust any sort of Uber and Lyft compromise deal. “I don’t take much credence in what they say; they’re not for drivers, their business is not to have drivers make a living wage,” she said. “They come out in the media and stay stuff, but they’ve never offered to meet with us. If they say they’re willing to give us a living wage, then do it now. You don’t have to have AB 5 passed to just pay the living wage you were paying us a few years ago.”

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Pushing Civic Tech Beyond Its Comfort Zone

Originally published in the Fall 2015 print issue of The American Prospect.
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You’re walking down the street in New Haven, Connecticut, texting on your smartphone. As you turn a corner, you notice a big pothole in the middle of the road. Skimming through your cell, you log into SeeClickFix, an app for citizens to report non-emergency issues to local government. Snapping a photo of the pothole and geo-coding the picture with your GPS coordinates, you submit the report and continue walking, confident the relevant agency will tend to the matter. Other SeeClickFix users can also see that a new pothole has been reported, and where.

Potholes have symbolized the everyday problems that citizens call upon local and even national politicians to address. Senator Al D’Amato of New York was nicknamed “Senator Pothole” because of his reputation for tending to his constituents’ needs. It was a compliment—it meant he was available, responsive, and got things done, at least the small, concrete things his constituents cared about. But when it comes to taking action on local civic problems, there are now options besides contacting a public official. Tools like SeeClickFix allow citizens to gather local information and organize collectively based on what they learn. “If you as an elected official have established your power on the sole exclusive rights to that information, then our app is not something you’re going to be in love with,” says Ben Berkowitz, SeeClickFix’s CEO and co-founder.

SeeClickFix offers some interesting opportunities for citizens, such as allowing them to monitor whether the government has dealt with their concerns and “reopening” the complaint if they dislike how the government responded. “There’s an element of shifting power that’s baked into the code of SeeClickFix that makes it more of a service for people and less of a service for bureaucrats,” says Micah Sifry, co-founder of Personal Democracy Media, which focuses on intersections between politics and technology. SeeClickFix also provides useful services for governments—Jennifer Pugh, who works in the chief administrator’s office in the New Haven local government, said that her office’s adoption of SeeClickFix technology has allowed it to organize work orders more systematically. She hopes that in a few years, when a greater number of departments start to use SeeClickFix, they will be able to conduct new kinds of citywide analysis.

Moreover, in theory, SeeClickFix technology should one day allow journalists, political opponents, and independent groups to publish data comparing the responsiveness and performance of local governments, allowing citizens to see how well theirs stacks up in relation to others.

Some, perhaps hoping to stir up excitement, inflate the case for new technology—heralding it as the savior of government accountability and promoter of a more just democracy. “With these digital tools, citizens and their officials can revolutionize local government, making it more responsive, transparent, and cost-effective than it ever has been,” write Stephen Goldsmith and Susan Crawford in their book, The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance. That exaggerated rhetoric about “revolutionizing” government shouldn’t be taken seriously; it only sets up people for later disappointment. But, in a more modest but still significant way, tools like SeeClickFix can help improve the accountability and performance of government—local government in particular. Accountability, however, is ultimately a political matter, and civic tech cannot simply steer clear of politics in the belief that technology will solve problems on its own.

The Obama Tech Letdown

Following his savvy 2008 campaign, Obama entered the White House with great expectations from the tech world. He was “the first Internet president,” as Omar Wasow, co-founder of BlackPlanet.com and now an assistant professor of politics at Princeton, called him. During George W. Bush’s second term, open-government advocates had begun to lay the groundwork for increasing transparency in the next administration, whichever party won the 2008 election. Their recommendations were just being finalized at the time of Obama’s victory. “We interacted quite a bit with the transition team and really conveyed to them that this was a bipartisan area the administration could take a lead on,” said Sean Moulton, the open government program manager at the Project on Government Oversight (POGO).

In his inaugural address, Obama declared that “those of us who manage the public’s dollars” will “do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.” A day later, he issued two memoranda, one calling for greater government compliance with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, and another that committed his administration to bring about “an unprecedented level of openness in government.”

These memos sent expectations soaring in the worlds of civic tech and open data. Silicon Valley perked up its ears. “When the president of the United States says something like that, it becomes a big deal and a big business,” says Tiago Peixoto, an applied political scientist who researches democracy’s relationship to technology. We’ve seen the rise of for-profit companies—like SeeClickFix—that focus on improving government service delivery. “Civic hackathons” began to crop up in cities across the country and even at the White House, encouraging coders, entrepreneurs, and others to figure out ways to use technology for civic ends.

“[Obama’s administration] was the first time we ever had a U.S. chief information officer, a U.S. chief technology officer, and a U.S. chief data officer,” says Gary Bass, founder of the Center for Effective Government (originally called OMB Watch), a nonprofit organization committed to public accountability, transparency, and citizen participation. Suddenly government leaders were discussing how they could recruit top tech talent. The culture of the federal government seemed to be shifting.

But several years later, public trust in government has declined to historic lows. Much of that decline reflects the general hostility of conservatives to the Obama administration, not to its information policies. But even for liberals, the promise of an “open government” seems elusive. A 2015 Pew survey found that just 5 percent of Americans say the federal government shares its data very effectively. The civic-tech community, which had hoped to facilitate a democratic revival, is also puzzling over its lack of success. “I think civic tech started getting trendy with Obama, and it’s still trendy, but we haven’t had as big of an impact as we expected,” said Dan O’Neil, the executive director of the Smart Chicago Collaborative and one of civic tech’s early pioneers.

Local Experiments, New Tools

Still, there are plenty of examples of local governments experimenting with technology over the past few years to help increase its responsiveness and reduce government costs. With improved data analysis, New York City was better able to anticipate which buildings were at risk of catching on fire. Boston was able to speed up the time it took to deliver new recycling bins on request. Many companies, organizations, and individuals have also started leveraging government data to develop their own civic tools, from Waze, a crowd-sourced traffic-data company that provides users with timely and accurate travel information, to Nextdoor, a tool that uses census data to create private social networks for local neighbors to interact.

Apps like SeeClickFix offer a greater degree of civic opportunity than apps that allow you to track your packages in the mail or those that notify you when the next bus is expected to arrive. SeeClickFix users can earn “civic points” for utilizing different features, such as commenting on other people’s reports. Through the app’s “thanks” feature, citizens can send messages of gratitude to the government agency that addressed their complaint. Ideally these types of features can help to increase trust between citizens and government, an important ingredient for democratic participation.

One of SeeClickFix’s most admired features allows users to “reopen” a report they’ve filed if they’re not satisfied with how the government responded to it. People have praised the technology for empowering citizens with the last word.

I asked Jennifer Pugh, of the New Haven government, if there have ever been times when citizens reopen requests that her colleagues have closed, and she told me that it happened all the time. In many cases, she explains, the government is not able to provide what citizens are expecting, or the government does not agree with what an individual complainant has asked for. “We don’t have a lot of resources; we’re limited on money,” says Pugh. So New Haven often closes out requests on SeeClickFix, and if people reopen them, officials usually just leave them there. “The downside is that it looks like there is a lot of open issues out there, but in fact they’ve been dealt with. We just can’t come to an agreement about how to address it,” she says.

When citizens file complaints through SeeClickFix, there’s no guarantee that the government will do what the citizen has requested. These tech tools do not eliminate some of the basic challenges facing governments, like determining how to spend a limited budget of resources. But what SeeClickFix does offer is an easier way to raise issues, and a means for the public to better understand which requests have been addressed. This in turn creates new opportunities for activists and journalists to press for details on the government’s decision-making process. Why didn’t residents in this part of town have their pothole fixed? Why did you decline to put in the speed bump I requested when I am upset by the fast traffic on my block? Why did so many people from all over the city report vandalism on the same day? Such questions have become easier for the public to ask in the age of SeeClickFix.

Peixoto, who has been studying the intersections of democracy and technology for the past 14 years, thinks that when newcomers flooded the civic-tech space at the start of Obama’s first term, “there was no way to ensure that the critical mass of people would absorb the lessons we had already learned by then.” This has led to what Peixoto sees as “some naïve assumptions” repeated inside new civic-tech circles. Specifically, he points out that many civic-tech leaders overestimate what technology can do on its own. Some have encouraged technologists to dismiss the government entirely, or just treat it as a platform from which to launch civic projects independently. But researchers have learned that civic technology generally carries a far greater impact when it works in conjunction with the government, like SeeClickFix, rather than on its own. SeeClickFix’s government partnership helps to explain its steady growth and impact.

Why Civic Tech Isn’t Easy

It’s understandable why some civic-tech leaders feel unenthusiastic about dealing with the government. In Silicon Valley, technologists are encouraged to “fail fast, fail often.” But within the public sector, taxpayers don’t necessarily want their leaders taking big costly risks, and politicians in turn fear the backlash if innovations fail. The cultures are different.

There is also a talent pipeline problem—government simply does not have enough people coming to work for it who possess advanced technological skills. “You see so many agencies with so little knowledge and capacity around the technology, they don’t even know what they want or how to communicate with the contractors they hire,” said Moulton. The government bidding process itself is also notoriously difficult, precluding many smaller, and perhaps more talented, companies from competing for contracts.

Together, these issues create a government tech situation that is both expensive and dysfunctional. The best-known recent example was the disastrous rollout of the federal health insurance exchange website, Healthcare.gov. It not only went far over budget—originally estimated to cost $500 million, it hit $1.7 billion by its initial rollout in 2013, and exceeded $2 billion a year later—but the website also just didn’t work well at all. It continually crashed, stalled, and left customers unable to purchase health-care plans. Of course, once the website did start performing better later on, the news media had little interest in reporting on its successes.

In many ways, the embarrassing Healthcare.gov scandal served as a turning point for the Obama administration. “It was only after that that the alarm bell finally reached the Oval Office,” says Sifry. “This wasn’t working. You can’t just make good speeches. You also have to find good people who can deliver on those promises.” Since then, far more serious attention has been paid to federal information technology and government procurement.

In 2014, the administration created two new agencies in the executive branch—18F in the General Services Administration and the U.S. Digital Service (USDS) in the White House—both designed to improve the government’s technological capacity. The government has been trying to improve procurement issues for decades, but the tools and methods available today are different.

“From open-source tools to the refinement of methodologies like human-centered design and agile development, these are all things you wouldn’t have heard of two decades ago,” says Aaron Snow, the executive director of 18F. “These are all things that make it actually possible for us to accelerate the rate [at which] government improves its technological capacity.” While USDS technologists consult with agencies to figure out how to improve their work, the staff at 18F helps federal agencies become savvier about procurement. Speaking at the Personal Democracy Forum this past June—an annual conference for the civic-tech community—Haley Van Dyck, USDS’s co-founder, said her office has been deploying “hyper-networked teams across government” to disrupt and transform tech practices and agency cultures. And though 18F and USDS work specifically with federal agencies, they share their code freely online so that local governments can reuse and repurpose it for their own needs. At times, federal officials will use code first developed within local city agencies, too.

From Open Data to Accountability

In 2012, David Robinson and Harlan Yu, two technology consultants and open-government data theorists, published a law review article noting that the term “open government”—which was first used in the 1950s during debates that led to the passage of the Freedom of Information Act—has now blurred considerably and confusingly with the “open data” movement. “Today, a regime can call itself ‘open’ if it builds the right kind of website—even if it does not become more accountable,” they point out. Consequently, Yu and Robinson urge the public to distinguish more clearly between efforts to hold governments accountable and technology that enhances government services.

Tiago Peixoto built off of this analysis in an essay published one year later. For there to be government accountability, he argues, four things need to happen. First, government information must be disclosed—this is where open data would come in. Second, this disclosed information must reach members of its intended public. Third, citizens—not necessarily everyone, but a constituency large enough to influence government—must be able to understand the disclosed information and react to it. Fourth and finally, public officials need to respond to the public’s reactions or be sanctioned by the public through institutional means.

So with this in mind, can tools like SeeClickFix be used to create a more accountable government? In some cases, increased public transparency now exists within areas that were previously more opaque. That’s important.SeeClickFix users can compare how long they’ve been waiting for a streetlamp bulb to be replaced or for a pothole to be fixed. They can compare which parts of town had their requests answered more quickly. “It’s helpful to have a record of needs that are systematic and easy to measure,” says Robinson. News organizations can also launch investigations when reporters or watchdog groups notice that citizen complaints are going ignored.

Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, a watchdog organization that seeks to promote accountability for public programs subsidizing economic development, says he first understood how crucial transparency was for accountability back in the late 1970s, when he worked for National People’s Action (NPA), a grassroots social justice network. At the time, NPA pushed for the passage of the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (1975) and the Community Reinvestment Act (1977). “There were allegations that banks were redlining communities of color, but there was no real evidence [before these laws were enacted] to prove it,” he said.

Technology on its own cannot get the government to disclose information, but it can prove extremely valuable for those who want to understand what is released. While LeRoy’s organization has been around since 1998, he says the rise of the Internet and data technology “has everything to do” with how his organization has changed over time. All states have their subsidy information in electronic form; they could share much or all of it online if they wanted to. The first state to do so, in small amounts, was Ohio in 1999. But governments have shown that without public pressure they will generally not disclose information or will release just small amounts of information to mollify critics. Good Jobs First has tried to overcome this resistance by conducting research, promoting public discussion, and encouraging activists to push for improved transparency laws. In 2007, they published their first national report card study—“The State of Disclosure.” By that time, 23 states had put some amount of subsidy information online. Three years later, when their next study was published, the number had increased to 37.

But “the data that states do put online,” LeRoy says, can amount to a “Tower of Babel.” States often hide information in obscure appendices, upload contracts in non-searchable PDFs, or publish audits that are impenetrable. As a result, Good Jobs First recognized that “transparency” could mean very little, in practice. But this is where new civic technology developed by third-party organizations has been invaluable. Good Jobs First was able to launch its comprehensive Subsidy Tracker tool in 2010 by compiling and organizing more than 100,000 records from across the country into one unified searchable database and getting additional subsidy program information through FOIA requests. “Technology has definitely been at the core of how we improve our data and make it more accessible for average citizens to understand,” LeRoy says.

The Center for Responsive Politics, another watchdog organization that focuses on money in politics, knows its ultimate objective is to move people into action—step three of Piexoto’s four-step process. “We use technology to provide information in lots of different ways,” explains Sheila Krumholz, the center’s executive director, because the group recognizes that presenting information in just one format won’t resonate with enough people. Krumholz thinks the organization has played a key role in educating citizens about the impact of money in politics, but says its challenge now is to figure out how to design the kind of “aha” moments that inspire people to act on what they learn, rather than simply tune out and disengage.

But inspiring people to act inevitably has political implications. Eric Liu, the CEO of Citizen University—a group that works with leaders, activists, and practitioners around issues of citizenship and organizing—says it’s not enough to make government more efficient. He encourages civic-tech leaders to reckon more with politics, power, and inequality. While it’s great to have an app that can help you find out when the next bus is coming, it would be even better, he argues, if you could activate the smarts and skills of people within civic tech to help push city leaders to develop a stronger public transportation system.

“Civic tech is excellent at transparency, civic tech is excellent at efficiency, civic tech is excellent at creating a sense of community,” said Liu in a speech at the Personal Democracy Forum this past June. “Civic tech is excellent at a lot of dimensions of what you might think of as customer service.”

The civic-tech community could help Americans create not only a more efficient government, but also a more politically accountable and fair one. Doing that would require the community to venture into political territory that it’s largely avoided up to this point. But if civic tech is going to make a big impact, there is no turning away from politics. It’s something investigative journalists have long understood: Making people with power uncomfortable is part of the job. It’s part of the job of civic tech, too.