Code for America

Jennifer Pahlka is the founder and executive director of Code for America, a non-profit partially inspired by Teach for America that connects city governments and Web 2.0 talent.  We caught up with Pahlka to get the backstory on the project, not just to hype the chance to become one of the fellows, but because the program offers profound lessons for how to reimagine how our city governments might work better. In architecture and urbanism, the words developer and designer refer to different professional roles than they do in technology. Nonetheless, perhaps designers of the physical world might benefit from a perspective in which certain networks, systems and spaces are virtual, but no less designed, and no less crucial to service delivery, citizenship and quality of life. Next week is the deadline to apply for this year’s fellowship, so if you are a web “developer, designer or product manager with a desire for public service, this is your opportunity to build the next generation of Gov 2.0 apps for city governments.”C.S. 

What is Code For America, and how did you come up with the idea?
I had been the chair of the Web 2.0 Expos and had recently started working on a new event designed to bring the principles and values of the web to government, now called the Gov 2.0 Summit. We knew that there was a unique opportunity with the new administration taking hold in DC to advocate for a new way of doing things in the White House and federal agencies, looking at the web as a platform and leveraging some of the dynamics we see on the consumer web to make government more efficient and effective. In the midst of trying to sort out how we could be helpful at the federal level, I started hearing from an old friend who is the chief of staff for the mayor of Tucson, AZ, Andrew Greenhill. Andrew had an idea that where we could be most helpful initially, and where we were really needed, was in cities. Most American cities are experiencing significant financial crises; it’s a situation with pretty dire consequences to the citizens of the United States that doesn’t get enough media attention. Many cities are responding by cutting back services, but if you look under the hood, there are inefficiencies, clunky bureaucracies, and decades-old ways of doing things that should be re-worked before services are cut. Andrew had some ideas for web applications that he’d like to have built for Tucson that he thought would make the city work better, and wanted my help finding a group of talented developers from my community, the Web 2.0 community, who would help build them. The problem is, you can’t build these kind of applications through the normal technology procurement model that almost all cities use. We wrung our hands about this problem for several months until we were sitting around one day last summer, talking about Andrew’s experience in the Teach for America corps, and it occurred to me that we needed a Teach for America for the web industry. That was the spark for Code for America.

How would you define Gov 2.0 for someone who has never heard the term?
Many people think of Gov 2.0 as social media in government, but I subscribe to Tim O’Reilly’s view that we are talking about a more fundamental shift in how we frame the role of government. To borrow Tim’s (and Donald Kettl’s) metaphor, we’ve come to think of government as a vending machine, into which we put our taxes and out of which we get services. The problem is that there are an endless number of services citizens may need, and we’ve developed monumentally large bureaucracies in order to provide these services, causing huge inefficiencies. If we start to see government instead as a vehicle for collective action, a platform for society to do collectively what citizens can’t do individually, its role shifts from service provider to enabler. There will still be many services government must perform. But it should start looking at how it can do things like publish public data that allow the private sector to create applications that make citizens lives easier and connect citizens with common goals to each other to solve their own problems. The technologies that have changed our lives most dramatically in the last decade have been platforms: think Facebook or the iPhone. Neither tried to provide everything a consumer would need, but rather made it possible for developers to create applications and for the market to determine what was most valuable. Platform thinking is one critical skill for government to borrow from the consumer web; agility, citizen-centered design, and transparency are others.

How are the specific projects for each city determined?
We asked each city that applied to the program to suggest a web app that would make their city more transparent, efficient, and responsive to citizens, and one that could be reused by other cities afterwards. We loved the thinking they showed in this exercise, and we are now working with our five cities (Boston, DC, Seattle, Boulder, and Philadelphia) to refine those ideas, get them within the scope of our program, and clarify the proposed return on investment to the cities. We go through a brainstorm process with the cities in the late summer and early fall that brings in top thinkers from the Internet industry to bang around on the cities problems and proposed solutions, and we use this thinking to settle on more concrete projects for our fellows in the late fall/early winter.

What do you think are the most pressing issues facing American cities today?
One major issue that gets little attention is the demographics of the municipal workforce. In the seventies, over 70% of the local government workers were under 40. Today, less than 13% are. In many municipalities, 60% of the people who work in your city hall will retire in the next five years. Who replaces those workers (and many will not be replaced due to budget cuts) will determine whether cities use this fiscal crisis to reinvent themselves, or whether they pursue one of the other perceived options before them, including privatization, Chapter 9, or simply continuing to reduce services to the point where the city government is irrelevant. We have the opportunity right now to drive talented young people into public service; the Center for American Progress has found that the Millennials have the most positive view of government in several generations, and Pew has put out a study showing that this generation is the most open to helping others as well. But we have to make it culturally okay for smart, ambitious, tech-savvy people to take government jobs so they can drive change from the inside. The Obama administration helped with that agenda by hiring some great people from the technology industry, and by having two incredibly charismatic people in the top technology roles in the White House (Vivek Kundra and Aneesh Chopra). We need to follow that up with concrete opportunities for young people not only to make a difference, but to get exposure to the needs of government and the opportunities to make your mark in the public sector.

Tied to that demographic crisis is a crisis of trust. City government officials feel constantly beat up by the different interest groups and individual citizens who feel that their needs are not being met. Average citizens feel disoriented and disconnected from city governments, unable to have a voice and frustrated when they need to actually get something done with City Hall. Citizens today, especially young ones who use social media to express themselves, take for granted having a voice, transacting with institutions almost frictionlessly, and finding communities of interest. City governments should enable all these experiences, but because most have failed to innovate, they speak a different language than the language of their citizens. As citizens, we need to require more of City Hall, but not in the sense of more programs that cost more money. We need to get in there and change the culture and the modes of communication first, and remake City Hall so it acts more like the citizens of the city it serves.

How do you think city governments should go about addressing some of these issues?
Well, unsurprisingly, I think city governments should be seeking out programs like Code for America and others like ours (City Hall Fellows is another great one) that bring new thinking into their organizations. They should look at making all the data they collect public through an open data initiative that encourages developers to write applications that make that data available to citizens in dozens of useful ways (see for how). They should prioritize programs that make interfacing with the city easier for citizens, like 311 centers and online service portals, and use open standards like the Open311API so that developers can have an impact with that data, too. They should consider implementing Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) policies that will make their organizations more competitive for technology talent. They should figure out how to move from broadcast and transactional communications to many-to-many communications that connect citizens with the city and with each other. This is an area where Code for America can really help.

How can “the next generation of Gov 2.0 apps for city governments” help address some of these issues?
Cities perform most functions in a very industrial age model. The next generation of Gov 2.0 apps can help them work in a network model, and find efficiencies and build trust with citizens by doing so. To take a few very small examples, cities currently answer questions from citizens in person and by phone and email. So they answer the same questions over and over again. In a network model, those questions are exposed to each other, not just in a knowledge database, but in a social context, so that citizens can not only learn from each other’s experiences, but also build on them, and get the answers they need instead of a canned, bureaucratic answer that doesn’t help them. Some of the staff answering those questions can be redeployed fixing other problems. Another small example is service requests. In most cities, if you call in to report a broken streetlight, your request goes into a (very long) queue of other requests, and eventually a city employee will be sent out to the location to inspect the streetlight, verify the location and note more information about the damage. If another call comes in about the same streetlight, it simply goes into the queue as well; we don’t know that it’s the same issue, reported twice. Eventually, a crew will be sent out to fix it. But there are network elements missing in that process. Citizens with camera-enabled smart phones are everywhere now; we can make it easy for them to take picture of service requests, and upload them with geo-tagging. There’s far more information in even one of those reports than in a phone call, but the real help is when you look at the data in aggregate and you realize that you have a) all the information that the city needs to fix the streetlight without sending out an inspector and b) the beginnings of a way of prioritizing these requests, because some issues will have more requests than others. Reading the collective intelligence means that you can cut out a step of the process, and you can get the most urgent requests fixed first. Are there issues to be grappled with in both these examples? Definitely. We have to think deeply about citizen privacy and digital divide issues if these are going to work and reflect our values. But that’s a challenge we have to rise to.

How big of a shift is necessary for city governments nationwide to realize the potential of these types of technologies?
Pretty big. But the way to change broadly is to get some early adopters who have the will to experiment, find some successes, and spread their stories. If you show city officials that others have tried and been successful in certain areas, it gives them the political will to make change.

What happens when fellows leave their post after the year? How will the culture of innovation Code for America supports be maintained in the long-term?
We’re designing the program to allow for a lot of interaction between the Fellows and municipal employees. We also hope that some of the Code for America alumni will either go on to careers in City Hall or start businesses that serve municipal IT. There is the nature of the applications we build as well. Gov 2.0 applications require not just technical maintenance, but also community managers. If we can bring a culture of community management through technology into City Hall, we will have made a difference.

Illustrations by Jane Kelly and Sam Silver.

2 Responses to “Code for America”

  1. Etienne Britz says:

    One of the major setbacks for civic infrastructure in South Africa is, as with American cities and as stated in the article, the lack of trust between city governments and citizens. However, in South Africa this lack of trust originates from the internal corruption within the city governments. The Gov 2.0 applications might be the perfect way to monitor irregularities within the city structure. The problem with a monitor or watch dog is the age old concern of who will regulate the regulator? Dare we investigate a self-organizing system which can regulate itself through a feedback loop?

  2. shumi says:

    how can there not be more responses to this? … isn’t there something fundamental we need to understand about 2.0 mechanisms; they seem to be being used for so much phatic, personal voice communication, yet not anywhere near as often for collective purposes (at least not consciously) or for action! how do we make this change happen – tweets about finding the “best cupcakes in manhattan LOL” can’t be the end of it, as this article & code for america try hard to prove. Jennifer, above you place a lot of the onus is on city governance, but i think it’s with the people; a bit like democracy itself – without an educated public, there’s no point and you have instead a potentially dangerous mob rule. but how can we create a(n urgent) social agency?!

Leave a Reply