Code for America Brings Startup Culture to Local Governments

Ann All

Back in March I wrote about the government's outreach to the private sector for ideas on how to overhaul its outdated IT systems.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.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Aug 12, 2010 8:49 AM social media consultant social media consultant  says:

My recent post on the Best States for Entrepreneurs 2011: http://roymorejon.com/best-states-for-entrepreneurs-2011/ highlights the  best and worst states for business.

Aug 13, 2010 3:28 PM Lisa Welchman Lisa Welchman  says:

Hi Ann,

Thanks for quoting my comment. Just to be clear, I think it's good to have a positive attitude towards these things but one needs to be realistic as well. Years of working with government organizations around Web-based technology tells me that it's going to take a bit more then several rapid development projects to change the culture of government. Just as application development processes need to re-examined, so do the management structures which support them. That's not going to happen accidentally, but will have to be intentionally put into place by leadership. Leaving behind one application rapidly and effectively designed and implemented is not enough "legacy" to transform decades of organizational behavior.

It would be great if we could examine the effective management environments that allow lighter more agile development to take place in the first place and make sure those are installed in government as well.

Aug 13, 2010 7:56 PM Mark Flaherty Mark Flaherty  says:

How I wish my local government would become more progressive. Most important is to solicit feedback from its taxpayer on more decisions, especially those affecting the budget, in Web 2.0 way.

They are doing a little better job using their site to post meeting agendas and notes, but people who work all day can't attend those meetings to make their voice heard.

But as Lisa says the self-serving, non-responsive culture is so ingrained, it will take time. What can we do to shorten that time?

Aug 26, 2010 9:31 AM apps4change apps4change  says:

Code for America's impact across the country...http://bit.ly/9bVnar


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