The coronavirus pandemic has put us in extremely unfamiliar territory. Local governments are having an exceptionally challenging time ensuring that their communities are informed and resourced to combat. With all of that in mind, we carefully weighed whether or not to postpone our Fellowship program.

We contemplated whether or not local governments would have the capacity to give the program the attention it requires. We discussed whether or not stay-at-home orders might interfere with the ability of our Fellows to deliver value. And after contemplating all of those things, we’ve decided that we will be pushing forward with our 2020 Community Fellowship launch as planned—with Fellows scheduled to start in September. We’re opening up applications to start recruiting governments. We'll continue to monitor the situation as we go along, and if conditions dictate that we change course, we'll have the courage to do so.

Group photo at Brigade Congress 2019
The 2019 Community Fellowship cohort

Through the first two rounds of the Code for America Community Fellowship, we’ve engaged in eleven projects across different cities from Honolulu, HI, to Buffalo, NY. Our Fellows worked on a wide range of projects, from affordable housing to re-entry services to transportation access. From the Community Fellowship’s inception in 2018, we decided that we’d be deliberately experimental in our approach. As a result, we’ve had the good fortune to learn some distinct lessons over the last two years. Based on what we’ve learned, I’d like you to know that we’re changing a few things. We’re changing the program structure, the Fellowship Team composition, the funding model, and what it means to be a Code for America Community Fellow (a few things!). I’d like to share with you some of what we’ve learned and how this shapes the direction of the program in 2020.

We brought the entire Fellowship cohort together at the end of the 2019 Fellowship to perform a retro on their experience as Code for America Fellows. We used their direct feedback in conjunction with our program-level observations to help prioritize areas needing improvement and reevaluation. We’ve also collected input from the staff within Code for America, and sought feedback from our volunteer network via our Network Advisory Council, some potential government partners for the coming year, and organizations in adjacent issue spaces that primarily work with people who have been in contact with the criminal justice system. In order to properly honor the feedback that all of those groups have gifted to us, we wanted to be sure to incorporate as much of it as we possibly could into the latest version of the Code for America Community Fellowship. Let’s start by taking a look at some of what we learned:

Lesson 1: When paired with the right community and staff support, both technical & non-technical folks can succeed as Fellows.

In 2019, we made every effort to attract Fellows with varying educational backgrounds, experience levels, and skill sets, in service of wanting to build the most diverse cohort that we could in terms of race and gender. And we did: 39% of our 2019 Fellows self identify as Black, and 69% of them identify as women. How did we accomplish that? To be more inclusive in our recruitment process we expanded on our working definition of what it means to be a technologist, drawing examples from our friends at the Ford Foundation. This steered us beyond the traditional UX designer, developer, and PM roles, and allowed us to take strong looks at activists, artists, community organizers, and public servants. The 2019 teams ranged from non-technical to heavily technical, and based on their outcomes, we’ve learned that the technical aptitude of the Fellows is not the sole determining factor of success.

Group photo at Brigade Congress 2018
The inaugural 2018 Community Fellowship cohort

Lesson 2: We had teams comprised completely of Fellows with direct project-related lived experience for the first time in our organization’s history.

When I was hired at the onset of 2018 to build the “new” Fellowship Program, I took stock of all the implicit social justice elements of our organization’s work and decided to make them explicit in the Fellowship. Within our organization, we like to recite the saying “build with, not for.” The phrase is often used to describe our efforts in capturing the voice of the user in our work. Well, what if through the Community Fellowship we could empower the user to actually do the work?

In 2019 we brought on two Fellowship teams where our Fellows were the users. These Fellowship teams had authentic project-related lived experience. This presented a strong value proposition to their communities. As a result, these teams on average had more community engagement and public participation. So with the 2020 Fellowship, we wanted to build on it. How might we intentionally center the people closest to the problems that the government is trying to solve across the entire program? What if in 2020 every Fellow had project-related lived experience with the problem that they were trying to solve?

We pondered these two questions for quite some time. We wondered if Code for America could successfully resource and empower those people, and what adaptations would be necessary. Could we be user-centered while centering users? That is, could we provide our Fellows with the training they need on our core principles (and practices) so that they could apply what they’ve learned to an urgent issue in their community in which they are passionate about? And importantly, could we change the way governments think about who can help them solve some of their biggest challenges, and how they do it?

The answer was yes to all of the above. Where the organization does not currently have experience in these matters, we soon will. The Community Fellowship must continue to push the limits of what’s possible, on behalf of the people. We’ve arrived at a new mission statement for the program, which is as follows:

The primary purpose of the Community Fellowship Program is to resource and train community members with project-related lived experience and partner them with their local government to more effectively address inequities in service delivery.

Lesson 3: Our efforts to make the Fellowship more accessible to Fellows’ schedules and cities’ abilities to pay complicated the program and hampered output.

There were two primary ways in which we tried to make our Fellowship Program as accessible as we could imagine going into 2019. First, we allowed Fellows to apply to work on either a full-time or part-time basis. Secondly, we were flexible in our approach to requiring the full program participation fee that local governments were supposed to contribute.

We understood that a six-month Fellowship put us in a bit of an awkward space—short enough to prevent a major disruption to someone’s life but likely too short to structure a life-changing decision around (such as a career change). While the ability for part-time Fellows to continue with their primary income streams was important, we did not consider what would happen if that primary job interfered with the working hours of their government partners. By extending the program to nine-months in duration and ensuring that all positions are full-time, we look to avoid these types of conflicts. Full-time wages for nine months will provide the Fellows with compensation sufficient to meet their needs while giving undivided professional attention to their chosen project.

Group of three chatting in front of City of Miami seal
Program manager Filsan Abikar meets with Fellows at Miami City Hall

When the Community Fellowship was created, the idea was that local government funding would be adjusted based on local procurement thresholds. What we experienced was that local procurement thresholds varied wildly (from $5,000 in some cities to $100,000 or more in others) and were unreliable as the source of local revenue from city to city. So in 2019, we pivoted to a flat program management fee that all cities were expected to pay in order to participate and offset a portion of project expenses. We still tried our best to be flexible, and made allowances for cities that did not have the budget to pay the full asking price of $36,000. But this came with tradeoffs: it emboldened us to take on highly ambitious projects that didn’t have significant local funding lined up, but forced us to opt for some projects that we were less excited about based on the positive impact of their contribution to our program budget.

Lesson 4: Some teams focused on service delivery while others on capacity building. Given the different strategies involved in supporting those distinct efforts, we’ve decided to prioritize between the two.

Both service delivery and capacity building are important, and the Fellowship contains elements of both. Upon assessing the strengths and opportunities of our Fellowship teams over the past two years, we’ve identified the sweet spot for our program is to lead teams that focus primarily on service delivery, and secondarily on building capacity within local government. We’ve determined that the highest use of our Fellows time is to use their technical acumen and project-related lived experience to deliver a product or service enhancement that improves the plight of marginalized communities. Therefore we’ll continue to lead with service delivery.

Lesson 5: Having guided projects and tight problem statements upfront helped our Community Fellows obtain results faster.

Our teams that could articulate their project’s problem statement had more success than those that could not. Teams that clearly understood the problems that they set out to address were able to apply the training we provided them towards those goals. Teams that lacked such clarity were not able to mobilize as rapidly, as they couldn’t make the most of our in-person orientation and training in Code for America’s principles and practices. It became clear to us that in order to set our Fellows up for the most success possible, we need to help facilitate the government partnerships and help define the problem statements. Doing so will lead to more focused projects and quicker ramp-up times.

Group of Fellows in a whiteboard brainstorming session
The 2019 cohort attends Fellowship orientation at Code for America's San Francisco office

Lesson 6: We need a bigger pipeline of talent, therefore we need to rethink how we recruit and train fellows.

In the first two years of the Community Fellowship, there was a relatively high barrier to entry. In addition to being Brigade members, applicants needed to know the project that they wanted to work on, to have a local government partnership, and to arrange the local funding. Factoring in all of those filters reduced our applicant pool to a number that we just weren’t comfortable with. And given our new program mission statement, did we have enough talent within our volunteer program that also possessed lived experience? We did not. So this was a key moment for us. It became clear that if we wanted to center those closest to the problems that our government partners need to work on, and rightly feature technologists with direct lived experience, that we would need to expand beyond the talent pipeline within our current Brigades.

We want to lower the barrier to entry. Brigade members can still apply if they meet the criteria, the applications are just no longer exclusive to them. We previously touched on how we’ll be working directly with our government partners on defining the problem statements. You should also know that we’re removing the burden of recruiting the government partners; we’ll instead recruit governments as step one of the program. Part of building those partnerships will be to secure the local funding for the program participation fee. Then, after we’ve built those partnerships, we’ll shift to seeking out Fellows in those cities. We believe these steps will expand our talent pipeline and strengthen our community and government partner support.

Putting these lessons into action

These key lessons (and others) led us to a new structure for the Community Fellowship. Code for America will start the process by recruiting government partners. After our government partners are secured, we’ll recruit the Fellows. We’re implementing a flat program participation fee of $85k which covers 30% of the total project cost; Code for America will cover the rest. We’ll field a total of four teams, with three full-time Fellows per team. All Fellows will be on our payroll to ensure a synchronized experience across the cohort, from pay rate, to start date, to coaching, to product and project management. We want to resource and train community members with project-related lived experience and partner them with their local government to more effectively address inequities in service delivery. Our Community Fellowship is where we’ll place the people who are closest to the problems that we wish to solve in positions of power to solve them. Applications for government partners open today.

 

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