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Code for America’s time is now

Civic technologist Michelle Lee on the rising importance of local politics.

Michelle Lee (left) and Serena Wales of Textizen. (Photo by Flickr user John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, used under a Creative Commons license)
This speech was originally delivered Oct. 14 as the keynote address of the Code for America Brigade Congress, which took place in Philadelphia.

Good morning, Brigade! Welcome to Philadelphia! Where it all began, almost 250 years ago, with the First Continental Congress back in 1774.

You know, I was running behind the other morning because I got stuck in traffic between a bus, an SUV, a National Park Ranger truck and a horse-drawn carriage. There I was with my bike on a lumpy cobblestone street, trapped behind this beautiful cacophony of vehicles. I couldn’t get mad, though — being stuck right where where our democracy was founded never gets old.

Just a couple blocks away from that hot mess is a beautiful hand-carved wooden counter inside an old brick building: America’s first post office. It’s still operating today. It’s right at 4th and Market, about a mile east of here. Go check it out, mail a letter. They’ll stamp it by hand. It’s very charming.

The fact that Congress and the Postal Service are both still operating is good news; it means this city has a pretty good track record of launching systems and revolutions that go the distance, and stand the test of time. And I believe history will repeat itself with Code for America, which launched one of its first-ever fellowships here in Philadelphia, in 2011.

I had the great fortune to be part of the second class of fellows in Philadelphia, organizing a hackathon that would become, through the work of many other people, the Code for Philly brigade. Our main project that year was Textizen, automating the sending and analysis of text messages so governments could hear from thousands of people and make better sense of their input and replies.

The project became a company, the company became a real, revenue-generating business, the business became an acquisition, and we joined GovDelivery, a company that powers email engagement for 90 percent of federal agencies. For five years I was a “V” — a vendor.

During my time as a fellow, a volunteer, a vendor, I learned two things.

1. Government is getting smarter about technology — and that’s a good thing.

Earlier this month Oracle lashed out in a last-ditch effort to save their bread-and-butter of nine-figure contracts. They lashed out in a last-ditch effort because they’re losing.

Jen Pahlka was pounding the drum about procurement, way before it was cool. Procurement might be about modernizing the contract process, sure — I had to sign a Y2K clause. But procurement reform is really about being smart buyers and decision-makers, being able to tell the difference between technology proposals that talk the talk, or can walk the walk. And now, more and more — whether it’s because they cross over from the private sector, because they’re lifelong public servants but still digital natives, whatever the reason — people in charge of procurement are much savvier about large-scale modern software. Some of my favorite customers to work with were the ones who understood the huge potential, and pushed us, the vendors, to be better.

Unfortunately this capacity is still uneven, and so I have another job for you, Brigades. We already ask you to do a lot, but I’m going ask you to consider doing one thing more: training your local public servants to effectively evaluate technology proposals. In Charlotte, Brigades are helping assess responses to technology RFPs.

2. Second thing I learned as a vendor working closely with government, is that government is a lot more like business than you think.

When we think of government, we think about elections. We think about a mayor or governor or president. You set a vision and rally a team. Your name shows up on things. You get invited to give talks.

Same thing happens when you’re a founder, inventor, CEO, of a company, too. Or — hey — it happens to executive directors or Brigade Captains, too. Figureheads are cool. Everyone wants to talk to you.

But you give the talk. You go back to work that afternoon, or the next day. And that work is actually spreadsheets. It’s RFPs. It’s answering 300 voicemails from concerned citizens. It’s making tough budget tradeoffs. It’s scrutinizing public health data to find where people are being poisoned and how to stop it. It’s reading and re-reading regulations to find a clear, moral and effective path forward.

What I’m getting at is this: Behind the scenes matters. A lot.

Let’s look at this picture:

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Who is in the room? There’s a famous guy. And there’s a famous woman too. But everyone else — their names aren’t known. But like the musical Hamilton reminds us, they’re in the room where it happens.

So if government is what happens after the press conference, if government isn’t the same as tweeting, then who’s making government work? Is it that guy in the corner? Or is it the team around him? And if there are 12 not-famous people, and one famous person… who *really* makes our government work?

I want to take a minute to talk about some of the least sexy but most important job titles in government.

  • Controller: Audit city budget, chase corruption and identify solutions that can save taxpayers millions of dollars. They audit every single dollar a city spends — in Philadelphia, it’s $4.4 billion per year. Math and spreadsheet nerds, that is your jam.
  • Senior Advisor: Catch-all term. Senior advisors have run re-election campaigns. They’ve sent billions of emails enrolling people for healthcare. Or everything in between. They rarely have their name on anything.
  • City Election Commissioner: Oversees how easy it is to register to vote, and to cast votes. And therefore the demographics of voters. And election outcomes.

Government is what happens after the press conference is over.

My challenge to you: Look behind the electeds.

Their job title might be totally unsexy. Before you make a Github commit, get to know their challenges and responsibilities inside and out. Don’t stop at inviting them to your events — go to theirs. They’re the last ones in the office at the end of the day, still working when the lights go out.

In Philadelphia, our partners Clint Randall and Mark Wheeler from the city planning commission made it easy for us. They knew government had an appetite for more structured engagement data. They knew people were too busy to attend meetings in person, and mobile was the answer. So with Textizen, we could connect the dots between their knowledge of how government worked and our knowledge of what was available to use with modern technology. Same at GovDelivery — the longer the relationship with a government customer, the more collaborative it was.

So look behind the curtains. Find the fulcrums of power. Ask good questions, and listen hard.

Local is rising.

This is an incredible time for Brigades. Whatever your political views, we are in a time of decentralization of government. Responsibilities, programs and budgets that were federal are now shifting to cities and regions.

And that means local governments have the opportunity and necessity of innovating where federal government leaves off. And cities are crushing it.

Sanctuary cities, Black Lives Matter, paid sick leave, renewable energy are all sweeping campaigns moving at the local level and having huge impact nationally. If you don’t believe it — just look at what happened with same sex marriage, or hey, open data and digital transformation. Maybe it was years between milestones. But suddenly the tide turns, the whole country sees that local examples work, and they’re now codified at the national level.

What we do today, with our neighbors and communities, with our Brigades, matters more than ever. We can create local change today. We can gather with Brigades from across the country to share what we’ve learned — including the lessons we’ve learned the hard way about scalable technology, sustainable volunteering, or revenue models. And together, we can use that momentum to light fires across the whole country.

So good morning, Brigades. Let’s go kick some ass.

Companies: Code for America

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