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When Jen Pahlka from Code for America (Tim O'Reilly's right hand at the time) came to meet with our CEO, Jean Case, and me, Jean literally could not stay seated because she was so excited about the possibilities of this new effort. Seriously, she got out of her seat and started smiling ear to ear. Although, Jean and I have since had to do some work on our poker faces, we remain incredibly enthusiastic (and are now proud supporters) about this innovative approach, which leverages the skills of talented development and technology professionals to re-engineer and re-imagine the way cities and towns communicate with and serve their citizens.
From 9/11 response to volunteer management to garbage collection and citizen feedback loops, new tools and technology have the potential to increase efficiencies and involvement in ways that traditional systems could never come close. And although there are many examples of fresh thinkers and leaders popping up throughout the U.S., when you think of the typical city government infrastructure, the first word that comes to mind is usually not creativity. It’s more likely bureaucracy, deficit or stagnant. So, the idea of pairing skilled volunteers with overburdened municipalities with great needs is so simple it's genius. And that's exactly what this new effort will do.
I recently had the chance to pitch Jen a few questions about Code for America (CFA), which officially launched this month. Here's what she had to say...
How does CFA stand apart from the other skilled volunteer efforts taking place today?
I know from my experience working with world-class game and web developers that many of today's top innovators want to contribute to making government work better. Code for America is all about making that possible. Until recently, if you were a talented web professional and you wanted to help the US government (at any level), you had few options. Government entities are largely banned from accepting gifts of any kind, including software or volunteer time. Most of the web developers I know are not interested in pursuing long-term careers in government, but they are interested in working with government to help make government more effective, participatory, and transparent.
We've seen this already with the rise of contests like Apps for Democracy out of OCTO Labs in DC, which asked developers to build applications that were useful to their fellow citizens, using the data that the city made available. These contests have created an enormous amount of value for citizens at a very low cost.
What makes Code for America different is that the program is city-driven. The cities we work with commission web applications for which they have a real business case, and the Code for America fellows build these web applications for them over the course of a year-long, structured program. This assures that the applications will continue to be maintained and used by the cities after the program ends. In that sense, Code for America fellows are working inside government, solving real problems for cities. However, while they develop a strong relationship with their host city and learn about how municipal government works, the fellows work in an environment that closely resembles an internet startup, supported by mentors from successful web 2.0 ventures. It’s the best of both worlds.
Give us some examples of the types of innovations you have seen or hope will be developed?
There’s an excellent model in a small town outside of Austin, Texas, called Manor. Dustin Haisler has done some amazing innovative work there with a tiny budget, including painting QR codes (like a bar code you’d see on a retail product) on public works projects that allow citizens to easily look the projects up online to view data about their funding, progress, etc. It's a great, low-cost way of encouraging citizens to become more informed and involved, which means that they and their leaders can make better decisions.
Many cities are looking for ways to increase public involvement; if you can have a voice with your city government without having to sit through a whole city council meeting, not only will leaders make better decisions but they’ll also reduce the cost of fulfilling requests for information about the process.
Think of the way you interact with city services now. You put in a request for, say, a pothole repair, and the city takes that information (often through a phone call, which costs the city money). If your request isn’t fulfilled in a reasonable amount of time, you either give up and lose a little bit of faith in government, or you call again, using up scarce call center resources again. But during this time, when the city may be legitimately dealing with more pressing issues, information about your request is invisible to you. As a citizen, you have no insight into how the city is prioritizing your issue or where your issue sits at any given moment.
What if, instead, the relevant city department used a web site that allowed citizens to report problems, vote problems up or down according to their priorities, and view the status and priority order of any given problem at any time? The increased transparency leads to decreased call volume, greater participation, more accurate and thorough information, and a whole host of cost savings. We’re applying the principles of web 2.0 to the business of governing.
You and your board members come mostly from business backgrounds – not the nonprofit sector. What role do you think that will play in your development and success?
It’s funny, four of us on the board come from the technology industry, and between all of us I think there is some excellent business savvy, but in some ways our goal isn’t to run the organization more like a traditional business, nor to help government run more like a business. We want government to run more like the Internet. Most web 2.0 companies see themselves not so much as a provider (of services, of content, etc) but as a platform, a way that others can efficiently contribute and connect to achieve a goal. Governments aren’t start-ups and can’t just wipe the slate clean, but they can operate as platforms for collective action, and we think that Internet thinking can help them go a long way towards that goal. And as a benefit, platforms tend to be very efficient, transparent, and of course, participatory.
That said, we all have a healthy dose of non-profit or public sector work on our resumes. I started my career working in non profits in healthcare and child welfare in San Francisco. Leonard Lin helped find Katrina survivors and sits on the board of a non-profit arts space. Monica Harrington started her career in federal and state government, and was a senior policy officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Tim O’Reilly has served on the board of trustees for both the Internet Society and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Andrew Greenhill, who is the chief of staff for the mayor of Tucson, is also a Teach for America (TFA) alumnus, and evidence of TFA’s success in growing leaders in public service.
Brass tacks… what’s next? How do people and cities get involved?
If you think your city could benefit from participating in Code for America, call your city council person or mayor’s office and tell them about it! Cities must apply to the 2011 program by February 1st. The Call for Applications is online here, with a link to the online application form. Spreading the word is one of the best ways individuals can help right now. We love to hear about any outreach you do, and if you can help us reach out beyond your own city, or if you want to let us know about someone you called so we can follow up, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Web designers, developers and product managers who would like to give a year of service to their country will be able to apply for our 2011 program starting June 1. In the meantime, we’re looking for marketing and administrative volunteers, as well as fundraisers. If you’re willing to lend a hand, we’ll take it!
About Code for America
Code for America is a structured way to bring top web 2.0 talent into city governments to build applications that drive transparency, participation and efficiency for the participating cities, and for every city. The name derives from Teach for America, which serves as part of our inspiration, along with the open data movement, Apps for Democracy, and everyone inside and outside government who is working to transform the business of governing. In our first year, we will work with five cities to identify problems that can be effectively addressed with Web 2.0 solutions. We then recruit twenty-five fellows (developers, designers and product managers from the web industry) who work in teams, collaboratively and competitively, to build solutions for these cities. These solutions are open and freely shared with other cities, so that over time we offer an increasingly library of open solutions that serve both citizens and city governments.
About Jen Pahlka
Jennifer Pahlka (Founder and Executive Director) has spent the past 15 years in the company of the technology elite. After graduating cum laude from Yale University, she went to work in the non-profit sector, but soon found herself in the business-to-business technology media world, running the Game Developers Conference. She spent eight years at CMP Media where she led the Game Group, overseeing GDC, Game Developer magazine, and Gamasutra.com; there she also launched the Independent Games Festival and served as Executive Director of the International Game Developers Association. Recently, she ran the Web 2.0 and Gov 2.0 events for TechWeb, in conjunction with O’Reilly Media, and co-chaired the successful Web 2.0 Expo.