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Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Going

Four years ago, Code for America launched with the radical idea that the 21st century is actually the perfect time for government that truly works for the people, by the people, as our founders intended.

Jen and 2012 FellowsThe people who came together to pursue this idea took a lot of risks. Volunteers, government partners, funders, and those first staff who joined when we had only a hope of making payroll — all of them got behind a nascent, chaotic, intensive startup, despite what might have been their better judgment. There were many sleepless nights and long days as we figured out how to partner developers with city government, learned how City Halls around the country work, and began organizing networks of volunteers dedicated to reimagining how government operates.

We’ve been lucky to celebrate a lot of wins. We’ve also embraced our failures. And there have been no shortage of these. Each helped us learn, adjust, and grow.

We’ve come a long way.

Today, 4,500 volunteers in Brigades across 125 cities come together regularly to hack for better local government — from re-deploying apps like Flu Finder to helping cities open data and make it meaningful to residents. More than 500 government staff from 140 cities and government agencies collaborate and share lessons learned in finding new ways to deliver government services. Through the Fellowship program, 103 talented technologists have taken a year from their careers to build 55 apps with 30 cities.

Most importantly, we’ve moved from showing what’s possible, to proving that changes in how services are delivered have impact.

As Jacob Solomon said in his Summit talk this year, little things add up to big things. If a parent enrolling a child in elementary school has to fill out his address eight times on a form that’s barely legible because it’s been copied for the last 20 years, that’s a problem. If someone enrolling in food assistance has to go through 150 questions across 50 pages and then fax it or sit in line for hours, there’s a problem.

When you change these small but important experiences to something that’s simple, effective, easy to use, you’re respecting the user, also known as the American public. That goes a long way toward rebuilding our trust and faith in government. And the best part? That respect costs less than what we’re paying now to Big IT. A lot less.

This year, the Rhode Island Fellowship team created a way to enroll kids in school that in user testing left one parent saying simply, “whoa, this is amazing.” A school lottery for pre-K now takes a matter of seconds, rather than days of staff time it had taken previously, thanks to another app from Team Code Island, as they’re affectionately called. And while these and other apps make a huge difference, what Jeff, Anna-Marie, and Andrew really leave Rhode Island with is a new approach, a way of building tools that work for real people, that create feedback loops, and that help government cost what it should in 2015.

Kevin Goodwin, San Antonio ITSD Assistant Director, and a Code for America 2014 partner said, “Code for America will leave the City of San Antonio with a cool app that helps our citizens by fulfilling a service need for our citizens and, ideally, likewise helps a business unit tasked with fulfilling that service. More than that, though, they’ll leave us with a successful example of how agile methods can be applied to solve problems that are too small to survive our sometimes overly restrictive formal processes, governance structures, and organizational silos. Sure we’ll be capable of sustaining what they’ve built for us, but we’ll also have a new toolset to solve the next problem that comes our way.”

As we look ahead to next year, we are setting the bar even higher for ourselves and cities by establishing digital principles of a 21st century government (and we welcome feedback and ideas), engaging in more rigorous evaluation of our efforts, and deepening our focus in key areas including health, safety and justice, and economic development.

We’re thankful and incredibly appreciative that we have so many people in the community who are partners in making larger change happen — from the dedicated volunteers in Brigades across the country, to the entrepreneurial government staff, to creative startups and companies interested in serving government, to generous funders.

None of this work is possible unless we all make it so.

Thank you for all that you do.