Technology around us is advancing minute by minute. A new, “better than ever” iPhone is released every fall. Techies decry anyone who does work with paper and pencil. In this world, it’s easy to adopt technology in an effort to keep up. But take away the paper and pencil and your problems don’t change. With technology as an enabler, they may only become more pervasive.
Power to the Public is a newly-released book lauded by many in the highest echelons of public service. The authors, Tara Dawson McGuinness and Hana Schank, define public interest technology as “the application of design, data, and delivery to advance the public interest and promote the public good in the digital age”. They break down well-executed technology in the public sector through three principles.
First, it’s important to design technology explicitly to solve clearly defined problems. Tech for tech’s sake isn’t effective, and when layered on a broken system it only exacerbates issues. Second, to make any tech work, capturing the right data is important, and this involves hearing from people it’s actually impacting. Whether a new project to curb homelessness or paperless form submission, assumptions often don’t get to the root of existing problems. Finally, to be successful, the tech must actually be used, which is why delivery is imperative. If it’s not accessible, nobody will use it and it has no chance to induce change.
Join 30,000+ fundraising professionals that receive our weekly Sunday newsletter with industry trends, tips, and analysis delivered right to your inbox
Nonprofits have historically lagged behind in tech usage. Maybe it’s because paper-thin budgets leave little room for experimentation, or because operating costs are kept down (see: fundraiser salaries), or because they just don’t believe the buzz. But when they do get around to adoption, it may be more to check a box rather than a true answer to a problem.
Artificial intelligence is a good example. It’s marketing malpractice to not use “AI” to talk about a new way of analyzing data. So when “AI” is synonymous with “high-tech”, no one wants to look out of touch and say they’re not using it. But layering any technology on top of existing flawed processes without an explicitly defined strategy doesn’t serve any real application. As McGuinness and Schank write, “technology is a tool, an enabler, but rarely itself a solution”.
But what if nonprofits were honest about their highest priority problems? Honest enough to excavate antiquated processes baked into their foundations to find where the true issues lie. This digging wouldn’t be done to satisfy a board or pat themselves on the back, but to focus on desired outcomes and what is keeping each contributor from doing the best work of their lives.
Tech for tech’s sake isn’t effective, and when layered on a broken system it only exacerbates issues.
While nonprofits themselves ask these questions, tech suppliers also must be cognizant of how their technology will be applied. Power to the Public includes some “DIY” examples, but many organizations are too resource-poor to invest in homegrown tech. That’s where suppliers must pick up the burden and examine the ways their technology is applied and delivered. Just because some tech has street cred doesn’t mean it’s right for every organization. But the process of figuring that out means the right questions are being asked.
Power to the Public is as much a manual on what tech can’t do for public service as a success story. That’s important because human problems still require human solutions.
See a Gravyty demo today and see how tech and humans can work side-by-side to achieve results never before thought possible: