Does Your Institution Rely on Citizen Developers?

Citizen development as a movement has become more mainstream in the last decade, as predicted by Gartner analysts. In 2012, analysts said, “We’re all developers now,” suggesting that employees with technical backgrounds and otherwise would be responsible for contributing to applications on campus. 

Citizen development doesn’t show signs of slowing down. A more recent 2019 Gartner report stated, “Citizen development will play a crucial role in the future of apps.”

In this article, we’ll dive into what a citizen developer is, why citizen development is important, benefits and risks, and how departments on campus can participate. 

What is a Citizen Developer?

According to Gartner, “a citizen developer is a user who creates new business applications for consumption by others using development and runtime environments sanctioned by corporate IT.” 

A citizen developer can be anyone at your institution, technical or non-technical, who creates business applications. These individuals use low-code and no-code software to create applications, all with the proverbial blessing from IT. 

A business application includes any type of application that improves a business process. The application might increase productivity, transparency, or efficiency. For example, the software you may use to request vacation time is considered a business application. The need for business applications exists across an institution, from human resources to research administration. Many manual processes can benefit from being automated with the help of business applications. 

Wait a minute. So Dave from down the hall is considered a developer?

Yes. While tech-savvy individuals might be more interested in developing business applications than others, even Dave from down the hall can be considered a developer of sorts. 

The key to citizen development is low- and no-code software. These platforms were built to enable non-technical individuals to build applications using a visual, drag-and-drop interface rather than writing lines of code. Learn more about low- and no-code platforms in the Higher Education Guide to Digital Transformation.

Why is Citizen Development Important?

Reflect for one moment on the technological improvements we’ve seen in the last 20 years. Today, we’re capable of so much more than we were at the turn of the century. Citizen development opens entirely new possibilities by expanding the access to technology and data across an institution. Citizen developers play a key role in the technology strategies of higher education for the following reasons.

1. Complex Business Challenges

It takes a large, experienced group of experts to tackle higher education’s complex business challenges. Some of these challenges require heavy lifting from IT. Last year’s rush to provide an online experience is the perfect example. When IT is tasked with this and other mission-critical initiatives, there is no time left for smaller projects needed by an individual department. Citizen developers can respond to these key lower tier tasks and create the applications they need to support their department.

2. Increasing Student Expectations

Students expect a great experience every time they interact in the digital realm. With the right tools, citizen developers can create the experiences students expect without burdening IT.

3. Decentralized IT

Decentralized information technology is common within higher education. While there is likely IT representation at the enterprise level, departments often have their own IT folks. According to Gartner, "Business units increasingly control their own application development efforts, of which citizen development will play a crucial role in the future of apps.”

What are the Benefits of Citizen Development?

Let’s dive deeper in the benefits that citizen development can bring to an institution as whole or the individual department.

1. Cost Savings

When citizen developers have the tools they need, institutions will not need as many developers. In other words, IT’s backlog won’t be as long because non-technical employees can create applications they would typically request from IT. 

A 2015 report by Quickbase on the state of citizen development found:

  • 65% percent of citizen developer apps are designed to help users get work done
  • 42% percent help the business run more efficiently
  • 27% percent are created with the customer in mind.

Citizen developers can contribute to each of these initiatives with their own applications. 

2. Agility

Citizen developers are the “boots on the ground” when it comes to departmental technical needs. When they have the right tools, they can respond quickly to deliver problem-solving applications.

Low- and no-code software with drag-and-drop components allow for quick application building with little to no technical experience. A report by Forrester claims low- and no-code platforms can make software development as much as 10x faster.

A form automation platform is one example of a solution that can significantly reduce redundancies. Form automation tools allow a user to digitize a paper-based form. They typically include a rich form builder, the ability to integrate with campus systems, and a mobile-ready responsive design.  

A workflow automation platform is another example. Workflow automation platforms can be used to build a heavily customizable workflow through a drag-and-drop visual interface. With built-in reporting, users can quickly see and report on data points such as time on step and time to completion.

3. Manage Shadow IT

When department units are not enabled with the right tools to solve their problems, faculty and staff often find their own solution. This is called “shadow IT.” Although the user has good intentions, the solution they select may not be scalable, secure, or comply with legal regulations. Shadow IT poses a threat to the institution. Enabling those adventurous, good-intentioned users with the right tools can solve this issue. 

These important benefits of citizen development increase your institution’s ability to be successful. However, there are risks to consider. 

What are the Risks of Citizen Development?

While citizen development is beneficial to an institution, there are risks associated. Citizen developers, unlike high level IT managers, are not aware of the laws and regulations in place for the various types of data flowing through a campus. Security issues also pose a threat. Citizen developers don’t have the same training to be aware of potential compliance and security issues. 

Combatting Risks

The best way to combat the risks of citizen development is to partner with IT. According to Gartner, “application leaders need to help define, guide, and optimize citizen development to maximize mutual benefits for business and IT.” When IT and business units collaborate, business units get the functionality they need and IT can provide guidance as needed to maintain compliance and security protocols.  

How to Get Started On Citizen Development

It is crucial to have IT’s approval when engaging in citizen development initiatives. IT has the expertise to select a solution for staff that is scalable, secure, and compliant. 


Kuali Build is a forms and workflow automation software that helps to facilitate citizen development. Kuali Build meets IT’s high standards for security and compliance, while also empowering business users to create the solution they need. Learn more about how you can get started with Kuali Build today!

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