A Hall Pass for Bureaucracy –
Code for America Philadelphia

I haven’t really had a chance to talk much about Code for America since the team was in Philly. I won’t go into what the program is or how it works, because frankly I don’t think I can do a better job than their about page. But I really enjoyed having the CFA fellows in town earlier this year.

Every interaction with them was thoughtful, interesting, inspiring, and fun.

While I was excited when I found out that Philadelphia was one of the pilot cities for the new program, I was admittedly dubious. Realistically, how effectively could this group glean enough information and insight in <30 days (28 days, since it was February), then leave Philadelphia and build something that citizens and the city will find mutually useful. It’s a pipedream. A pretty pipedream. The reality of the work product is still to be seen.

After the team had left Philadelphia at the end of February , I had a chance to think about the process we all went through and realized soemthing.

I don’t think the “thing” that the Code for America fellows build, or how it’s used, is the most valuable result of the program. 

A Hall Pass for Bureaucracy

When I first heard about Code for America, what intrigued me the most was the concept of a “bolt-on” group of individuals who ultimately have to abide by the rules of operating within government and the civic ecosystem, but at the same time, are given a bit of a “hall pass” to move through the layers of bureaucracy.

The ability to jump across the silos of the institution, and to interact with genuine interest and intrigue across the entire spectrum of individuals with civic interest, from “Joe six-pack” through Mayor Michael Nutter and his staff.

I could be premature on this, but I think that the “hall pass” seems to be the magic of Code for America.

The vantage point and perspective the experience gives the fellows seemed to be unique, and I appreciated hearing about the experince from them. But it left something else behind that I hadn’t expected.

Hansel and Gretel Left a Trail of Breadcrumbs

Intentional or not, the Code for America fellows left a “breadcrumb trail” through the city to individuals, departments, and institutions that are ripe for being “hacked”. Not in the nasty LULZsec way, but in a really positive, civic way.

Since February, it’s felt easier to navigate through the same layers of bureaucracy and silos of institution, to find somebody who welcomes a citizen with benevolent self-interest. I now have a short list of people and departments that I have a pretty strong degree of confidence that if I approach them, I won’t be met with the usual, “What do you want?”, and instead a genuine interest, “What are you working on? Oh…that’s cool! Anything we can do to help? I bet somebody else around here would think that is interesting”.

This is anecdotal, but something I’ve seen for myself, but I’ve seen others experience as well so it’s not just me.

It’s also not a 100% transformation. There’s still plenty of “What do you want?”, still effective at getting in citizens’ ways. Still effective at getting in their own ways.

To be fair, I think that Philly was already on its way through a transition. There’s an interesting new guard of leadership, even if not all of the leadership is new. But Code for America helped heat-map where it’s happening the most. There are hot-spots, places where people like me, the citizens with a benevolent self-interest and a desire to see Philly totally kicking ass, can concentrate our efforts and see the greatest affect.

I think that the CFA process helped prime the pumps for the continued development of a new style of trusting relationship between city hall and citizens. Something that Indy Hall in particular is really good at, and we’ve been recognized for.

“Civic Fusion”

Jeff Friedman has quickly become one of my favorite people that works in City Hall. A paraphrased quote of his made it into a recent bit of press on AOL’s Travel Blog. Jeff’s title, according to this Flying Kite piece about Code for America’s 2012 reprise in Philadelphia, is Manager of Civic Innovation and Participation for the City of Philadelphia. I’m not exactly sure how Jeff describes this, but based on the projects I’ve seen him work closest with – not notably Code for America and the Open Data Philly initiative, are great examples of what he calls “Civic Fusion”. I’m going to try to break down his term into something that sounds less like a Vitamin Water flavor (hat tip to my #whyilovephilly co-conspirtators for that reference).

Remember how I talked about Code for America as a group of citizens that can easily “bolt on” to the civic infrastructure? Imagine if that became the rule, rather than the exception. Imagine if, when a group of citizens was working on something that would bring some form of benefit to the city, there was a known operating procedure for the city standing along side them and simply say “this is a good thing”.

Maybe a press quote. Maybe a public “thumbs up” from our Mayor or another appropriate government official. A vote of confidence from city hall goes a LONG way.

Even better, a genuine interest from government employees to be involved in these civic activities, not necessarily as a government employee but as a citizen themselves. It’s nice to see people like Philly’s Chief Cultural officer Gary Steuer reminding people that even though he’s a city official, he’s a citizen too. That’s an attitude I can get behind.

While the Flying Kite article seems to paint “Civic Fusion” in a light where the focus is “tools” and “the internet”, I think that this sort of relationship and interaction between citizens is ultimately the foundation for a construct that those “tools” and “the internet” will thrive in.

I’m not entirely sure what the end result should be, what it looks like, or if that was even part of the “plan” for the Code for America model to assist in unearthing.

But it doesn’t matter. I’m really glad its happening in Philadelphia.

  • Anonymous

    I very much agree with your analysis of the situation.

    I do think we are lucky to have a forwarding-thinking, citizen-focussed government in Philadelphia right now, though. Dedicated members of our government have used Code for America as an excuse to engage.

    It has been a mutual thing.

  • http://www.dangerouslyawesome.com alexknowshtml

    Couldn’t agree more. We’re lucky to have had the ingredients for a perfect storm of awesomeness.

  • Pete Fecteau

    Alex, Great article. We knew shortly after arriving in Philly that the scope of our mission was going to expand. Yuriy Porytko echoed the sentiments you’ve written here while we were finishing up our exhausting February. He said, and I’m paraphrasing, “Even if you guys don’t build anything, you’ve succeeded”. I think that as a CfA Fellow, my most surprising realization was that there are plenty of Philly natives, yourself included, that openly shared our sentiments for civic innovation and are willing to get their hands dirty along with us. Tech shifts are easier than lobe shifts. If anything it’s people like you and articles like this that are the real feather in Philly’s hat.

    By “Joe Six-Pack” are you referring to Johnny Bilotta?

  • http://www.dangerouslyawesome.com alexknowshtml

    Thanks Pete. I agree completely with Yuriy’s quote.

    Efforts that align with Philly’s DIY spirit and willingness to get our hands dirty are the ones that will have the greatest success. And no, I wasn’t talking about Johnny ;)

  • Mark

    This post highlights the organizational and architectural challenges facing local government.  For too long local government has operated in functional silos, which has created a self-sustaining bureaucracy that exists to promulgate itself as opposed to delivering services to citizens.

    C4A participation tends to cut across the silos, exposing the redundant and archaic organizational infrastructure for what it is…an impediment to service delivery to the citizens.

    Only a complete re-architecture of local government, from the business and technical standpoint, will solve the greater problem, which is that we have a 20th century organization trying to exist in the 21st.

    Its time for IT in local government to lead the revolution.

  • http://www.dangerouslyawesome.com alexknowshtml

    Revolutions don’t happen inside institutions, they’re too busy protecting their own interests. And the notion of a “complete re-architecture” is akin to trying to convert a hang glider into a 747 while it’s 30,000 feet above the ground.

    My point wasn’t to highlight the challenges, but to highlight the bright spots where “revolution” is happening inside and outside of the walls of city hall. I don’t think it’s IT’s responsibility either, because as I pointed out, IT is only a set of tools. A hammer doesn’t swing itself, and IT alone won’t lead any sort of real change. And there is no silver bullet, and even if there was, I’m 100% certain it’s not a piece of technology operating without the influence of thoughtful, creative human beings.

    Code for America was “effective” in the capacity I described above because it focused on the people, not the tools. I think that’s an important distinction.

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  • Moira Baylson

    Working with the City and civic issues takes patience and perseverance, so thanks to all of you who are helping us get the good work done… Alex, Geoff, Yuriy. Code for America is one of the coolest things I have seen happen to city gov…the whole team was so engaged and supportive – and smart enough to put an artist on the team!

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