Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Cities Calling

There's a new social innovation initiative that just launched called Code for America. It's a big deal; it was founded to help American cities innovate around paralyzing budget cuts, old technology and rising taxes.

Starting this month, Code for America is recruiting the brightest minds of the Web 2.0 generation to transform city governments -- to re-wire them for transparency, citizen participation and action. "Our cities are in major crisis," says Founder Jen Pahlka, yet this is a time of major opportunity for social innovation in cities across the country. Some 60 percent of municipal employees, she says, are set to retire over the next five years. "What if, instead of cutting services or raising taxes, cities could leverage the power of the Web to become more efficient, transparent, and participatory?"

Pahlka says her project aims to do for city governments what Teach for America has been doing for America's public schools -- creating a body of knowledge and context for how institutions need to rebuild themselves for the Digital Age. The initiative also represents a big step for the accountability-in-government movement; freeing up more of the information stored in city databases for public use "will catalyze new forms of problem-solving and service," Pahlka says, "and there is a huge community of talented technologists and designers who want to help."

Pahlka and her team have chosen five cities for Code for America projects -- Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Boston, Boulder, and Seattle. Pahlka is now recruiting people to work on those projects. Five fellows will be chosen per city; each five-person team will attend a short training program in the San Francisco Bay area and then travel to their various host cities to learn about each cities' unique challenges. The fellows then will return to the Bay area to build solutions; top social innovators in government and technology will be brought in to support the fellows in their work "and help them create this new ecosystem of open cities across America," Pahlka says. "We're looking at each of these cities as a new tech start-up." The year-long program will provide each fellow with a $35,000 stipend and cover all travel costs.

Interested? The application deadline is August 15.

(Illustration by Giovanni Merino for istock.com)

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Blogger Unknown said...

Bravo! Our cities have been beaten up for a long time, partly because "infrastructure" is seen as unsexy. Code for America sounds like a perfect way to get smart people focused on making our cities better.

June 15, 2010 at 2:58 PM  
Blogger Marcia Stepanek said...

Thanks, Zohar; Pahlka and others in the open government movement are passionate in their belief that opening up government will put much valuable data in the hands of the citizenry, and -- perhaps most significantly -- restore public ownership/oversight of municipal functions. It's all about finding innovation on the edges and harvesting it from the bottom up. It will be fascinating to see what new ideas and platforms these teams will devise to help governments keep pace with the rush of technology.

June 15, 2010 at 5:22 PM  
Anonymous Paul Day said...

It's a great idea, but the reason governments are failing to adopt social media isn't money or a lack of talent (they could find and attract talent). It's really the top-down approach that local governments take to everything and the lack of risk-taking and ingenuity on behalf of public sector workers. If you're going to install someone in from the outside, they are going to become really discouraged because there is not a culture to cultivate social media use. If they go into it with the mindset, "Let's educate these folks", they're going to be let down.

Big bureaucracies are failing. Whether it be government, nonprofits, or for-profits (many of which have not adopted social media in a successful way). There needs to be a better way to organize and social media can be a driving factor. Nonetheless, this takes changes that go beyond adding technological capability.

A better approach is to empower people who are already working in government and want to see change. The tools don't require a lot of talent to use. It really requires a change in mindset. Ordinary people are using blogs is extraordinary ways. We just need to empower public administrators to do so as well.

Visit my blog to learn more about my POV.

June 16, 2010 at 9:10 PM  
Blogger Marcia Stepanek said...

Thanks, Paul -- Great point; this is definitely not simply about the technology "tools" but the new behaviors and workplace relationships that their use requires. Thanks for your good input!

June 16, 2010 at 9:36 PM  

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