Code for America welcomes the community to vote in the elections for Brigade national advisory…
Christopher Whitaker

Growing the Civic Tech Community

I’ve decided to run for the Code for America Brigade program’s national advisory council, and I’d like to tell you why. You can vote here if you feel compelled to do so.

I was at TransparencyCamp West in 2009, when Jennifer Pahlka first started talking about the idea that would become Code for America. As a software developer for the Sunlight Foundation at the time, I watched from a short distance as Code for America was incubated. The Sunlight Foundation gave the organization its first grant, and acted as its fiscal sponsor.

While at Sunlight, I spent a lot of my time — probably too much of it — speaking at software developer conferences on Civic Hacking. I had stumbled on this developing field just two years earlier, and knew that other technologists would embrace it once they heard about it. Because I was so focused on how to explain the movement and inspire others, I’ll admit some professional jealousy at Code for America’s early successes in outreach to the developer community.

Code for America has had — from its inception — a ridiculously strong brand. Yes, the name is great, but it’s really a testament to the clarity of vision of Code for America’s Fellowship program: You’re a technologist, and for a year you work to improve a city government. Code for America — located right in San Francisco — captured the mindshare of not just Silicon Valley, but of the larger tech industry.

But only so many people can join the Fellowship program and only so many cities can participate, so the volunteer-driven Brigade was a natural extension. The Code for America brand lent itself to localization, like Code for Philly or Code for Boston. Through the hard work of staff at headquarters and volunteer leaders on the ground, local groups were activated and started seeing success. One of those volunteers leaders was me: I helped start Code for Atlanta in late 2013, and continue to help organize it today.

With that background in mind, here are some thoughts on where I’d like to see the Brigade program go, led by the national advisory council.

Committing to community organizing

The primary responsibility of the Brigade program should be community organizing. I feel this is a moral obligation: civic tech is on the right side of history, it has proven to substantively improve lives, and it has the capacity to directly make the world a better place. There needs to be an entity out there that forcefully advocates for the spread and growth of these ideas, and the Brigade program is best positioned to do it.

Starting with this commitment to community organizing, more tangible steps follow.

Growing the movement

Civic tech is best understood as a social-political movement. And movements need to grow, or they die. Right now there are about 80 Brigades in the United States. That’s certainly a substantial number, but there are more than 80 cities in the country. Over the last four years, Code for America has invested heavily in building strong local Brigades that produce tangible outcomes. In the words of startup culture, the Brigade program has achieved product-market fit. Now, investments need to be made so the movement scales to hundreds of cities. As a starting point, Brigades should be active in every state capital, so that state-level efforts can be coordinated.

Individual Brigades, once set up, also need help growing. Code for America has done an admirable job over the years in helping these groups get started, both with operating funds and staff support. That changed last year when Code for America discontinued the annual stipend provided to Brigades. While written materials and video conference sessions produced by Code for America staff have served as valuable resources, I see a strong need for intensive, in-person training for Brigade leaders.

Additionally, there’s an opportunity to welcome groups beyond established Brigades into our community. There are worldwide networks like Hacks/Hackers, Maptime, and Legal Hackers that share much in common with Brigades, plus countless independent, local groups that have sprung up. The growth potential is very promising.

Funding the movement

The funds needed to host a civic hack night or hackathon are modest: the main cost is food (usually pizza and soda). If a free venue cannot be found, a rental fee may be paid. Some Brigades also take care of server costs for projects, which in the age of cloud computing is minimal. This translates to a total budget of anywhere from two to twenty thousand dollars per year for each Brigade, depending on attendance and frequency of events.

Fundraising is incredibly time-consuming for Brigade organizers. Brigade leadership teams already take on a lot of responsibilities: organizing events, doing partnership outreach, meeting with governments, attending community meetings, identifying potential projects, managing projects, and telling their story to the world. All those things cannot be outsourced; they must be done on the ground by the Brigades themselves.

Fundraising at a national level should be the primary responsibility of the national advisory council. A national network of technologists looking to do civic and social good is something that the Googles, Amazons, and Microsofts of the world should be fully funding. The operating costs are not high for an individual Brigade, but do add up when scaled to a (hopefully) growing network. Through corporate sponsorships, the annual stipends can be reinstated, relieving Brigade organizers of time that can be better spent organizing their communities.

Balancing professionalization with volunteerism

It’s important to state explicitly: Brigades are mainly volunteer-led. Juggling day jobs with the responsibility of organizing Brigades has led to burnout among leaders. From my observation, many individual Brigades are only able to take big steps forward when one or more members of their leadership team is not fully employed. I personally experienced that earlier this year when I was in-between jobs for two months. Code for Atlanta is a much stronger community today thanks to my temporary period of unemployment!

That, clearly, is not sustainable. It’s no way to build a movement. In response, some have argued that starting startups is the answer to long-term sustainability. Abhi Nemani thinks the path forward is for consultancies to grow out of Brigades. Luke Fretwell wrote that Civic Hacking should be an incubator to an “exit strategy” of civic product startups. Both ideas have their merit and should be considered by those who find themselves in favorable conditions, but I don’t think the startup solution is broadly generalizable.

It’s important to preserve the Brigade program’s spirit of volunteerism. At a civic hack night, there may be two to five organizers and anywhere from five to one-hundred attendees. We should not expect all participants to become professionals in civic tech. Some may, and the Brigade program should support those individuals. But as the name implies, the Brigade’s main efforts should be to cultivate ecosystems of volunteers looking to make a civic impact. And to be frank, there won’t always be a business model for that.

Establishing a community of leaders

I’m thrilled that Code for America has decided to open up the leadership of the Brigade program to the group community organizers they’ve cultivated over the last four years. I’ve been continually impressed by how hard-working and committed my fellow Brigade leaders are. And to find a group of people that really, truly give a damn has been a privilege. I’m certain that the set of leaders elected to the national advisory council will serve the Brigade community with integrity and creativity.

Once again, the ballot is here. I hope you consider voting for me!