Code for America hopes to give dot-gov some caché

Coming out of last week’s Web 2.0 Expo in New York City, the industry buzz was focused on the usual – cloud computing, social networking, and what to do with the latest Google innovation.

But one catchy hook caught the ears of a few reporters: dot-gov is the new dot-com.

One project announced during the Expo is looking to integrate the tech savvy into government. Code for America, will embed a team of technologists into the operations of everyday city government to leverage the use of Web 2.0 technologies and strategies in government.

“We want to make government technology rock stars,” Ms. Pahlka said in an interview with CivSource during Web 2.0 Expo. “Just like Teach for America in the early 90’s made teaching cool, gave it high-status, we want to borrow that. Code for America will be a Teach for America for city government.”

Similar to Teach for America, Code for America will place a team within city governments to work on projects for almost a year. But where Teach for America generally recruits among the newly graduated, Code for America will draw from a much broader applicant pool. Individuals who are mid- or late-career professionals, as well as those who are younger will be considered, so long as they have the passion and abilities to make government better, smarter and efficient, Ms. Pahlka said.

“I don’t care how old they are, I don’t care where they went to college, if they went to college. I care that they can develop something that shows an understanding of what were trying to do and that they can ship it. If you have eight months to develop something, you better know how to ship it.” But Code for America is not just looking for developers – designers, project managers, account managers, and others who have worked in Web 2.0 environments are encouraged to apply.

The project is targeting a January 2011 start date, with benchmarks stemming back from then, according to Ms. Pahlka. Cities will apply over the next few months, submitting projects, with defined returns on investment, by June in order to budget for five recruits the following year. The first development cycle will include five cities and twenty-five recruits – five members per city. The biggest concern for those cities looking to participate is their internal alignment, according to Ms. Pahlka.

“Every city will have to fit the scope and have a clear ROI that cities can articulate. But internal alignment may be the most important [criteria] when choosing a city.” The power brokers of the city government will have to prove that they will be able to utilize the five members of Code for America to the greatest extent possible, she said. “The last thing we want is to ask five bright people to give a year of their life and have the project fail because they don’t have the support of all the departments and key people required.”

As for the individual city projects, Ms. Pahlka indicated most of the projects are likely to be public facing. “Our principle is that this program is city-driven – a lot of applications will probably be focused on 311, [non-emergency, customer services for municipalities] and everything we deploy will be open source,” so other cities will be able to use the kinds of applications created by each round of projects. Some projects, however, will be simply about integrating processes, such as streamlining permit services or coordinating efforts to promote the use of public services.

“The real outcome, the real reason cities want to be involved, is that they get the applications, and they get access to every other application built in the program. But, I’m hoping, they also get this culture virus affect of having that team associated with them for the year.”

Ms. Pahlka likened the five members of Code for America to academic fellows, who would be able to supplement government in new and different ways, based on their skills and background. She also hoped that as the program matured, and more cities were paired with Code for America members, collaboration amongst the cities and program alumni would create a culture change in how public service was viewed.

“This program will help cities understand they’re all facing the same challenges and they can face them together.”

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