Building on lessons learned from the program’s past, this year’s iteration will see the national civic tech group more closely integrating its fellowship program with its network of hyper-local brigades.
Code for America has announced the return of its Community Fellowship Program for 2019, with officials noting that this year’s version features some new lessons the group learned during its first iteration.
This year’s Code for America (CfA) Community Fellowship Program will see the nonprofit and nonpartisan civic tech group partnering with seven local governments scattered across the country. The program will also pair members from CfA’s nationwide network of volunteer civic tech brigades with existing talent within those local governments. The groups will then work on using tech to help government do a better job of delivering services to its constituents, doing so via projects designed to be completed within the next six months.
The seven participating brigades and local governments hail from the following cities: Buffalo, N.Y.; Charlotte, N.C.; Durham, N.C.; Indianapolis; Miami; Santa Monica, Calif.; and Savannah, Ga.
Hashim Mteuzi, the senior manager for the Network Talent Initiative at Code for America, spoke with Government Technology about the program last week, noting that the structure of this year’s fellowship program — pairing local government with members of existing CfA brigades — grew from lessons the group learned during the program in the past.
A past iteration of the program lasted 12 months, during which the fellows primarily worked out of CfA’s offices in San Francisco, spending a much smaller percentage of time in the host cities where they working to make life better. While those in the program created great work, Mteuzi said when the fellowship ended, sustainability became an issue. Simply put, in many cases there was no clear path for the local government to continue the work being done, short of having the fellows relocate to those cities, which they were not willing to do.
“There were real questions,” Mteuzi said, “and most of the time the answers were not favorable.”
Getting the brigades involved means that a strong majority of participants are basically already engaged in the civic tech communities where the work is being done, giving them a better handle on the community, an inherent feeling of ownership over the work and a real incentive to build something with the potential to last long term.
“Because the fellows bring the projects to the table as opposed to us finding technologists and assigning them projects, the level of ownership and accountability is through the roof,” Mteuzi said. “These are things folks already want to address, and we’re helping them turbo-charge their efforts.”
That turbo-charging by CfA involves orientation sessions and meetings with the technology experts the group has on staff. The fellows in this class will learn more about user research, human-centered design, stakeholder mapping and other techniques that have become fundamental in government's efforts to build friendly and more effective products or digital services for constituents.
The projects this year are wide-ranging in nature, and the teams of fellows are diverse, with CfA noting in its press release for the announcement that “60 percent of this year’s cohort is female, and 35 percent of the class is black.”
In Indianapolis, the team is working to create a digital resource guide that can help empower formerly incarcerated women in that area as they transition back to society. Not only are all three fellows on that team members of the Indianapolis community, they are also all formerly incarcerated women themselves.
In Buffalo, the team of fellows have been directly inspired by CfA’s own project, GetCalFresh, which seeks to make it easier for eligible residents of California to get food assistance benefits. Buffalo has an affordable water program, and they are trying to increase its accessibility through a mobile-first digital experience. The current system requires residents to download a PDF, fill it out, and then mail it back. The team wants to take a cue from GetCalFresh and digitize that application process.
The future of the fellowship program is bright, too. CfA is already committed to doing it again in 2020.
Mteuzi also said that leadership is excited about what CfA itself can learn from the fellows. Fellows last year in Austin tackled affordable housing, which was something that was not at the time a focus for CfA. This year, both Miami and Santa Monica have worked related to affordable housing as well. This increase in civic tech interest in solving that problem could ultimately lead to a larger project by CfA itself.
“One of the great things about our fellowship is it allows us to explore and experiment in areas that are outside of our core verticals or focus areas as an organization,” he said.