Takeaways from the Code for America Summit
This post is written by Rachel Dodell and Chris Kuang, who are co-founders of Coding it Forward, a nonprofit empowering young people to pursue social impact and public interest technology. Chris is a rising senior at Harvard, and Rachel is a 2018 graduate of Wellesley currently working as Coding it Forward’s executive director. This summer they have organized digital internships for 55 students to work in six federal agencies.
After an exhausting (but very exciting) two-week stretch, we’ve finally had an opportunity to reflect. Since May 29, our Coding It Forward team has presented at Code for America Summit in Oakland, Calif., while reconnecting with friends new and old in the civic tech space, and launched our third cohort of Civic Digital Fellows in Washington.
Code for America started 10 years ago to inaugurate the civic tech movement, though it has been focused mostly on local rather than federal government. Hosted annually, the summit brings together civic tech people from across the U.S. and internationally for three days of workshops, presentations and panel conversations to share best practices and lessons learned from civic tech activism. Breakout session topics this year included user-centered digital services, the 2020 census, ethics in technology, and -- very relevant to our work at Coding it Forward -- the civic tech talent pipeline.
The 2019 Code for America Summit was our team’s second time in attendance. Last year, our co-founders Athena Kan and Chris Kuang spoke on the main stage to close out the conference with a talk about “The Next Generation” and why there’s simply too much at stake for young people like us to stay on the sidelines of government. In working with us on crafting that talk, Code for America founder and Executive Director Jen Pahlka spent hours helping to hone our vision for the next generation of digital leaders and its potential to create change in the public sector. Her asking us to close out the mainstage program demonstrated an organizational commitment to building a sustainable future for the civic tech movement -- a commitment that carried over to this year’s conference.
This year, Coding it Forward co-founder and Executive Director Rachel Dodell spoke on a panel titled “Growing the Pipeline for Tech in Government.” Other panelists included Afua Bruce, director of engineering for Public Interest Technology at New America; Betsy Cooper, director of the Aspen Institute’s Tech Policy Hub; and Travis Moore, founder and director of TechCongress.
The session highlighted many of the newer opportunities in the civic tech space, introducing programs that have built important onramps into an industry that has been traditionally been quite insular. However, the panelists concluded that questions still persist around whether fellowship models like those used by TechCongress, Aspen Institute and Coding it Forward are a sustainable solution to the long-term talent pipeline issues that civic tech faces as a result of limited terms and high turnover rates.
From our perspective, short fellowship programs like the ones featured on the panel (the longest, TechCongress, lasts one year) are important in widening the funnel of interested people -- but there is still a need for more permanent positions at the intersection of technology and government at all levels. This remains an area where policymakers can provide more systemic solutions.
After attending other keynotes and breakout sessions, several key points stuck out:
While the Code for America Summit is primarily a gathering for technologists in the still-niche civic tech space, it was refreshing to see the number of digital service units, both inside and outside government, that brought along non-technical government partners and stakeholders. For example, in a breakout fittingly titled “A Seat at the Table: Connecting Policy and Technology for Better Health Outcomes,” panelists from the civic tech organization Nava included their partner in the discussion, a regional chief medical officer from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Many non-technologist government employees were in attendance, ranging from the state of Connecticut to the former Secretary of California Health and Human Services. Including government partners in the conversation -- not only at conferences, but especially in the day-to-day work of serving citizens -- is crucial to ensuring outcomes that work for all.
It was encouraging to see a focus on talent at summit, from an informal “hiring fair” on the first night to workshops and breakout sessions that focused on various stages of the civic tech talent pipeline. While the Code for America team was generous in providing comped tickets and travel assistance to many students, we still feel that these efforts could be amplified -- both in the number of young attendees and the programming that is offered. Our team felt that while talent and engagement were often discussed at the conference, the conversations lacked the focus on and perspectives of entry-level talent. Civic tech has traditionally been more for experienced technologists, and a shift in focus would allow for a wider funnel of talent to power the next chapter in civic tech’s growth.
There continues to be incredible potential in the field of civic tech, evidenced by the sheer number of people in attendance who all share a passion for building a 21st century government for all. This community is remarkable in that it is inclusive and collaborative. We witnessed many reunions of old colleagues and friends, but also several exchanges between newcomers who were eager to learn from industry “veterans.” The Code for America Summit continues to provide a space in which we can collaboratively celebrate and critique this community -- together.
Though it’s a long, three-day conference that requires significant travel for many of those attending, this summit always sends attendees home full of energy and optimism. That energy is what allowed our team to pivot right back to Washington, D.C., to launch our third cohort of Civic Digital Fellows. This year's group boasts 55 leading student technologists from 34 colleges and universities working this summer to innovate across six federal agencies, including the Census Bureau, General Services Administration and the National Institutes of Health.
As our new cohort settles into their first steps as civic technologists, we recognize that, as relative newcomers, we wouldn’t have been able to create the Civic Digital Fellowship without Code for America’s and Jen Pahlka’s dedication over the last 10 years. Just before the summit started, Pahlka announced in a blog post that she would be starting a search for her replacement as executive director to help Code for America move “50 times faster” and grow “100 times bigger.”
She’s helped us hone our fellowship model and our pitch to mission-driven young Americans interested in serving with their tech skills, but more broadly, she’s led an organization whose civic tech accomplishments have included a technology that has cleared convictions for thousands of Californians (Clear My Record), streamlined the application for key social services and augmented local capacity through the Code for America brigade network.
Code for America has helped build the civic tech movement from the ground up, and we’re truly grateful for the vital role that it plays in supporting the work of public, private and nonprofit partners in civic tech.
Our team already cannot wait until Summit 2020 (which is finally on the East Coast!), where we hope to be able to share the stories and work of our Civic Digital Fellows alongside our federal agency partners.
This column was first published in Steve Kelman's "The Lectern" blog on FCW, a sibling site to GCN.