When the White House announced which of more than 700 applicants would become Presidential Innovation Fellows last month, it also gave a subtle endorsement to a concept pioneered by a small, but growing nonprofit organization called Code for America.
Founded by Jennifer Pahlka in 2009, Code for America has been helping to bring experts and entrepreneurs from the private sector to work together with public sector leaders and inject a dose of innovative ideas into government services.
“Code for America pioneered the approach of building a community of citizen entrepreneurs who could harness the transformative power of technology to address challenges faced by local governments,” said Chris Vein, deputy chief technology officer for government innovation at the White House.
“So when we were thinking about how to solve similar problems on the federal level, we immediately thought of the Code for America model as a source of inspiration. The result was the Presidential Innovation Fellows program.”
Code for America got its start helping city governments develop applications by attracting young entrepreneurs, or fellows, through a program often likened to the Peace Corps for geeks.
Their solutions are readily available for other cities to share, through a community “Commons,” which “is like a Wiki with about 600 or 700 apps,” said Kevin Curry, a Code for America board member.
“It’s not all CFA code. It has everything in there from open source to commercial software-as-a-service. We want to see open data platforms spread, but we want to make sure the data is useful and actionable.”
To achieve this, a group of CFA volunteers outside the fellowship program, known as “The Brigade,” who Curry manages, are working “to ensure the data is useful,” he said.
For now, CFA focuses on solving the problems of cities, although it may expand to counties in 2013 and perhaps to the federal government at some future date. CFA assigns fellows to work with a limited number of cities lucky enough to be chosen from among the many that apply.
In 2011, 28 cities applied for three slots while nearly 400 developers and web and graphic designers applied for 19 fellowships. For 2012, 28 cities applied for eight slots, and 550 fellowship candidates applied for 26 fellowships. The winning cities: Austin, Chicago, Detroit, Honolulu, Macon, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Santa Cruz.
Honolulu offers a glimpse of how the program works. Honolulu’s citizens found it hard to find the government information they needed.
“Citizens think of government in terms of services, not departments,” said Forest Frizzell, the city’s deputy director for the Department of IT. The answer emerged in the form of a website called Honolulu Answers.
To develop it, CFA fellows worked with city departments and citizens through online and Skype interviews to identify residents’ most common questions. Afterwards, the city held a one-day “Content Write-A-Thon” event where 55 residents, including some city employees, met and spent the day writing answers to the questions. The city is currently editing the answers, checking them for accuracy and populating the Honolulu Answers site with them as they are finished.
“This process, more than the apps, is what’s really cool,” Frizzell said, pointing out what even federal agencies might learn from the experience. “Opening the government up and working with the community – getting their buy-in – has been a game changer.”
Funding game-changing projects, however, requires financial support.
One of CFA’s largest donors is Omidyar Network, founded by e-Bay pioneer Pierre Omidyar and his wife Pam. Two of Omidyar Network’s primary philanthropic interests are government transparency and empowering people through the Internet and mobile technology. CFA fit both
“What’s unique about CFA is … that they’re trying to change the culture within government to be tech-led,” said Stacy Donohue, director of investments. This is why, following an initial small CFA grant, Omidyar Network recently “renewed our support with a multi-year significant grant to really help them grow,” Donohue said.
CFA’s working relations with governments is also beginning to flow the other way.
One project Curry and his brigade are working on, called “We the People,” uses code developed by the White House that lets anyone create a petition. If a petition meets a designated signature threshold, it will be reviewed by the administration and receive a response, the site promises.
As Macon Phillips, director of digital strategy at the White House, tells it: “We recently published the source code for ‘We the People’ so anyone can download it, make changes, improve it or use it themselves.”
After meeting Phillips at a conference, Curry wanted to get the CFA brigade involved in adapting the “We the People” code for cities, making installation on their own computer equipment easier, as well as simplifying branding of their own metro petition sites.
“Making these tools easier to use, more stable and more secure is a baseline benefit for the public,” said Phillips. The effort is also part of a “larger [federal] effort to engage more Americans online.”