As the debt ceiling gets a little higher, and schools around the country continue to struggle with budget cuts, Chrystia Freeland has proclaimed that 2011 will be “The Year We Gave Up On Government.” Her piece furthers economist Albert O. Hirschman’s conclusion that as frustration with a firm, organization, or state builds, there are two options for response: exit or voice. Jen Pahlka, our founder at Code for America, took issue with this conclusion yesterday in her post “Exit or Voice? How About Neither?”. She argues that there is a third option: Make. As one of the 20 fellows in the inaugural Code for America class, and a graduate of an institution focused on producing active citizens, I could not agree with Jen more strongly.
There is a passionate minority aimed not at yelling or leaving, but rather at making change. Looking towards Boston, where I’m spending a few weeks working on the Code for America project, you can see this movement inside the City itself. Mayor Menino, a self-proclaimed “Urban Mechanic,” has assembled a small, innovative team called New Urban Mechanics. The name alone is a powerful reference. Chris Osgood and Nigel Jacob, the team’s co-chairs, pilot “civic innovations that offer the potential to improve radically the quality of City services.”
Take for example an iPhone app that lets you share problems around your city, or software that uses the accelerometer in your smartphone to automatically identify and report potholes as you drive. While these early success stories in Boston are exciting and even sexy, they are just the beginning. The real challenge is finding ways to institutionalize this kind of innovation within government. With this in mind, one effort Chris and Nigel initiated this year is the Code for America project.
For its part, Code for America—an organization aimed at helping city governments embrace the web—is an interesting hybrid of inside-outside, bottom-up, and top-down. We technically work outside the city environment, hosting our products in the cloud and using modern web frameworks like Rails and Django, but with special access to city resources, officials, and data. The products we develop are brought to market both through official city channels and by targeting users (citizens) directly.
Our solutions range from big to small, and oftentimes are more about process and less about product. In Boston, we’ve developed a website that lets parents track their student’s school bus in real-time. There’s also a webapp for teachers to send out homework assignments to their classes via text message. Currently, we’re re-imagining how parents research public schools in Boston and building an authoritative source for Boston’s public data. In the private sector, the products we’re making for Boston are services that consumers expect as standard. In government, however, it’s a very different story: citizens expect inconvenience and inefficiency as standard. This is why the The Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics and Code for America are re-thinking and re-working how government interfaces with citizens.
But all this isn’t just about Boston or Code for America. It’s about a movement. As a graduate of Tufts, I’ve had the privilege of watching numerous civic-minded friends move into careers all similarly aimed at making civic change. My friend Ike is a CORO fellow focusing on ethical leadership and public affairs. David is developing a citizen-powered communications platform in Africa. Duncan is in Tunisia working on democratic elections. CJ is Teaching for America. Xavier is conducting research with the American Humanist Association. The list goes on, but my point is this: there is a movement, and a generation, passionate about change. We are working diligently (and sometimes discreetly) to make change around the world. The weird thing? It doesn’t feel like anything special: to the passionate minority change is just another form of work.
This is the power of America. While we could yell or leave, many choose a third, far more powerful option: Make. And from my viewpoint, it looks like a new generation is just beginning its work.