Code for America: A New Kind of Public Service |

Code for America: A New Kind of Public Service

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Government can be seen as an answer to the often messy question of collective action. There are some things people need together, but since that’s not easy to coordinate, we set up institutions to do so. Over time, the government’s focus and expectations developed -- understandably -- to a place where it was seen less as a coordinator and more as a service provider. This is what some call the vending machine model of government. My tax dollars in, a safe and well-kept community out.

But, as we’re all seeing now, that machine is profoundly broken. Buckling under the weight of the budget crisis and burdened with ever-increasing demands from its citizens, governments are unable to provide those services we’ve come to expect. The federal debt is in the trillions, many cities and states are nearing bankruptcy, and some already have. And so this analogy needs to change. Government can’t be a vending machine any longer; it must be a building block, something we use together to create the communities we hope to live in.

While this all may sound airy and abstract, in a real way, this already happening, just not as much in governance. Open source projects have captured this spirit: you build together, developing solutions for yourself and for the common good. Think of GitHub as an example. As an institution, it’s merely a platform for collaboration and development. It provides the tools, ranging from version control to hosting, that allow people to come together to build. And when they do, each is rewarded with not only the satisfaction of contribution, but also its public recognition. You help yourself while you help your peers, and along the way, you create value for the entire community by providing a useful service.

This is the model we at Code for America hope to enshrine in government, open sourcing not just its software, but its mechanics. We want to redefine the role of the citizens for a 21st century democracy, where they are working hand-in-hand with government to make it better. To do so, we must breakdown the barriers to entry and create new and easy ways to get involved. And that’s exactly what we’re trying to do with the CfA Fellowship program. We are developing a new kind of public service.

Inspired in part by Teach for America, the Code for America fellowship recruits the brightest minds of the web industry into public service to use their skills to solve core problems facing our communities. Through our one-year fellowship program, talented web developers, designers, and entrepreneurs leverage the power of the Internet to make governments more open and efficient. Right now, interest in both technology and civic issues is peaking, and a generation of young people are eagerly looking for ways to give back. We are building our fellowship program to give these emerging leaders a path into government and public service.

Our current focus is on cities, and partnering cities apply through a competitive process by describing a problem space for our fellows to tackle. Throughout the year, the cities and our fellows work together, along with a team of industry leaders and thinkers, researching, brainstorming, and even co-developing the solution. But the projects are only part of our goal; we’re also developing leaders. We couple the project development with professional development, networking, and mentoring, so the fellows are not only civic-minded but also successful after the fellowship.

For our inaugural 2011 program, we’re working with Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Washington. To take on these projects, we chose 20 fellows out of our impressive applicant pool of more than 360 to come on board in in January. But those fellows are only a small fraction of the team we’ll need to succeed in the year and more broadly.

How can you help?

Join CfA Labs Volunteer Corp: To help on our 2011 projects and a host of other issues we’re seeing in cities, we're recruiting coders and designers who want to volunteer, but don't have a year to give. There is a lot of work to do, and we can use any support you've able to give. Join the discussion group.

Get Your City to Code for America: We just opened up the application process for our 2012 City Program, and we are actively seeking local governments who want to engage with our fellowship program. City representatives can begin the application process online, and for everyone else, we've also put together some tools to get their attention and make some noise in our Citizen Action Center.

Get involved however you can. Together, we can code the next chapter of America history.

About the author

Abhi Nemani - Abhi Nemani is the Director of Strategy and Communications at Code for America. He has worked closely with technology firms, political organizations, and local governments, leveraging technology to grow their impact, including the Rose Institute, Center for American Progress, and Google. He graduated from Claremont McKenna College, Magna Cum Laude, with an Honors degree in Philosophy,...