For the last two weeks – and for much of January – I’m in San Francisco helping out with Code for America. What’s Code for America? Think Teach for America, but rather than deploying people into classrooms to help provide positive experiences for students and teachers while attempting to shift the culture of school districts, Code for America has fellows work with cities to help develop reusable code to save cities money, make local government as accessible as your favorite website, and help shift the government’s culture around technology.
The whole affair is powered by a group of 20 amazing fellows and an equally awesome staff that has been working for months to make it all come together. My role – in comparison – is relatively minor, I head up the Code for America Institute – a month long educational program the fellows go through when they first arrive. I wanted to write about what I’ve been trying to do both because of the openness ideals of Code for America and to share any lessons for others who might attempt a similar effort.
First, to understand what I’m doing, you have to understand the goal. On the surface, to an outsider, the Code for America change process might look something like this:
- Get together some crazy talented computer programers (hackers, if you want to make the government folks nervous)
- Unleash them on a partner city with a specific need
- Take resulting output and share across cities
Which of course, would mistakenly frame the problem as technical. However, Code for America is not about technology. It’s about culture change. The goal is about rethinking and reimagining government as better, faster, cheaper and adaptive. It’s about helping think of the ways its culture can embrace government as a platform, as open and as highly responsive.
I’m helping (I think) because I’ve enjoyed some success in getting government’s to think differently. I’m not a computer developer and at their core, these successes were never technology problems. The challenge is understanding how the system works, identify the leverage points for making change, develop partners and collaborate to engage those leverage points, and do whatever it takes to ensure it all comes together.
So this is the message and the concept the speakers are trying to impart on the fellows. Or, in other words, my job is to help unleash the already vibrant change agents within the 20 awesome fellows and make them effective in the government context.
So what have we done so far?
We’ve focused on three areas:
1) Understand Government: Some of the fellows are new to government, so we’ve had presentations from local government experts like Jay Nath, Ed Reiskin and Peter Koht as well as the Mayor of Tuscon’s chief of staff (to give a political perspective). And of course, Tim O’Reilly has spoken about how he thinks government must evolve in the 21st century. The goal: understand the system as well as, understand and respect the actors within that system.
2) Initiate & Influence: Whether it is launching you own business (Eric Ries on startups), starting a project (Luke Closs on Vantrash) or understanding what happens when two cultures come together (Caterina Fake on Yahoo buying Flickr) or myself on negotiating, influence and collaboration, our main challenges will not be technical, they will be systems based and social. If we are to build projects and systems that are successful and sustainable we need to ask the right questions and engage with these systems respectfully as we try to shift them.
3) Plan & Focus: Finally, we’ve had experts in planning and organizing. People like Allen Gunn (Gunner) and the folks from Cooper Design, who’ve helped the fellows think about what they want, where they are going, and what they want to achieve. Know thyself, be prepared, have a plan.
The last two weeks will continue to pick up these themes but also give the fellows more time to (a) prepare for the work they will be doing with their partner cities; and (b) give them more opportunities to learn from one another. We’re half way through the institute at this point and I’m hoping the experience has been a rich – if sometimes overwhelming – one. Hopefully I’ll have an update again at the end of the month.