This Week in Civic Tech: Code for America Brigade Faces Funding and Structural Pivot, DATA Act Experiences Major Obstacles

A look back at highlights and happenings in the world of civic tech.

by / July 21, 2016
Code for America Founder and Executive Director Jennifer Pahlka introduces the Tech Awards at the CfA Summit on Sept. 30. The civic tech awards honored startups governments, and citizens innovating in their communities. Jason Shueh

This Week in Civic Tech presents a line-up of notable events in the space that connects citizens to government services. Topics cover latest startups, hackathons, open data initiatives and other influencers. Check back each week for updates.

CODE FOR AMERICA BRIGADES HIT ‘HARD TIMES’

After a deficit in fundraising capital and operational challenges, the civic tech nonprofit Code for America (CfA) is wrestling to stabilize its volunteer program with a sustainable model for collaboration.

An article by Civicist Managing Editor Jessica McKenzie reports that CfA’s volunteer-led Brigade program — that has offered civic tech and open data tools locally since 2012 — may be in jeopardy due in part to conflicts between local and national management and a lack of donations that support a portion of local chapters’ regional and national work. CfA Founder and Executive Director Jennifer Pahlka confirmed the budgetary setback in a letter to Brigade leadership in December.

“We grew our expenses this year in anticipation of additional funding that we were unable to close,” Pahlka said. “That shortfall was compounded by the timing of the grant from one of our major funders. This funder has actually doubled their support, but the timing is such that we won’t receive their next major contribution to our operating costs until 2017.”

The resulting aftershock has heightened tensions for more than a few Brigade leaders who are questioning returns on both their personal contributions to lead the groups and for volunteer efforts by the groups themselves. The Brigades are now no longer receiving financial support for events, parent organization endorsed projects or approved operating costs. Without such backing, incentives to dedicate resources on national civic tech initiatives have waned. The issue calls into question whether it still makes sense for some local chapters to federate within a parent organization — as opposed to focusing local issues with local fundraising efforts.

A few of the Brigade leaders to step down are Eddie Tejeda and Steven “Spike” Spiker of Open Oakland, and Tait Wayland, the captain of Code for Birmingham. Tejeda and Spiker told Civicist they were “burned out” after difficulty in finding funding and creating a sustainable balance between personal life and volunteer work. Wayland expressed similar reasoning, saying a Brigade Captain should never be at the post more than two to three years. There is also Code for Philly, CfA’s Philadelphia Brigade, that is investigating an exit from the organization entirely as completely independent civic tech group.

At CfA’s headquarters, the organization saw significant exits in 2015 by Catherine Bracy, CfA’s longtime director of community organizing. This was followed by an exit of Brigade Program Manager Hannah Young.

Despite the troubles, Pahlka is directing an open and transparent path forward. In her interview with Civicist she said the Bridgade program had hit “hard times” but she and her team were working equally hard to redirect volunteers on a more sustainable path. In February she launched a 10-month co-creation process that aims to begin restructuring sometime this fall.

“There is always a silver lining,” Pahlka said in her letter, “and I expect the coming year will show us several of them as long as we keep the lines of communication open.”

In a Medium blog post on July 13 Nicole Neditch, CfA’s senior director of community engagement, said this communication has entailed outreach initiatives inside and outside of the organization.

“Together, we have been reflecting, self-critiquing and reassessing as well,” Neditch said. “We’re several months into a formal process of interviewing community members and our staff to get clearer on what’s working, what’s not, and what to do about it.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been updated to include clarifications from Code for America.

DATA Act report urges more support for agencies

A report from the Data Foundation, an organization advocating transparency through data, indicates that the nation’s first open data law for agency finance is showing promise despite facing big hurdles.

President Obama signed the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act) into law in 2014 to require agencies to standardize spending data and publish it online. Benefits that drove the bill’s passage included heightened accessibility, accountability and efficiency for agencies that, to date, have not been able to show — at least publicly — a clear picture of expenditures. The DATA Act would unlock the data by posting it on USAspending.gov where companies, nonprofits, academics, journalists and average citizens could access it.

Since the DATA Act became law, the mandate has encountered delays as agencies grapple with logistics of implementation. Agency staff will have to pivot old processes for information management, legacy databases may need replacing, and longtime vendors attached to these systems might see a disruption in services. One of these vendors is Dun & Bradstreet, popularly known for its proprietary Data Universal Number System (the DUNS number). The nine-digit identifier is used pervasively throughout the federal government to link businesses with financial data and documents. While effective, its proprietary nature is equally prohibitive when sharing the information.

To advance DATA Act reforms, the Data Foundation report urged for more resources while stressing key compliance deadlines for the White House Office of Management and Budget, the U.S. Treasury, and agency officials overseeing implementation.

“To realize all of the benefits described previously, the DATA Act community must invest
even more time, money, and political capital into this critical transformative legislation,” the report stated.

Among its bullet points, recommendations included the creation of a DATA Act Operations Center, retiring the DUNS number, connecting the president’s budget to the DATA Act’s data structure, and ensuring that all necessary pilots are launched so agencies can begin reporting finances by May 2017.

Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.