“People don’t realize what a huge financial crisis cities are in, and that they need to come up with new ways to get by in the next decade,” says Pahlka. Beyond the immediate effects this can have on the lives of residents, dissatisfaction with city governance can sour them on the entire civic process. “It ties back to citizens’ expectations and interactions with government,” she says. “On a day to day level, citizens are interacting with their cities.”
Serving citizens and improving civic engagement are core goals for Code for America. “Early on, we settled on three major things we were trying to do: openness and transparency, engagement, and efficiency,” she says. “There are a lot of efficiencies to be gained in the government, but we’re most interested in opportunities where we are opening it up to the citizens and doing all three.” Perhaps most crucially, the organization requires that all web applications their Fellows develop for pilot cities can be deployed by other cash-strapped municipalities.
Code for America chooses a limited number of cities from a set of applicants each year to target its efforts. Once chosen, the non-profit dispatches teams of Code for America Fellows—volunteer software engineers, designers, community organizers and more who pledge a year to the program—to work with city managers and citizens to identify web-based solutions to the cities’ needs.
“We’re looking for cities where there’s enough political will and broad support for trying different things,” Pahlka says. “It’s not hard to find a city where there’s one or two people interested in a new approach, but it’s harder to find cities where that appetite for change is more broad-based.”