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A Hall Pass for Bureaucracy – Code for America Philadelphia

5 minute read
by Alex Hillman

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.

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Alex Hillman I am always thinking about the intersection of people, relationships, trust and business. I founded Indy Hall in 2006, making us one of oldest fully independent coworking communities in the world. This site is packed with the lessons and examples I’ve learned along the way. You can find me on Twitter, too! 🐦 Say hi.