Writing our principles and values, together, Part 1

This is a long post riffing off a short presentation I gave at the first ever (but not the last!) Brigade Congress two weeks ago in Philadelphia. It set up a discussion with all in the room about the purpose and substance of the Code for America vision, mission, values, and operating principles, and the process by which we got to the current versions of all of these.

I’ll start by saying that in many ways the latter (how we got there, and where we go next) is as important as the statement of the vision, mission, values, and operating principles themselves. We are at a moment in time when we’re wrapping up a participatory process that has sparked many valuable conversations about the past, present, and future of the movement, and already had a real impact on our coherence as a group. This is only a moment in time, though, and those conversations and that impact have only just begun. How those next conversations happen will matter too.

How we got here

Several months ago, we started a process of collecting, questioning, and revising Code for America’s vision, mission, values, and operating principles. Did we have a previous version? Different people will have different answers for this. The reality is that various groups inside Code for America had made different versions of any number of these statements over the years, and of course various affiliated Code for America groups, including Brigades and fellow travelers like Smart Chicago Collaborative, Laurenellen McCann, USDS, GDS, and others had expressed these same sentiments in various ways over time as well. We’re deeply grateful to learn from their work and do our part to help push it forward. As a non-profit, we did have a vision statement, which is partially written in big letters on our wall: “Government can work for the people by the people in the 21st century.” But there’s a lot more to how we plan to achieve this vision, and it needed saying. Or at least, having been said in many different ways, it needed wrangling.

The statements we decided to wrangle were four-fold:

  • Our vision: the world as we’d like to see it
  • Our mission: how we intend to make our vision real
  • Our values: what we are like as an organization and a community
  • Our operating principles: the ideas that guide the decisions we make

Right away, a question arose for many. Who is included in “our”? Who is the “we” in all of those statements above? And depending on your answer, who gets to shape these statements?

The answer is obvious to me, but the process by which one honors that answer has not been obvious, or easy. The answer is that “we” includes those who want to help achieve the vision and the mission and who agreed to operate in ways consistent with the values and principles. Certainly, Code for America employees are part of that group, and part of the point of the document is to set clear expectations for those who come to work here about what we’re doing and how we’re going to operate together. But there are 60 Code for America employees. Look at the vision. We didn’t set out to end pet homelessness in a small community (a worthy goal, to be sure, but smaller); we set out to make government (its $3.5T, its 22 million employees, the whole thing) work in the service of the American public, all its people. The problems we are trying to solve have accumulated over decades (some might say centuries) and are embedded in the most change-resistant objects we know: culture, law, policy, and the structures of power. The Code for America team does work I’m incredibly proud of, creating a laboratory for non-obvious levers for getting bureaucracy to recenter around users. But anyone who thinks 60 people are going to fundamentally transform government at scale alone is not being realistic. For that, you need America-sized scale.

You’ll notice that above I created a circular argument. I said the people who should shape the mission, vision, values and operating principles should include anyone who wants to help achieve the mission and vision and agrees to operate according to the values and principles. That speaks a bit to the challenges of running an inclusive process, but it hasn’t been the only challenging aspect. We don’t know who all those people are, or how to reach them. It’s not immediately obvious how much of any of this document is up for debate, either because there’s a better word to express what’s more or less the same idea, or because there’s an actually difference of opinion behind the words that needs resolving. We decided the way to find out was to invite debate and comment, and see where it led.

Start with users

The process started not with the mess of documents that have been written over the years, but with a dozen or so interviews. Paul Worthington, a brand consultant who heard me talk about the impact of poor government services on vulnerable people, and who has since become a friend and a friend to the movement, offered to do some interviews with stakeholders with fresh eyes and fresh ears, so to speak. He talked with Brigade leaders, staff, government partners past and present, and board members about what the Code for America brand meant to them, why they engaged, and more. The results were not entirely surprising, but they focused us on areas we might have otherwise neglected. Paul’s work meant that our starting place for this document had legs around the country from a variety of perspectives.

The next step involved socializing a first draft of these statements with a subset of the staff. This was not fun or easy, and in retrospect I wish we’d done it differently. Some were a bit indifferent to both the artifact and the process; some offered criticism but it was hard to know how to integrate the criticism. I still don’t know if framing these asks constructively is something one gets better at over time or is simply a thankless task. But it also wasn’t a disaster. Underneath most of the reaction was a basic agreement on the top level goals and framing, and a sense of safety and empowerment in pushing for the words to reflect each staff member’s personal values and priorities. In retrospect, I see this as the part of the process where you realize that the process itself is going to be messy, and not always feel great, but when you commit to pushing through because it’s going to make the work better.

This is when I first learned that while 99% of the issues or words people wanted to debate were indeed debatable and led to interesting, sometimes really illuminating conversations, I had a few hard stops. One was the word “cost.” The current version says “better can cost less,” but at this point we were working with an earlier version with different wording. Whatever it said exactly, some people objected to the notion that part of our vision could be construed as shrinking government, in part because of the political frames that could trigger. While I am not personally motivated or excited by the abstract notion of shrinking government, I (and some others) argued to retain some version of these words. Successful fellowship and Brigade projects have long been lauded and copied because they were better than the status quo, but they’ve also been dramatically cheaper, sometimes by several orders of magnitude. So it’s authentically been a key part of the story in the realm of technology spend in government, but it’s also true in the outcomes government services seek. Both Brigades and CfA internal teams are pursuing projects that safely reduce incarceration, for instance, either by keeping people from being held pre-trial or keeping them from being reincarcerated for technical violations. These projects may be driven by the sense that a government that jails its people unnecessarily isn’t one that’s working as it should, but these projects can also drive huge costs savings. These savings can be used to serve the American public better. I hope in ten years, the people of our movement have a strong voice in how those huge cost savings are spent; today, let’s focus on delivering those outcomes so we can even have that debate.

Feedback is a gift

Returning to the process, we reworded the cost savings bit and many other bits and continued to socialize the document for feedback From there, we opened it up to first the National Advisory Council of the Brigades, and then anyone in the Brigades, though our email lists only include the leadership, so we were counting on leadership forwarding it to their membership at their discretion. Around the same time, we devoted part of a staff offsite to getting feedback from everyone in attendance, which went about as well (or a bit less well) as sharing it with the subset of the staff earlier, but again, we did get some actionable feedback. Here, the feedback from the Brigade community and from the staff started to dovetail, and that was very encouraging. The most recent step involved some discussion, mostly asynchronously through the Google doc, leading up to and at Brigade Congress in Philadelphia earlier this month.

There have been many dozen changes to the document (some just a word, some restructuring whole sections) during this process, but I’ll call out a few. Lots of folks hated the words “21st century” in the vision statement. “What does that even mean? Of course it’s the 21st century!” This is a bit of a bummer because the vision statement is on our wall at the office, but thankfully in paint, not stone, because we’ve replaced those words with “in the digital age.” Many staff and Brigade members objected to the notion that we aspire to a government that serves everyone equally, citing the difference between equity and equality. Sabrah N’ha Raven of Code for Asheville, who offered several helpful comments, correctly pointed out that when we say “we don’t ask for permission,” we mean that in relation to government and others in power, but we must always ask permission when acting on behalf of disenfranchised people. We clarified that point.

Is this still about government?

One of the comments we discussed as a group at Brigade Congress touched on our relationship to government.The topic had come up verbally in other contexts, including at the National Advisory Council meeting in May, where some felt that a shift in mission away from government was necessary in the era of Trump. The second reservation was broader, expressed by people sharing that they were primarily interested in serving their communities, not government.

It was Sabrah from Code for Asheville again who said, in comments on the proposed values:

“Personally, I love dealing with our local government, but formal government agencies are part of the civic ecology, not the whole thing. The mindset that separates them out is what leads too often to government that doesn’t truly serve the community.”

My answer to Sabrah’s incredibly astute observation was this: EXACTLY.

Let’s reframe what Sabrah is saying in the positive, and see how we feel about government. We want:

Government that does truly serve the community

A mindset that sees the whole ecology, and that sees the people as part of government

Government as a platform, whose success enables others, both inside and outside government.

Isn’t that definition of government part of what we’re fighting for? Conversely, if we abandon the government frame, don’t we let others get to define it?

The issue is that many of us in the community, including many fellowship and other project teams at Code for America, do projects that benefit our community but don’t directly go through government. Our most mature digital service, GetCalFresh, started out rogue, in the sense that we were letting people apply for food stamps and just faxing the applications in to the offices without any formal relationship with the government offices. (It’s also probably important to point out that we did have informal, positive relationships with people in those offices from previous partnerships, and those people valued our work and trusted us. Otherwise we would probably have been shut down!) Others, though, are not touching government at all, but doing work that a government either could do if it used its resources more effectively or could coordinate better using volunteer resources (which have always been a way that local governments and communities get stuff done!) So how do we think about government’s central role in our vision statement in that context?

Two stories, one old and one new, help answer that question. The first came out of a great session at Brigade Congress some of the Brigades that had responded so beautifully to the recent spate of hurricanes that hit Texas and Florida, and a few others who had worked on disaster response in other areas. (If you haven’t read about this work, see here, here, here, and elsewhere. And prepare to be incredibly proud of this community.) It’s impossible to discuss how informal networks of regular citizens got the job done without touching on the ways in which the systems we assume are going to work for us, the ones paid for by our tax dollars and our charitable contributions, are deficient. Official data on shelter availability was inaccurate and inaccessible; Brigade people power made it accurate and accessible. Offers of help couldn’t match with needs; Brigade people power matched them. The Brigade organizers at Congress expressed both a pride in their work, and a worry that what they were doing is also propping up a failed system. What works isn’t what we’ve paid for with our taxes; what we’ve paid for with our taxes doesn’t entirely work. Long term, don’t we need to use what we’ve learned about what does work to make the system we continue to pay for work better?

This brought me back to an obscure headline from 2010, one that my husband Tim used a few times in talks describing his ideas about government as a platform. The story was about a road in Kauai that had been damaged and deemed impassable. The state government estimated the cost of repairing the road at $4M, and gave a timeframe for repair that would keep the road closed — and the community at the end of the road isolated — for at least two summers, possibly indefinitely. Summers are the tourist season, and tourism was the main livelihood of this community, so that response was simply untenable for the community. Business owners and residents got together, rented the heavy equipment needed, and fixed the road themselves in just eight days.

“We shouldn’t have to do this, but when it gets to a state level, it just gets so bureaucratic, something that took us eight days would have taken them years,” said Troy Martin of Martin Steel, who donated machinery and steel for the repairs. “So we got together — the community — and we got it done.”

This is amazing. And it’s exactly the spirit of America that we should celebrate. But there are a few different conclusions we can draw from this. The obvious one is that people should do this more often. But if you play that out over time, you’re paying taxes AND fixing your own roads. Not sustainable. The other conclusion is that we should use the case study of the eight-day road fix to question why it would have taken $4M and several years through government channels, and help government reduce both the time and the cost. That work is MUCH harder, harder even than fixing a road. But it’s worth it. Because government is huge, and if we make it better, we create enormous value at scale.

How huge? And why does this matter? Well, take government services that support vulnerable people: food stamps, job retraining, etc. As a country, we have a few ways to help people in tough situations, and the two biggest are philanthropy and government. But government spends at least 11 times what all of philanthropy spends on these services and societal issues. If you could magically double all philanthropic spending, you would still have less impact that making government spending just 10% more effective. And it can be more than 10% more effective, if we the people devote ourselves to making it so over the long haul.

This is a very long way of responding to a few comments in a google doc from members of the Code for America community. This is an important comment to address, to be sure, given the central role of government in the vision and mission of Code for America, but there are big, philosophical, meaty debates behind a dozen other comments in that document, which brings me back to the process of engaging with the community around a document meant to define the goals of that community. I said up front that the process by which one honors the contributions of a large and not always defined community has not been obvious, or easy. But what it has been (and will continue to be) is enriching, thought-provoking, affirming, and hugely worthwhile. Because you. Because community. Because people who care.

When I started writing this, the intention was to announce we were closing comments and thank everyone for their contributions. I’m not entirely ready for that yet. As recently as last week, we’ve gotten new contributions, ones that make me realize how much better we are as a community for questioning each other and forcing us to clarify what we mean. Here’s one, from Tricia Davies:

Keep in mind the distinction between government policy which is driven by political positions and which fluctuate and help determine funding; and operations, which lag in large bureaucracy. Is the vision to work within policy? change policy? effect impact despite policy?

This is a question worth engaging with, as are others, so I’m going to make this the first in a series of blog posts, the next of which will engage Tricia’s questions and a few other things we talked about at Brigade Congress. This will also give everyone a little more time to dive into the document if you haven’t already. If you’re a member of a Brigade who doesn’t have access to the working document, please ask one of your Brigade leaders. If you’re a Brigade leader who has lost the link, email Christopher Whitaker. We are going to close this process out soon, however!

Thanks to everyone who has contributed, and those who are about to!



Code for America blog features thoughts from our staff and members of our national Network on how we build a resilient government that effectively and equitably serves all Americans

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Jennifer Pahlka

Author of Recoding America: Why Government Is Failing in the Digital Age and How We Can Do Better, out May 23. Pre-order! (thank you)