Reinventing Public Service: The Code for America Fellowship

By Tim O'Reilly , written on July 11, 2013

From The News Desk

There's a thread that runs through most of the big technology movements I've been involved in: The commercialization of the World Wide Web, open source software, Web 2.0, and open government. They are all explorations of the possibilities that technology brings to expanding human potential through collective intelligence and collective action.

Open government? Collective action and collective intelligence? Really?

In these days of "us and them" rhetoric (when government is so often cast as "them" -- the folks from Washington, or City Hall, who seem to make our lives harder rather than easier) it's easy to forget that government is one of the original mechanisms for collective action. As Abraham Lincoln put it: “The legitimate object of government is to do for the people what needs to be done, but which they cannot, by individual effort, do at all, or do so well, for themselves.”

Put more simply, government is something we do together.

And that's why I'd like to encourage you to consider applying for the Code for America Fellowship, which is now recruiting for its fourth year of operations. Code for America Fellows are technologists -- developers, designers, data scientists, entrepreneurs -- who agree to take a year off from whatever they are doing to work with city governments as part of small startup teams. Our goal is to make this very important thing we do together work better for all of us, reinventing public service for the 21st century using skills and lessons we've learned on the consumer internet.

If we want government to work better, we need to own it. And we need to own it not just at the level of policy and politics, but at the level of bureaucracy and citizen services.

Too many of us regard government as a kind of vending machine into which we put taxes and get out services. Like a vending machine, government seems impersonal and inflexible. When it doesn't work, we are reduced to shaking the machine, hoping it will give us what we want or at least give us our money back.

So many notions of open government unthinkingly accept this vending machine model, and simply offer us new ways to shake the vending machine. "Look, now you can contact us on Facebook! On Twitter! Check out our new petitions site!" The folly of this kind of approach is summarized by the title of Evgeny Morozov's recent book, "To Change Everything, Click Here."

There is another metaphor that I've been using that gives a better way of thinking about the relationship of government and citizens: the notion of government as a platform for shared effort, for taking on tasks that are too hard even for large companies, for engaging citizens in a common vision and then giving them the tools that they need to bring it to fruition.

Anyone who studies the history of the computer industry will see the fingerprints of this kind of platform thinking. As so eloquently retold in George Dyson's book "Turing's Cathedral," the original development of the fundamental computer architecture we rely on today was funded by the military, but then, in an inspired stroke of "open government," put into the public domain so that it could be built out further by private industry. So too with weather modeling, the Global Positioning System, and TCP/IP: all were the result of government acting as platform creator. Even the World Wide Web, we should remember, was created at an institution (the CERN physics laboratory) funded by government, and put into the public domain in a way that would never have occurred had it been developed by a private company.

So, what does this have to do with 21st century public service?

Here's the thing: for platforms to work, they need people to build on them. The World Wide Web took off as a platform when tens of thousands of developers extended it with new features and applications, and when hundreds of millions, then billions of people used it to find new ways to work and play together. The iPhone took off as a platform when tens of thousands of developers built hundreds of thousands of applications for a device that previously made do with a few dozen.

We're at a unique point in time where this kind of platform thinking is taking fresh hold in government. All across the world, there's a recognition that government has to reinvent itself for the 21st century. Governments are routinely mocked for being behind the technology curve. Transactions that take minutes or even seconds on the consumer internet take months or even years when government is involved. The costs of government programs are out of control at the same time that the need for government services are growing, not shrinking, in the face of a troubled economy. Something has to change.

And a big part of the change that's envisioned is a new kind of partnership between government, the market, and the citizenry. Government opens up its data, and outside developers create new kinds of applications and services using that data. Government creates new ways for small, agile tech teams to try creative solutions to previously intractable problems, using the dynamism and creativity of market forces rather than centralized planning to explore what is possible.

Okay. So what happens if government opens up this platform and nobody comes?

To combat this problem, the Code for America Fellowship has taken a page from private industry and developed what is, in effect, a developer relations program.  We recruit developers, just like Apple does, or Google, or Microsoft, or Amazon, and use them to try to show what's possible, igniting enthusiasm, creativity, and, quite frankly, harnessing the profit impulse. The goal of each team is not just to build apps (though that is part of their work) but also to work with city staff to introduce them to lean startup methodologies and to transform the city's approach to harnessing technology.

And, much as has happened with other developer relations programs, once the movement gathers steam, entrepreneurs are attracted to the new platform. Code for America now offers an accelerator program for other civic startups. We're finding huge opportunities in what Ron Bouganim, who runs the Accelerator as a volunteer, calls the "govtech" space.

The Fellowship is competitive: there are hundreds of applicants for only about 30 spots. Past Fellows have taken a year off from companies like Google, Apple, Microsoft, or successful startups. Perhaps more interesting than where Fellows have come from is what happens after their year of service: many of them continue their projects, either forming a startup to build a business around them, or supporting them as open source software.  A volunteer "brigade" of weekend activists re-implements them in other cities.

We're recruiting now for the 2014 Code for America Fellowship year. Applications close July 31. If you have an itch to work on stuff that matters, apply now.