An Open Letter to the Code for America Brigades

In 2012, Code for America launched a volunteer program. Local groups of government staff, technologists, designers, community organizers, and others who are committed to making government work better, joined forces with us to bring the practices that Code for America promotes to their communities.

These groups have organized into what has become known as the Brigade network, a grassroots movement of community members that hold regular meetings and work on projects that benefit their local communities. The inaugural class of brigade captains included 19 people in 16 cities across the United States. Since 2012, these local groups have grown to 80 cities in the US, and many more throughout the world. Brigades have collectively activated thousands of volunteers.

This is an open letter everyone who has contributed to the movement from two of us at Code for America who have been thinking a lot about the health of the community: Nicole Neditch, the senior director of CfA’s network, and Jennifer Pahlka, CfA’s founder and executive director.

Dear Brigade leaders, members, and champions:

This summer has become a time for reflection, self-critique and reassessment by the entire civic tech movement. In the past couple of months, many people who have been central to this work since the beginning have been sharing observations and thoughts on how civic tech must evolve to fulfill its enormous potential.

  • Steve Spiker and Eddie Tejeda, announced that they were stepping down from their posts as co-captains of OpenOakland, and wrote about the difficulty in developing a sustainable model
  • The Omidyar Network, a major supporter of Code for America, published a report on the state of the civic technology movement, and what it can learn from social movements
  • Attendees at Personal Democracy Forum in New York were treated to speeches and hallway conversations on topics like Danah Boyd’s Be Careful What You Code For or Hossein Derakhshan’s The Web We Lost, the Web We Want, in addition to Stacy Donohue’s speech on the report mentioned above
  • Dan X. O’Neil, former head of SmartChicago, critiques the effectiveness of building community in civic tech, in his exit interview with Civicist
  • And Josh Tauberer, of Code for DC, responded and redefined the goals of civic tech saying that by hacking, “we become better people”

Together, we have been reflecting, self-critiquing and reassessing as well. We’re several months into a formal process of interviewing community members and our staff to get clearer on what’s working, what’s not, and what to do about it. We’ve heard the good and the bad, but the main takeaways have been:

  1. That this community wants to work together to ensure that we are making the biggest impact that we can
  2. We’re going to have to make some changes in how Code for America as an organization operates if we’re going to accomplish #1

Together we’ve accomplished so much

Let’s look back for a second at all we’ve accomplished together. In the past four and half years, you have tackled hundreds of big challenges. You’ve increased youth access to local job opportunities in Boston, MA; improved access to justice in Salt Lake City, UT; alleviated the affordable housing crisis in Asheville, NC; and developed tools for planners to build better bike routes in Philadelphia, PA.

You’ve also built the civic tech ecosystem by being a pipeline into government technology roles. Just a few of the many examples: Matt Bailey from Code for DC was at first appointed as DC’s Director of Technology Innovation, and is now a Digital Services Expert at the White House Office of Management and Budget; Harlan Weber from Code for Boston is the Director of Design & Service Innovation at the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; Lauren Ancona from Code for Philly was hired as a Senior Data Scientist for the City; and Code for Anchorage’s Brigade Captain, Brendan Babb was recently hired to be the City’s first Chief Innovation Officer.

You are driving local investment in new technology approaches: Code for Miami won a $100,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to develop a Civic User Testing (CUT) group, ensuring that online government services work for the people who use them; Code for Anchorage and Open Oakland collaborated with their city governments to help them win $50,000 grants in the SBA Startup in a Day competition; and Code for Boston and Code for St. Louis received financial support from the Civic Tech and Data Collaborative to use data to address pressing problems in their cities.

You are developing new models of participation in government: OpenOakland hosted a write-a-thon to engage residents and city staff in answering common questions in plain language; the Kansas City Health department is partnering with Code for KC to improve the delivery of health and human services; BetaNYC worked with New York City to establish the City’s first Digital Playbook; and OpenAustin was influential in the City’s launch of a fellowship program aimed at bringing top talent in design, development, data analytics, user research, and product management into City Hall.

You have given so much — heads and hearts, hands and voices — to this work. You are remarkable engines of scale and impact of a still-new movement that has and can change the world. Let’s make sure we celebrate as we reflect.

And we have had our challenges

Along with all of these accomplishments, we have struggled with a sustainable model to support this work. We’ve also struggled with architecting participation that allows for the greatest inclusion and impact.

Sustainability has been front and center over the last year. In the beginning, Code for America gave each new chapter a small stipend to support their weekly meetups. As the Brigade network continued to grow, we realized that the stipends were adding up to significant sums that we weren’t confident we could fund indefinitely. The initial brigades required different levels of support as they grew their local membership, and each new organization meant more resources, in both funds and staff time to administer them. As a non-profit we rely on grant funding that ebbs and flows, and we had to make some difficult decisions given this reality. Last year, we had to discontinue the stipends, which proved very hard for the chapters, especially those who had not yet established local funding. It is fair to say that we have had our own growing pains and it took a bit of time to get mature enough as an org to handle the financial complexities of this very diverse, dispersed program. We’re getting there now, but folks had to hang with us along the way while we got it right.

Non-financial support has been an issue as well. The model was set up as intentionally divergent. The invitation has been to start a Code for America-esque chapter locally, which has resulted in many local chapters all focused on different projects that are important to their local communities. There are chapters focused solely on opening up and visualizing government data, others on creating products that benefit their communities, others focused primarily on events to bring government staff and technologists together, and others set up as pipelines into government jobs. All of these missions are incredibly important, but require different resources and tools to build, grow and sustain their efforts. It’s a wide variety of needs to try to meet.

There is also the challenge of the large number of unsustainable apps. Code for America’s fellowship program set a pattern here from the start, producing a lot of work designed primarily to show what was possible and spur change in many domains. Many of the projects didn’t have consistent paths to sustainability. Brigades collectively have done the same, running hundreds of experiments in parallel. The power of the Code for America effect, as Mark Headd described it back in 2011, was monumental. And it was the right thing at the right time. Creating apps in the way that we all did then was exactly the right thing to start a movement, to gain converts, to practice our skills together, and to show our partners in government what was possible. But in 2016, there are too many apps that don’t end up serving the functions or the people they were intended to. We’ve got to push ourselves to rethink our models so we can have more impact.

Evolving focus

A dose of healthy self-criticism has been the medicine at CfA for some time, and our treatment has resulted in some changes in the organization. To reduce the number of abandoned apps, we decided to focus the fellowship projects in three areas and brought on leadership to support them: Healthy Communities, Economic Development, and Safety & Justice. This focus helps us build on past work, create pathways for sustainability and align around concrete outcomes for both government and the people government serves.

But as we have begun to focus internally around redesigning key government services in these three areas, we haven’t shared these changes with the community in a way that sufficiently honors and recognizes your remarkable commitment to the CfA mission.

Our goal now is to reconnect the dots, share more openly and clearly how and why we plan to take a few projects to scale, and provide everyone in the network a more informed basis from which to co-create the next era of the civic tech movement.

Getting to scale

The Code for America network has always had massive ambitions. The goal has always been to prove, as we say over and over again, that government can work for the people, by the people, in the 21st century. Today, that means regrouping and reassessing. Tomorrow, that means a) working at scale for millions of people and b) showing that the American people are actually better off because of this approach. Our focus area strategy has matured to the point where we think we have the opportunity to show these outcomes at scale, materially benefitting millions of people. And we’re incredibly excited to try.

Our first effort at true scale is taking GetCalFresh statewide in California and then to other states that have low enrollment rates. While we are starting with food stamps, we intend to apply the same thinking to reducing unnecessary incarceration and redesigning the workforce system.

Making the food assistance, job training, and criminal justice systems work better for the American people is an enormous ambition, one suited better to the efforts of thousands of people than to the dozens who work day to day at Code for America. Which is why we have to restructure Code for America to truly allow for everyone to participate. We have to invite everyone in and let them feel ownership over their contributions.

We have to build a true movement, made of coalitions and individuals, not just an organization in the traditional sense. We have to invite community organizers and technologists to be involved, but not just them. We also need experts in the services that need redesigning, public servants, translators, researchers, lawyers, policy makers, tech companies, community based organizations, and importantly, the users of the services that we are trying to improve. Imagine how many more people could feed their families if volunteer translators across the country could contribute to making GetCalFresh (and eventually GetSNAP as it will be known in other states) accessible in dozens of languages?

There is a great deal of untapped impact that we could have if all of these people were working together towards a collective vision. That’ll take work, but it’s work worth doing.

Act locally, think nationally

Just because we are focusing on these areas and taking a couple of products to scale doesn’t mean that you have to focus on these areas as well, and it certainly doesn’t mean that building the field is no longer a priority at Code for America. You can and should address local issues. There are many states where upwards of 90% of eligible people already access SNAP. If you are in one of those states, why would you make SNAP a priority? You might choose to work on helping people expunge criminal records, or research the challenges in accessing job training benefits. Or you might decide to focus on entirely different issues, either because a different issue is simply the most pressing problem for the people who live in your community, or because other opportunities have presented themselves. That’s completely appropriate, and in fact necessary for a vibrant movement.

Sitting under all the issues and programs that we may address, together or separately, are the principles, practices and values that we all share, and that we can recognize and cultivate within our government partners. Movements are effective when a win in one place helps raise the bar everywhere. When there’s a procurement win in Miami, let’s make sure the folks in Kansas City can use it to further their goals. When San Francisco sets up a digital services unit, let’s make sure the folks in Charlotte share that with their community and are able to advocate for the same if it makes sense for them. When there’s an open data victory in Charlotte, let’s make sure it’s fodder for change in Tucson. There is common work to be done as a movement here as well.

Listening and sharing authentically

In a survey that was sent out to all of our core team leadership this year, 92% of respondents said that the reason that they keep coming back is to improve the way that government services work in their community. No lack of alignment here! Our real challenge is in assuring that you feel like you are part of helping to craft the direction of the program, a process that we should have baked in better from the beginning. This sentiment was shared by many of the respondents:

“There should be more input from Brigade leaders on the direction of the Brigade program on a consistent basis …. The nature of the brigades is very grassroots, but it feels like CfA tries to control the implementation of the brigade network from the top down.”

We agree. By sharing our ambitions openly and inviting your participation, the goal is to create a shared narrative that is not defined by Code for America, but is informed by it as well as the work of everyone in the movement around the country.

The Process So Far

To guide us through this transformation, we asked brigade leaders and staff at Code for America a simple question: how might we better support and serve our local communities while inviting community participation around our current focus and direction? We spent the last few months interviewing community members and our staff to learn from their experience. We heard the good and the bad, but the main takeaway was that our community wanted to work with us to help figure it out, and that our staff was eager to find ways to productively engage the community.

Looking Ahead

For the rest of 2016, we’re revamping the structure and strategy of our Brigade network to align around a shared identity, vision and focus, and we are engaging our community throughout the process.

We hope that the result of these conversations is an evolution of our program into something that we can tie to the rest of our work and deliberately invest more into.

Initially we are focused on:

  • Developing a shared governance model
  • Increasing knowledge sharing across the network
  • Developing a sustainable funding model that will allow us to continue to support the work
  • Developing partnerships with other organizations that can provide resources, in the areas that we are choosing not to focus on, such as open data, analytics, or civic engagement

We hope that this evolution will unlock opportunities for more people to participate, create funding opportunities that support specific projects aligned around Code for America’s core focus, and lead to increased collective impact across the country.

To the thousands of volunteers: thank you for continuing to give your all — heads and hearts, hands, and voices. We’re excited to partner with you to help scale this movement — a movement that pushes everyday to make government work for the people, by the people in the 21st century.

With gratitude, Jen and Nicole

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