ReVisioning: Historical Context
Historical Background & Context
2012 - 2015
The connection and relationship between the Network at Code for America and our “traditional” HQ program and product activities has long been a tough nut to crack. The question -- “how do volunteers / local chapters connect to HQ and to our mission more broadly” -- arose almost as soon as brigades themselves cropped up starting in 2012.
The first class of Brigades emerged in 2012 and were created in coordination with Code for America staff, who encouraged each Brigade to adopt a strategic plan and to begin pushing locally on then-CfA priorities like Open Data and redeploying fellowship projects like Adopt-A. After limited success with that model, coupled with increasing interest from new cities, Brigades evolved into a more decentralized model, without limits on the number of groups in each “class.” This is where we saw Brigades develop their own (locally inspired) take on CfA’s foundational principles that guided its early fellowship program: giving back to your community through technology. With this transition, Code for America took a “let a thousand flowers bloom” approach to the Brigades , creating the space and brand for Brigades to grow -- while not actively guiding or supporting programming, strategy, or providing substantial resources for these chapters. (Note: this is not uncommon in decentralized organizing models). Strategic questions about how Brigades (and volunteers generally) relate to HQ, advance the mission, or expectations on either side were largely unanswered as the Brigade Network grew.
2015 - 2018
As Code for America matured and pivoted away from a TFA-stye fellowship model, the connection and relationship between HQ and volunteers became yet more murky. Brigades were no longer local, volunteer-led versions of the CfA fellowship. As Code for America brought its programs in-house and developed full-scale, cross-functional teams to support them -- the role of volunteers in CfA’s “core work” and day-to-day activities wasn’t apparent. This reality became entrenched in CfA’s organizational operations -- from our OKR setting to hiring processes to financial structures and budgeting to marketing practices. Our in-house programs and products became the core of who we are and what we do at CfA, while the Network was something that grew organically and -- for the most part -- separately. These functional and operational divisions between our “HQ work” and Network exist to this day.
In late 2015, Code for America pulled direct funding for Brigades. Coupled with their feeling of lack of connection and support stemming from the above dynamic, many Brigades became increasingly frustrated with and skeptical of Code for America. The National Advisory Council (NAC) was established to help set the direction of the Network and address growing tension between the Network and HQ.
At the same time, CfA recognized the potential and value embedded within the Network. It seemed ill-advised to “let go” of Brigades -- representing thousands of volunteers, motivated by the ethos of CfA. We attempted to work backwards, building narratives in various ways how Brigades fit into the new organization CfA had become. Over the last few years, we’ve characterized Brigades as the “talent pipeline” for getting tech talent into government, as the “build a movement” arm of our three pillars, and as the geographical foundation to “scale” CfA products. None of these characterizations, however, fully capture what the Brigades do or fully explain how they connect back to our mission of government for the people, by the people in the digital age.
2019 - 2020
It’s in this context that CfA hired a new Senior Program Director for the Network going into 2019. In this time, we’ve worked closely with Network leaders to listen to feedback, analyze our opportunities, and focus on a few fundamental areas:
1) naming and tackling the above questions, internally and externally
2) shifting from a decentralized network to a distributed one, including developing and executing on shared priorities (PAAs) and mobilizing together as a Network (NDoCH, COVID-19 response, cross-brigade projects and project index)
3) experimenting with how people power can advance our program and organizational goals (GYR, NDoCH); changing perception and culture internally about what our Network is capable of
4) creating new, more accessible ways for volunteers to participate in addition to joining a Brigade (research teams, GYR integration pilot, national projects, new member entry through Slack and appetite for non-brigade based projects)
5) developing new ways to track and measure people power and the value of our Network
6) Removed the Brigade members only requirement for fellowships; Positioned them as the key driver of equity and justice for us organizationally and in the larger ecosystem by centering lived experience.
There is no sugarcoating how challenging it will be to drive clarity and alignment on the role of people power in our organizational strategy. This is because of the dynamic tensions that exist in our organization vision, strategy, and approach:
- Process & Movements. The “Code for America way” and our vision for the world -- at its core and in its current articulation -- is a process, not an end state. “Services can be simple, accessible, and easy to use. Outcomes can be measurably better. Better can cost less.” This is an articulation of how we want government to be, not what we want government to be. People-powered movements -- at their core -- are built around the what and the why, not the how. It is extremely difficult to build movements and engage people-power for the long-term on issues of process. Yet, Code for America’s focus on process and implementation (the how) is one of the things that makes us unique and fuels our value-add. There is a dynamic tension between what makes Code for America special and what motivates and powers movements.
- Government & volunteers. Government partnership and internal systems change with technology requires deep relationships, trust, and time. Volunteer time naturally ebbs and flows, with fairly high turnover on project leads and membership participation. The kind of government relationship building, intervention, and service delivery support that we do at the HQ level does not lend itself well to things volunteers can reasonably deliver on -- nor are they the types of problems that funneling more people at the problem (people power) can help solve.
- Our stated mission & reality on the ground. The above reality drives brigades to focus their energy in other ways (e.g. partnering with local nonprofits) and also creates a discrepancy between what we say we do at CfA (“work shoulder to shoulder with government”) and what Brigades actually do (“solve local problems with the help of technology-minded civic leaders”).
- Technical work & mass participation. Building technology is a deliberate process that requires a certain level of skill, and requires expert project management to get a project to completion. This is true of both our product teams and of technical brigade projects. To fully leverage people power, we need available actions that are non-technical focused and widely accessible. However, those more accessible actions can feel generic, or that they don’t fully bring to bear the “cfa secret sauce”.
Initial Results from Network Theory of Change process
The Network -- led by the Network team and members of the NAC -- are currently working on through a process to build clarity and alignment on our Network Theory of Change. While this process is still in progress, initial results both confirm some of our assumptions and clarify where we have organizational choice points.
Some of the key themes that have arisen so far about what the Network is (and is not) poised to do well. Note that these statements have a high degree of consensus across the Network, though it should be noted that nothing is unanimous in a 25,000 person Network.
- Effective when working in partnership with local, community-based organizations.
- Well positioned to develop technology that expands the impact of local social justice groups and community-based organizations.
- Energized to partner with and champion traditionally marginalized groups who are underserved by local government.
- Interested in partnering with and learning from local government on issues of systemic exclusion, inefficiencies and inequities in service delivery
- Eager to be seen as a go-to resource for digital expertise among local government staff
Brigades are not:
- Prioritizing government partnership over immediate community needs
- Always the best people to solve community problems, recognizing that the best solution to many community problems may not be technical
- Currently positioned to deliver end-to-end technology solutions to local government, similar to how a vendor might
- Community based-partnerships is where direct service and “impact” has been most consistent across the Brigade Network.
- There is substantial appetite for work on behalf of marginalized communities and with social justice organizations .
- Brigades’ relationship to government is typically in an advisory, learning, and consulting capacities
- There is an appetite to engage in policy and project work that is advocacy oriented.
- Values related to Solidarity, Equity, and Humility are show up in Brigades’ expression of their work and interests.