Back in March I wrote about the government's outreach to the private sector for ideas on how to overhaul its outdated IT systems. A month before that, I shared Vivek Wadhwa's suggestion that government agencies should bring in tech startups and let them rebuild government systems instead of working with their usual partners like IBM and HP.
Though it won't match agencies with startups, a feel-good fellowship program by a nonprofit called Code for America is recruiting geeks with an altruistic bent to work with five municipal governments that want to use the Internet to improve the services they provide to constituents. Jennifer Pahlka, Code for America's founder and executive director, told The New York Times the group wants to "replicate a start-up environment for the fellows and government."
A blog post on the Code for America website briefly details the aims of the first five cities chosen to participate in the fellowship program: Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle, the District of Columbia and Boulder, Colo. All five cities demonstrated "a deep understanding of the power the web as a platform can bring to cities," according to the post. The District of Columbia's plan is to create CivicCommons, an open source repository of programs, policy information and case studies where city governments will also be able to install Code for America applications.
Several technology giants, including Google, Yahoo, Facebook and Twitter, are kicking in financial and other resources. Fellows selected for the program will receive a $35,000 stipend and health care benefits and will be based in California's Silicon Valley, though they'll spend a month in their assigned cities to develop their projects and gather requirements.
Most of the reader comments on the Times' coverage were positive, although a few expressed concern that government's bureaucratic culture might stifle the effort. Wrote a reader named Lisa Welchman:
While this is an important call for a technology revolution in local government, it's crucial to remember that it also requires a management revolution. Initiatives like Code for America are on target, but if government agencies and departments refuse to change the way they manage their human and fiscal resources, we'll just end up with more, big wasteful IT projects that squander tax payer dollars. ...
Code for America seems convinced a more flexible culture will ultimately win out. From its website:
When fellows complete the program, they will leave behind not only a web application that will help all cities run more efficiently, also a legacy of innovation and openness within City Hall.