Blogging for America

Scaling Our Movement

This week, we select finalists for 2012. Over 550 applications came in for just 26 spots in next year’s class.  For me, the response is such a mix of excitement, humility, hopefulness, a little bit of daunting and frankly, a sense of missed opportunity for those we can’t take. On one hand, 5% acceptance is a testament to demand, competitiveness and ultimately the quality of 2012′s fellowship class. On the other, it leads to a heavy heart when we have to say ‘no’ to 95 out of 100 people who want to code for America. When you look at our overall lists, more than 10,000 people have signed up in some capacity to lend their voice, code, designs or written words to our efforts. Of those, less than .003% will be part of our open government vanguard next year.

We’ve had a spirited CFA response to the ‘Exit or Voice’ piece by our founder, Jen Pahlka and one of our fellows, Scott Silverman, both pointing to a third option, Make. At CfA, 550 people want this third option. But, as a new organization, we just don’t have the capacity or tools to coordinate this larger group of very passionate minority of makers. This is a great problem — one, I would have loved a few years back when working on my own civic startup.

Three or four years ago, if you asked me for the biggest challenge facing open government, gov 2.0 and civic engagement, I’d point to the lack of interested technologists. Discovering each other and networking was so difficult! If you weren’t building an application for Facebook or another social network, developers weren’t interested. Even if they were, cities feared the prospect of putting even the most mundane piece of data online.

Now, we have City Camps, GovLoop, social change hackathons, Code for America, a Federal CIO, Gov 2.0 conferences, etc… to just name a few. Today, we not only meet but we also make. Apps contents, Challenge Post, hackathons and a handful of civic startups are providing more applications and innovations in our space than we can track or keep up with.

I think our problem now is more of scale and sustainability, challenges not new to any nonprofit or movement. We’re not alone in trying to figure out how to coordinate thousands of people. Political and policy movements achieve scale using coordinating tools that leverage email, voice, boycots and rallies. They get people elected and thrown out or a piece of legislation passed or dismissed. Open source software projects use just a handful of core team members to coordinate thousands of people to write and improve code through patches, source revision, bug-athons and conferences.

But it seems our movement of makers is caught right in the middle of both. On one side, we’re trying to achieve policy change for a more transparent, efficient and participatory government. On the other, we’re making the tools and software necessary for that to happen. We haven’t quite figured out how to meld the two movements’ successful organizing strategies.

For me, some of the biggest examples of disconnect and potential opportunity come out of app contests or hackathons.  Policy makers/political leaders champion city or social contests, to which, developers respond with dozens or even hundreds of submissions. So far so good. When the app contest is over, often too is the partnership. Maybe one or two apps will be adopted by the sponsoring entity; sometimes none. It’s very very rare that we see  widespread replication or scaling of these efforts and applications across our movement. We could have an app contest in every one of 360ish metro regions, and not a single widely spread app as a result. In fact, in the past year, I’ve counted nearly 80 hackathons, contests and other types of events in our space. At an average of 40 participants and say 10 hours (low), that’s 32,000 hours of cognitive surplus spent on software. This isn’t a problem of effort, excitement, time or energy. It’s a problem of scale, leveraging each other’s work and replication.

We make once, but we’re not very good at making many times.  We don’t lack from makers, just in our organization, 550 this year wanted to commit a year of their life to making. I’m excited about the opportunities for replication and scaling through CityCamp, Civic Commons, Code for America, Open Plans and Sunlight Labs amongst others. Maybe it’s the engineer in me, but we’re really lacking tools for widespread engagement, coordination and replication.

If we’re a movement of makers, what do our factories look like?

Code for America Labs, Inc is a non-partisan, non-political 501(c)(3) organization. Content is licensed through Creative Commons.