During President Obama’s State of the Union Address , he said that the most important office in a democracy is the “Office of the Citizen.”
In the four years I’ve spent as part of the Code for America Brigade — first as a volunteer and then as the program’s manager — nothing rings more true for me than the idea that not only does citizenship involve things like voting — but also actions like helping leverage your own skills to help improve your community.
Every Brigade is different because every city is different — but there’s been a few universal truths to come out of this community.
The first is that nation-wide events like National Day of Civic Hacking are great places to learn and talk about challenges that rest at the center of civics and technology. The fact that these events are learning events is important for the following reasons.
Technology is hard
First, technology is hard. It’s got its own jargon and barriers to entry that make it an intimidating field for the uninitiated. Sure, everyone can learn to code — if you’re given the time and resources. Like any skill, it takes practice. And to the people who are learning: you’re going to make a lot of mistakes when first starting out and that it’s perfectly ok.
Governing is harder.
Government has its own lingo, jargon and can be incredibly complex which can also make it an intimidating field. However, government has some extra layers of difficulty. For one, mistakes are a much bigger deal when your work deals with everyone and there is a very real intolerance of failure. We’re also at a time in our nation were government employees must do more with increasingly diminishing resources using antiquated systems.
Now, take those fields and merge them. Civic technology. You have something that’s extremely difficult to pull off well and in a sustainable way. It’s even more difficult when you don’t have the backing of a large foundation to provide an influx of resources and you’re trying to jumpstart a civic innovation ecosystem in your city. To do a civic tech project well, you need a team that’s comprised of many different skillsets — and that’s a whole job in it of itself. This work isn’t easy.
That said, the good news is that government and technology are the two biggest levers for improving people’s lives at scale. While difficult, when it’s done right the results can make a huge impact in the lives of residents.
We’ve seen tremendous results when people gather together to collaborate and use their skills to help tackle these challenges. In Boston, Code for Boston, MAPC, and various non-profit funders partnered to build an app that helps youth find summer jobs .
In Charlotte, the volunteer group received a grant to help maintain CityGram — a notifications platform for subscribing to your city, whether it’s foreclosures in your area or building permits along your commute.
Not everything that comes out of a hackathon or hack night knocks it out of the ballpark. These hack nights are places to learn and that means a lot of tinkering. Even when projects fail spectacularly, those projects are still useful because people are learning.
And all that learning pays off. There is a whole crop of people who go from Code for America volunteers to full time government employees. They are the ones helping topower innovation at city halls , state governments , and federal agencies across the country.
If it’s one thing that’s universal across all the cities with a civic tech meetup it’s that people who spend enough time learning and building become civic tech leaders. Leaders that make great candidates for governments looking to innovate from the inside — not only as full time hires but as advisors to governments as well.
Updated to ask people to get involved in Brigade since NDoCH is over.