Carrying a Legacy, Leading the Field: Gregory Johnson

A conversation with the Founder of Code for South Florida
Gregory Johnson sits in a chair with his right elbow up. He is wearing a floral patterned shirt and wire framed glasses

For our “Leading the Field” Q&A series, we’re speaking with leaders in the civic/gov tech space who are driving important change to make government work by the people, for the people, in the digital age. For Black History Month, we’re lifting up the voices of Black leaders who are working to ensure the government can serve everyone equitably, with dignity and respect. This week, we spoke with Gregory Johnson, founder of Code for South Florida, 2019 Code for America Community Fellow in Miami, and current John S. Knight Community Impact Fellow at Stanford.

Tell us what originally got you interested in the civic tech space. Is it the same thing that keeps you interested today?

My journey to civic tech began in high school when I was team leader for a political campaign. What piqued my interest was how we built technology and data pipelines in our work—from data analysis, GIS mapping, and leveraging data-driven decisions to help in community engagement. In 2013, my first job out of high school was working as an entrepreneur in residence for a Miami startup seed accelerator focused on building healthcare IT solutions. After the failed launch of Healthcare.gov that same year, I recognized the need to build better digital services in government through business.

I went to join the product teams of two healthcare IT startups which sold for profitable deals. In 2019, I was part of an all-Black CFA Fellowship teamwhose project was adopted by the City of Miami. Later, as a Civic Innovation Fellow with Microsoft Cities Miami, I was top-performer and we invested $2 million in workforce and digital transformation. I am interested in filling the gaps in data and tech infrastructure, which is underfunded at the government level. It’s time to build and upgrade cities to prepare for climate change and the challenges to be faced by urbanization.

How has the civic tech ecosystem changed since you entered the field?

The world of civic tech is in its teenage years right now, and as it has grown, some have labeled this work “public interest technology.” We now have examples of how to do service delivery well from many organizations inside and out of government. We also have more stories of what happens and who is impacted when things go wrong. Now we’re seeing companies like Promise PayJoin Propel, and others raising capital to address community problems. We need more community-led companies building revenue models to solve deep problems.

What would you like to see more of?

I believe that volunteerism can never build the sustainable services we need for the government in the long-term. Martin Luther King Jr. has a quote that says, “Philanthropy is commendable but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.” Systems are broken. Philanthropy won’t solve all these things, but it can inspire change.

The next wave of impact in this work will be community-led companies. I want to see the government embracing better and more inclusive procurement models that invite the next generation of companies to solve real issues impacting cities. We recognize that policy needs to change, but the vehicles for change should come in the form of corporations building things with public purpose.

In what ways have you been able to change it for those who come next?

I am not the hero of these stories, but the work of all the people in South Florida has shifted how the region sees this work. Over the last seven years, the founders of Code for Miami have collectively shifted our region so that our city and county mayors are now championing models that embrace technology. The heroes in government IT and business who are championing this work, like Micheal Sarasti or Margaret Brisbane, should be celebrated the most.

Code for South Florida has also made a big impact on the broader civic tech ecosystem outside of Miami. As a young local coalition, we helped to get national funding from Citibank for Code for America, a ten-year-old organization, to help fund the program GetYourRefund. We shifted from volunteerism into this partner impact model—then that culture shaped many local tech practitioners. We worked closely with the non-profit the current county mayor founded and helped the city on numerous open data work for years. At the same time as these “lightning in the bottle” moments, we’re also training more people to lead this work in Florida and beyond.

What advice would you give to others looking to get into a career in civic tech?

There is space for you here. As you decide where the right space is for you, remember this is generational work. It’s also hard work that is not connected to one sole organization. If you are not invited to the table, build your own table. Stay focused on your purpose and rooted in community. It will help keep you grounded on what matters.

What does it mean to bring your full self to work in this field?

As a first-generation American, college graduate, brother, and son, my full self in this field is tied to a few facts. The first is: not too long ago, America saw people of my skin color as three-fifths of a person. Today, though our history played a big part in building America, we still face challenges. People may not view us as equals or treat us fairly. We persist because, in the DNA of my people, we move forward. We recognize that out of many, we are one people.

The second fact that defines my full self is: I recognize the opportunity I have that wasn’t offered to my ancestors. I can be me because others fought to make it so. I can choose the space I reside in and want to work in. If that space does not exist, I can create it as an American through building business. I am free. To put it simply, being my full self means being able to build the inclusive, equitable, and diverse environments I want to see.

What does “designing equitable government” mean to you?

It looks like Miami-Dade County creating an Office of Inclusion and Equity then hiring people like Cheriene Floyd to focus on data. It means more governments looking like the people they serve and listening to them. For example, Code for South Florida recently sponsored Haitians In Tech because the largest Haitian American population in the U.S. is in South Florida. We need accessible services that help populations like this who have different takes on government. Through this work, we’ll probably build equivalent initiatives for other cultures that are highly represented. An equitable government means bringing all voices to the table as we think about digital services.