The American Constitution may have been the first to codify the notion of “nailing it, then scaling it.” At our best, states and the people themselves are supposed to be the “laboratories of democracy,” with the power to innovate and tackle old social problems in new ways. Washington watches the many policy experiments underway in individual states, expanding what works locally to the rest of the nation.
Few recent civic problem solvers have worked as well as San Francisco-based Code for America (CfA). Dubbed a “Peace Corps for geeks” by the Wall Street Journal, CfA helps municipal governments deploy cutting-edge tech tools, approaches and – most importantly – smart people, in order to spend less while serving their citizens better. Sustainable “inside-outside” civic hacking like this may seem far-fetched, until you notice all of the American cities lining up to be hacked and all of the American young people lining up to do the hacking: 20 cities for 8 slots, and 550 applications for 26 fellowships, in 2012 alone.
CfA has only existed since 2009. Their success has been astounding. And much of it is due to the imagination, hard work and dedication of CfA’s Founder and Executive Director Jennifer Pahlka, who has just been named the new U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer (CTO) for Government Innovation by U.S. CTO Todd Park.
We can not imagine a better choice for the challenge. In short, Jen gets it. Open government success isn’t just about great code, talented developers or tons of money. It’s about putting the right tools and the right data in the hands of the right people – inside and outside of government. As she wrote when announcing the move:
“We may have started with a notion that people from the outside could make a difference, and we’ve seen that they do, but what we’ve learned is that the long term, sustainable change comes from harnessing the creativity and expertise of the people who work in government, and giving them tools to change the culture and the system from within.”
Amen. Since launching OpenGov a few short months ago, CfA has been a model for us as a non-partisan non-profit. Every day, we start our work with a gut-check against the OpenGov Mission Pyramid – a crucial management tool Jen and her team developed to keep their mission-driven outfit driving forward. And we’ve nailed to the masthead what Jen so eloquently describes. “Sustainable change comes from harnessing the creative and expertise of the people who work in government” could be the first line of our operational game plan.
At a time when government information technology spending has hit “$79.5 billion federally and $55.4 billion for state and local,” budget-crunched and tech-challenged public servants everywhere can learn a lot from the thrifty, effective and people-first solutions coming out of CfA’s laboratories for democracy. With Ms. Pahlka coming to Washington, the federal government has not only made a move that’s smart by startup standards (hire away the best talent!). It’s looking to be smart by constitutional ones, too. Can open government success follow the logic of the 10th Amendment and bubble up to the benefit of the nation? If gambling were legal, we’d put a big bet on yes.
Congratulations Jen. We’re here to help. And this Bud’s for you!