Jennifer Pahlka, executive director of Code for America (CfA)—a nonprofit with a mission to bring web-industry professionals to work with city governments in order to promote openness, participation and efficiency in municipal governments—gave an inspiring presentation at SXSW 2012 about the need to get more involved with government, “this thing we don't think that much about”.
She advocates this shouldn’t necessarily happen through traditional means or by driving voting efforts, rather, it happens by working directly with citizens, by creating apps and other tools using city data and leveraging the “exuberance and willingness to experiment” that animates digital entrepreneurs and developers. “When you are an entrepreneur, or a developer, you see a problem and you fix it.” She encourages digital entrepreneurs to consider the opportunity at hand.
Government systems are very opaque because their underlying problems remain largely invisible and “if it looks like it was built in the 80’s, it’s because it was”. “The reason people haven’t upgraded this (government) technology is probably because there isn’t a better alternative. Because there aren’t smart and creative entrepreneurs like you who see that this is a real market and want to fix. You can’t see it. You don't even know its a market and you don't know how much American cities are spending on this stuff”. She notes that federal, state and local governments spent an estimated $140b annually on technology, while the market for worldwide iPhone developers is $2b, and the entire videogame industry in the US stands at $10b.
Adopt-a-hydrant (adoptahydrant.org), is great example of the ‘civic startup’. The app, built by CfA and backed by the City of Boston, invites citizens to claim responsibility for shoveling out a fire hydrant after it snows. “It invites us to think about government a little bit differently. Government is an institution that is not really at the center of this app [...] it doesn't call on government services, it calls on us. The institution of government is sort of at the margins, but the idea of government is right at the center of this app [...]. At its core, government is what we do together. This app invites us to think about government not just as the problem of an ossified institution, but simply as a problem of collective action. Which is fantastic because we are getting pretty good at enabling collective action through technology”.
Ultimately, Pahlka stresses it’s not just about the apps, it’s about uncovering the possibilities, “it’s about creating political will for change, it’s about doing things differently, it’s about creating a demand for faster, better, cheaper”. Or as Tom Steinberg of mySociety (mysociety.org) puts it, it’s about: “projects that embody the idea that what good governance and the good society look like is now inextricably linked to an understanding of the digital”.