PFC: A Cautionary Tale for Civic Tech

Mark Headd
3 min readJan 27, 2021
Philadelphia skyline, courtesy fo Flickr user Peter Miller.

In a month of chaotic vaccine distribution rollouts, no government’s effort has been more dysfunctional, or controversial, than that of Philadelphia. To spearhead delivery of COVID-19 vaccines to city residents, the City of Philadelphia decided to partner with a young startup called Philly Fighting COVID (PFC).

In recent days, the city’s decision to partner with a 22-year old Drexel University graduate student’s fledgling startup has come to an acrimonious end. Some would say a predictable end — but to understand (at least partly) how Philly got here, it’s helpful to understand Philly’s history with external partnerships.

Philadelphia has always had a unique relationship with external partners tapped to help fill holes in the city’s service delivery efforts. Philadelphia’s Streets Department has run a Block Captains program for decades, calling on residents to become leaders in the effort for clean streets:

As a Block Captain, you are the one who unites your neighborhood. Together, you can build a vision for a clean and beautiful block.

Philadelphia also relies on a special class of “private-sector-directed municipal authorities,” called Business Improvement Districts to develop and maintain critical infrastructure in neighborhoods across the city.

Even more germane to the decision to outsource vaccine distribution to a young startup founder, city government has in the past actively cultivated and invested in startups specifically focused on addressing civic and social issues. Under former Mayor Michael Nutter, the city launched the Philly FastFWD project, aimed at investing in local startups “as a way to bridge entrepreneurship with urban problems of the day.”

So, for a city with a long history of unique partnerships with private and non-profit partners, and a track record of working with startups to help address social and civic issues, how could things have gone this wrong? It’s a good question, and one I don’t have answers to. It’s encouraging to see so many people in Philly demanding accountability on this question. I hope they get it.

But for those of us working in civic tech, there are lessons here.

Viewed as a case study, the PFC example is valuable for people working in civic tech, and others working to improve government, because it encapsulates all of the worst impulses for improving the way that government works.

  • The idea that outsourcing to the private sector is always the better idea than enabling and empowering government agencies to conduct work.
  • The notion that entrepreneurialism — or even just the potential of it in the case of PFC and its young founder— is always more valuable than bureaucratic expertise.
  • That contention that the absence of labyrinth procurement rules and selection criteria eliminates red tape, and allows talented young firms to rise to the top to deliver on government contracts.

It’s also worth calling out the potent cocktail of fetishizing youth, whiteness, and tech industry savior complex at work in the PFC case study. This should be a cautionary tale for all of us working to improve the way government operates.

However Philadelphia arrived at this point, the result is lamentable — the erosion of confidence in city government. There needs to be a reckoning on why the city’s Department of Health handed over the keys of vaccine distribution to a startup still in the primordial phase of development, with an untested leader operating outside the bounds of a normal government contract. And hopefully there will be.

But for those of us doing this work every day, we need to learn from this example. We have to do better. People are counting on us.