There’s an App for That Local Government

8.19.13 | Can a nonprofit transform local government and public service by mashing up cities and hackers? And can the model work in Washington?

Code for America, the nonprofit that pairs web developers with local governments across the country, has—to honor Baseball’s All-Star Game—made it to The Show; its leader, Jennifer Pahlka recently joined  the Obama Administration’s government innovation effort as Deputy CTO for Government Innovation in the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House.

The idea that current tech in the form of the now-ubiquitous app can be applied to local governments to make it easier for citizens to interact with their government and get good service isn’t new. Nor is the conviction that this will in turn boost governments’ efficiency, repair public trust, make public service attractive again. But is the logical latest step of the mindset Apple introduced back in 2008 (was it really just five years ago?!) when it rolled out the iPhone 3G: “There’s an app for that.”

I think it’s a great idea, based on my own use of the Chicago Transit Authority’s own Train Tracker app, and my involvement in Participatory Budgeting—another, more “analog” form of bringing citizens and their local governments closer together (see previous BRR posts about this here and here).

We’ve discussed the intersection of 21st century tech with 19th and 20th century governmental forms here, noting Boston’s launch of its Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, and here, noting New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s $9 million initiative for similar project ideas nationwide.

Code for America takes that notion a step further, providing “fellows” to cities that request its services. Web designers, developers, and entrepreneurs enlist for a year of public service to help cities launch apps for anything from civic infrastructure like pothole repairs, to criminal justice, to citizen engagement. Partner cities for 2013 include both Kansas Cities—Kansas and Missouri—Las Vegas, Louisville, Kentucky, South Bend, Indiana, Summit County, Ohio, and San Francisco, Oakland, and San Mateo, California. (Cities interested in the 2015 program can apply here.)

But, as Next City noted recently, it isn’t that simple (there’s a pay firewall for the entire story). “In brief, the situation is this,” Nancy Scola writes:

Across the board, government in the United States isn’t set up to acquire or make [money] off the neat tech tools taking the rest of the world by storm. How’s that? In government-land, technology is something that generally comes pre-packaged and off the shelf, or made by a known, often quite large, IT vendor. The price is usually high, but with that comes the comfort of knowing that you’re buying a product that, in theory at least, captures a known solution to a known problem. More than that, it tends to come with a robust support contract. If something breaks, you call a number and someone smart comes and fixes it.

Compare that to the way that even the Web’s biggest companies and most powerful tools got their start. In many cases, curious geeks whip something up on the cheap and quickly push it out to see if other people like it. Someone may or may not be around to answer the call should something not work right. That’s not so much a failing as it a manifestation of an ethos. Go ahead and fix it yourself, goes the gleeful call of the DIY software world. Says the government, Come again?

“Procurement eats innovation for lunch,” bemoans [“The Lean Startup” author Eric] Ries, also a Code for America board member, in The Lean Startup.

Code for America’s program isn’t without criticism, which Scola finds from Philip Kovacs, an assistant professor of education at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, who warns the very approach Code for America touts could do more harm than good:

“It’s almost a kind of techno-colonialism,” Kovacs says. “‘We’re going to help the natives, and we’re going to take some spice back with us, because, hey, we’re doing good work here.’” Or think of it another way. You’ve heard of corporate welfare, the idea that government is assuming making of the risks of entrepreneurialism while private interests stand to gain much of the benefit. Call it “coder welfare,” perhaps. Kovacs offers a solution. If an app finds an afterlife in the form of a start-up or commercial product, maybe the fellows should kick 5 percent back to the city that served as their laboratory. That, he says, offering a twist on Code for America’s motto, would really be “a new kind of public service.”

My sense is that Code for America is still adjusting idealism to reality, still finding its “sea legs.” Any new technology has its adaptation adjustment. Remember, Professor, people scoffed at the telephone, radio, television, and the internet. And Jeff Greenfield, when he was editor-in-chief of The Daily Cardinal, my journalism alma mater, wrote that The Beatles were a passing fad that wouldn’t last six months.

 

Photo/ Ryan Resella

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