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It Has to Work for Everyone

Code for America was founded in part on the notion that citizen engagement is essential to healthy societies and evolving democracies (something we continue to advocate for in our daily work). Our founder Jennifer Pahlka made an eloquent case for it during her 2012 TED Talk, explaining how neighbor-to-neighbor collaboration should be commonplace. That same month we launched our volunteer outreach program. We named that program the Brigade, giving a nod to the fire brigades created by Ben Franklin in Philadelphia in the 18th century to support the city’s overwhelmed fire department. Though our Brigade may not fight fires, its aim is to help solve community problems using community power.

Fundamentally, our work is about strengthening democracy. We believe that democracy is rooted in trust by citizens in government and that, crucially, citizens have an integral role to play in building governments that are worthy of that trust.

Despite the startling growth of the Brigade program, Code for America’s work overall has still been disproportionately focused on city governments and the needs of people working inside city halls. While this work has focused mostly on “interfaces” to government — the parts of government where community members and the city actually come into contact — as opposed to internal IT systems, it’s still approached from the perspective of city hall and not the community.

In order for us to achieve our mission we have to focus just as much on organizing the community to participate as we do on creating capacity inside city hall, *especially* those who have traditionally been left out of the public decision-making process.

Code for America was founded because Jen saw an opportunity to bring networked tools and organizing structures to government. She understood the power of networks: their ability to create a structure and a platform that allows everyone a voice. But what if we employ networks in an effort to strengthen democracy and our tools only work for those who are already being heard? Our ability to achieve our mission hinges on our success in using these tools to bring new voices to the conversation.

As such, we have to be conscious about engaging diverse and inclusive communities — communities that are representative of all the people who live in the cities where we work. And those communities have to be collaborators throughout the process, from problem identification all the way through to deployment and user adoption. This is imperative not just to Code for America’s work but to the civic tech ecosystem at large. Civic tech doesn’t work unless it works for everyone.

Our joint belief that interfaces to government need to be rethought in order to rebuild trust, and that the process of building those interfaces needs to be informed by — and address the needs of — everyone, leads us to increase our organizational investment in our Communities program. (Not to mention the impressive attendance at February’s CodeAcross event as another proof point that it’s time for us to focus on this work.)

That means we’ll be working on:

  • A collaboration with the Irvine Foundation to think through how our model can help increase participation in the public decision-making process among underrepresented communities;

  • Supporting our Brigade chapters to be vessels for increasing participation from a wider constituency;

  • Making community engagement more central to the work that our fellowship teams do;

  • Engaging in rigorous research and evaluation about how and when our tools and programs are contributing to increased participation.

  • We’re evaluating the impact of tools that have come out of our Fellowship program, like Textizen, CityVoice, and Local Data, that look to increase participation. We’re also learning a lot from others who have been working hard on these issues, like the Smart Chicago Collaborative and e-Democracy. We’ll be posting our progress and findings on our blog. And we hope to learn from you as well. If you have thoughts about how we should be approaching this work, or useful lessons from the field, or tools and projects we should be aware of, please let me know: bracy [at] codeforamerica [dot] org.

     


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