The term “citizen development” is often abused or misunderstood and can easily get maligned as “shadow IT.” So, before we dig into the crucial question of how to successfully govern the efforts of citizen developers, we had better start with a definition to make sure we’re all on the same page.

What Is a Citizen Developer?

A citizen developer is a non-professional developer who builds applications for use by other people. Although they do not report directly to IT, they use tools such as low-code platforms that are sanctioned by IT.

The words underlined are crucial to this definition. It is this oversight by IT that distinguishes citizen development from so-called “shadow-IT,” which takes place without the knowledge or control of IT.

However, simply sanctioning the work of these non-professional developers is hardly a recipe for success. I’m not alone in thinking IT needs to have its hand more firmly on the tiller.

“Citizen development is happening, and IT needs to be more engaged.”

So said Gartner in a 2017 research report. Our 2019 research on the State of Application Development provided a great opportunity to explore whether IT has succeeded in getting more hands-on in steering citizen developers towards success. What we found was that some organizations appear to be governing the efforts of their citizen developers much more successfully than others.

Why IT Needs to be More Engaged

The above mentioned Gartner report was gleaned from a survey of 228 organizations, however, nearly all of the analysis charts are based on just 66 responses or fewer. In part, these low response rates are because only 50 percent of responders thought they had active citizen development activities in their organization.

The main thrust of Gartner’s report was as follows:

  • Only 16 percent of respondents said that IT was fully involved with citizen development.
  • Thirty-six percent said IT mainly provided back-end support for such development.
  • For the majority of respondents, therefore, IT oversight and governance of citizen development are lacking.
  • IT needs to embrace, govern, and measure citizen development if it is to be a force for good.

Given that governance appears so lacking amongst these respondents, this report is perhaps as much about shadow IT as citizen development. Our more extensive 2019 research adds more clarity to this picture.

The State of Application Development 2019 Survey

Conducted in March 2019, more than 3,300 IT professionals took part in our sixth annual State of Application Development Survey. The results enabled our comprehensive analysis of the challenges, priorities, and innovations faced by IT teams.

The Role of Citizen Developers in Organizations

Only 38 percent of respondents said, “We don’t have citizen developers or shadow-IT in our organization,” significantly lower than the 49 percent reported by Gartner two years earlier. However, with respect to both these surveys, I can’t help but wonder if some respondents are blind to business-led development that is going on in the shadows? From my perspective, I’d guess these respondents fall into three camps:

  1. Some work in organizations where IT meets all business requirements fast enough, so business-led development hasn’t become an issue.
  2. Some work in organizations where IT, security, and HR policies have eliminated business-led development.
  3. Some may be living in denial or are just unaware of non-professional developers.

Having never met a company that achieved (1) or (2), may I suggest at least some of these respondents suffer a myopic view of business-led development?

Governance of Citizen Development

Our survey did not merely ask if citizen developers existed but inquired as to how well they were governed. Here’s what we learned overall:

Three Views of Non-Professional Development

Fifteen percent of respondents admitted that shadow IT was a risk for their organization. Thirty-eight percent said they had neither shadow IT or citizen developers in their organization, leaving 49 percent who said citizen development was going-on, with varying degrees of governance.

Citizen Development - Shadow IT and Citizen Development

Does the Adoption of Low-Code Platforms Lead to Superior Governance of Citizen Developers?

When we dug into the details of our survey responses, we found that the reported level of governance of citizen developers varied markedly. Crucially, users of Low-code appear to have significantly more success in governing citizen development, compared to those not using low-code. 

Citizen Development - degree of governance

Compared to organizations that did not use low-code, users of low-code were:

  • Nine percent more likely to describe significant success at governing citizen developers
  • Eleven percent less likely to describe ineffective governance of citizen developers who could pose a risk to their organization.

Use of Low-Code Platform to Enable Citizen Developers

Our report showed that, although the majority of low-code users are professional IT developers (69 percent), 44 percent are business users in collaboration with IT— in other words, citizen developers.

Furthermore, respondents told us the main reasons that they were using low-code. Three answers stood out: accelerate digital transformation, increase responsiveness to the business, and reduce dependency on hard-to-hire technical skills.

Twenty percent of respondents said that their organization was using low-code to enable citizen developers to improve internal processes. By empowering citizen developers in this way, organizations can take some of the pressure off IT, so highly skilled developers can focus on complex digital transformation projects, while at the same time less-skilled developers reduce the backlog of internal developments that IT is not able to prioritize.

This appears to be born-out by our research—low-code users were 12 percent more likely to say that their app backlog has improved in the past year, compared to those not using low-code. You can read more about it my recent blog post How to Accelerate Software Development.

Citizen Development - App Dev Backlog, Low-Code Advantage

Combating the Digital Skills Drought With Low-Code

In the fourth article of my series “Why IT Struggles with Digital Transformation (and What to Do About It?)", I described how low-code can help IT departments re-skill, recruit, and retain developers.

If you’d like a more in-depth perspective on the role that low-code should play, not just to professionalize citizen development, but to also improve productivity across the wider development team, the article is recommended reading.

And, just in case you suspect that my views on citizen development are naïve and seen through rose-tinted spectacles, may I submit in my defense: “Who’s Left Holding the Reins?

Making a Success of Citizen Development

It’s clear that citizen development is happening. If adequately governed, these efforts can significantly expand the overall capacity for application development across an enterprise. Here are a few case studies from the OutSystems website that describe, in more detail, the benefits that such an approach can deliver.

IOOF–Wealth Management

Learn how IOOF Australia’s leading wealth management company paired off business analysts and QA staff with more experienced developers to form a new low-code development team.

Wodify–Gym Management Platform

Learn how entrepreneur Ameet Shah, a novice programmer, created a CrossFit performance tracking application within a month of attending an OutSystems training class.

BPL Global–Lotus Notes Migration

Learn how two Lotus Notes developers at this specialist insurance broker cross-trained to OutSystems to develop multiple web-based insurance administration systems.

Allan Bros. – Mobile App Development

Learn how Allan Bros., a Washington State-based fruit grower, turned a handful of warehouse employees into mobile app developers.