What’s at Stake: The National Advisory Council Election

Every time I get out of the office and into the communities around our country who are building bridges with local government, I’m so glad I did. I just came back from CityCampNC, where Code for Raleigh, Code for Durham, Code for Greensboro, Code for Charlotte, Code for Cary, and Code for Asheville were all out in full force, along with a great showing of CIOs, Digital Service leads, City Council members, and others from each of the communities represented. Seeing the collaboration, the energy, and — so importantly — the values of this movement in action is so inspiring. I arrived depressed by some of the tragic events of last week, but left inspired by the dozens and dozens of people who are showing up every day to make their communities work better.

I also got to see and talk with three of the 13 Brigade members who are running for seats on the National Advisory Council: Jill Bjers of Code for Charlotte, Jason Hibbets of Code for Raleigh, and Luigi Ray-Montanez of Code for Atlanta (where I went after CityCamp to meet with him and Shawn Taylor, Luigi’s co-captain.) To be perfectly frank, we spent less time talking about the future of the Brigade network than we did about all the incredible opportunity around us, and just catching up. But I did leave with some thoughts and observations that I thought I should share more broadly. There is so much that still feels up in the air about the future of the Brigade, and the National Advisory Council is going to have to play a huge role in making some decisions that will affect the outcomes for everybody.

photo credit: Leo Suarez

Brigades continue to play a wide variety of roles in their communities. We could probably each come up with a list of a dozen or so activities that Brigades do and functions that they serve, and even then our lists would not entirely match. There is both variety across the network and variety within individual groups; most Brigades do several of these at once, and which activities they focus on is also a function of, among other things, how long they’ve been around and the demographics of their membership. Here’s a somewhat random list of some of the activities I’ve observed Brigades doing:

· Open data advocacy
· Visualizing and otherwise making use of open data
· Crowdsourcing or creating data sets from the community that government needs
· Creation of apps for the local community
· Reuse of existing apps for the local community
· Sparking dialogue between government staff and the community
· Creating a pipeline for tech talent into local government
· Filling tech needs of local non-profits and charities
· Creating or reusing apps in partnership with local non-profits to solve local problems
· Developing civic tech skills — both technical and non-technical

Brigades also pursue a variety of models for partnership. Some start projects driven by needs the members see in their communities, and hope to find sustainability partners as they go. Some only work on projects that their local government partners are already committed to in order to ensure they sustain. Others partner with local non-profit service providers.

They also pursue a variety of ways of funding their activities, though the funding needs across brigades vary quite a bit. Money for pizza for hack nights and meetings came from Code for America until the beginning of this year, and the loss of those funds has been tough on many Brigades. A handful of groups, however, such as Code for Charlotte, have developed funding agreements with their local governments that cover some costs. Others have been successful in securing sponsorships. And many have done a great job of securing donations from friends and family.

The diversity in approach can be a wonderful asset of the network, especially given the nature of the Brigade program. Brigades are meant to be local. They are meant to have relevance to a particular community, and each community is unique. This is a perfect case of one size does not — and cannot — fit all. That said, this diversity has its complications. There is still real dissatisfaction with the program in the community, most visibly around the lack of stipends for meetings. Despite many well-meaning and thoughtful people working hard to try to fix it, there remains a sense of being “stuck” in the current framework. In order to get “unstuck,” we will need to get clear on where the diversity in approach across our network is our strength, and where it holds us back. We can and should have variety in the activities and tactics across the network, but there are a few areas where we need unity and cohesion. We need clarity on our common purpose, defined as outcomes, not activities, and we need a clear common narrative.

I want to say more about common purpose and narrative in a minute, but first, why am I talking about this now? Because the need for this cohesion is why I’m so excited about the National Advisory Council. I and others who work at Code for America have lots of thoughts and suggestions about the common purpose and narrative, and how they can and should play with the purpose and narrative of Code for America’s internal work, which is focused on government services that help vulnerable populations. But in the end, agreeing on common purpose is a conversation, not a command. No top down approach would or could ever stick, and it would squash the amazing initiative and passion that characterizes Brigades today. This is why Monique Baena-Tan has spent the better part of the year leading a co-creation process, centered on collaborative dialogue, to create the foundation for a bottoms up strategy. It’s possible to have a conversation with the thousands of Brigade members and even the dozens of Brigade captains, but coming to some decisions from those conversations is harder. Our goal is to keep the conversation broad, in the same way that everyone can and should be involved in the dialogue around the future of our country, but empower the nine elected to the Council to listen to that larger conversation and make some decisions.

I think those decisions are going to be hard, and it’s likely that not everyone will be happy with those decisions. We need to be prepared for that as a community, and see this as a difficult but natural part of the evolution of a movement. But making some choices will enable us to move forward, do more, and have more impact.

What do I mean by that? Choosing scalable funding models that we can invest in supporting across the network is one example. Several years ago, Wikipedia ran a strategic planning process to help them prioritize their efforts based on the values of their community. That process led them to the decision to prioritize grassroots fundraising over all other funding sources, so that they would be accountable to their users over corporate sponsors or foundations. They’d already had a lot of success in grassroots donations, but that decision allowed them to become an incredibly powerful machine for grassroots funding. More importantly, it helped them articulate who they were working for and ensure that their efforts both brought in new users and satisfied their current community because at the end of the day, their users were the ones whose donations would keep the lights on.

I’m not saying that Brigades should adopt a grassroots funding model, or even that we can only have one funding model (though clarity about which models we will invest in supporting will be important.) And by the way, there’s more than one grassroots funding model. While there’s talk of asking Brigade members to chip in NPR-style, you could also envision an individual sponsorship model that I’ve engaged with when I did the AIDS Ride or my Team in Training-sponsored half marathon: I asked my friends and family to support something I was doing for a cause. (Yes, I once ran a half marathon! Don’t look so surprised! :)) But there’s also a completely reasonable case that we should support Brigades through corporate sponsorship. Or foundation grants. Or selling T-shirts. There’s a lot we could do, but my point is this: For any of those cases, we need to do a better job asking ourselves this question:

To whom are we accountable and for what outcomes?

Imagine for a second we adopted the Team in Training grassroots funding model, and we decided to invest in a platform that made it easy for Brigade members to reach out to their friends and family to get them to sponsor their meetings. What would you write in the email to your networks that would convince them to donate? Or if we gathered the heads of a few relevant companies or foundations and asked them to get on board with the vision and provide national funding that would help each Brigade. What is it we are asking them to support?

Every one of us could write about the activities these people would be supporting. But people, whether in a personal or professional capacity, tend to support activities that have a clear and meaningful outcome. “I’m riding my bike to Los Angeles because the money I raise will help cure AIDS.” The people who will support that are the intersection people who care about me and people who care about curing AIDS. And this is where the process becomes not just about packaging the work for supporters, but about using that process to look critically at what we’re doing and push ourselves towards more meaningful, relevant outcomes. If we’re making apps to help others in our community, are they using them? And are the apps actually helping them? At what scale? As we take our value proposition to the marketplace(s) we seek support from, we will get these questions and feedback. And that feedback is a gift if we choose to take it as such.

That’s where I think the Council will have some work to do. Their job will not just be to represent Brigades to Code for America; we are not the customer here. We don’t have an endowment. Their job will be to clarify the purpose of the network and by extension its value proposition so that together we can create a narrative that attracts support. It’s big, important, gnarly work, because underlying those questions is another one that’s been swirling around civic tech in the last year, and will stay around for a while: What and who is civic tech for?

There are voices, like Dan O’Neil’s, who criticize civic tech for representing and benefitting a small slice of the community, those already tech literate. Dan would like to see every Brigade getting out into the larger community, and the Smart Chicago Collaborative offers the Civic User Testing group framework as a tool to support that vision. I see Dan’s point, but I also agree with those who look to lighter weight activities as sustainable within a volunteer context. I also agree with those who see the value in Brigades as bridging between the government and tech communities, or in forums for education, and I can see concrete benefits of focusing on that frame, as long as we can articulate the intended outcomes of that work and hold ourselves accountable to achieving those outcomes. But the choices for our future are far more varied than those.

For Code for America’s internal projects, we’ve chosen a particular path over the last few years. We now focus less on the creation of apps to demonstrate what’s possible, and are doubling down on projects that support a handful outcomes for people in our country who are vulnerable to falling into persistent poverty and incarceration. We’re holding ourselves accountable to better outcomes for those people at scale, and finding ways to partner with government to operationalize these projects first state-wide and then nationally. We’re already working with dozens and dozens of partner organizations, in addition to our partner governments, to achieve those outcomes (for example, we work closely with food banks and community-based organizations on our food stamps work), and we’re working on ways to allow individuals and civic tech organizations within our community to contribute to the goals as well, because we will need all the help we can get.

But Code for America has full time staff. Brigades are volunteer organizations. Running a project of this magnitude on a volunteer basis is not likely feasible. If there’s authentic desire from the Brigades and others to contribute to an existing project or extend a project like this into your own community, Code for America will gladly invest in ways to do that. But not to the exclusion or detriment of the goals that Brigades want to pursue independently. Those goals need more clarity and consistency, and when you vote for National Advisory Council members, you’re voting for the people who will get to that clarity for the greater good of the network.

I write this at a time when you can’t turn around without seeing a message urging you to vote in our national election on November 8th. I completely agree; so much is at stake about our future. If you care about the growth, sustainability and impact of the movement, I would urge you all to take this election, which ends TOMORROW, just as seriously (okay, maybe not quite as seriously, but you get what I mean). But it’s a very different situation. In the case of the presidential election, there is a very stark contrast between the candidates and incredibly strong feelings on both sides. By contrast, the National Advisory Council election lists 13 candidates, all of whom have shown their dedication to the cause, all of whom have their hearts in the right place, and any of whom would do a great job representing you. I’m not encouraging you to vote because I think there is a possible negative outcome, but because by making a choice (up to 9 of them, actually!) you are investing in the choices ahead. You are putting your vote of confidence behind the conversations that will happen amongst these nine dedicated servants, and the decisions they’ll make. Those decisions will create opportunities for the entire Brigade network, but they can only do that by holding all of us who choose to participate accountable to outcomes that attract support. And choices like that always mean tradeoffs. I hope each of you takes the time now to express their support for those future tradeoffs by being part of choosing the National Advisory Council.

Yes, there’s only about 32 hours left. Get on over to the online ballot. This is ALSO your civic duty!

photo credit: Leo Suarez