A Case for Change: Direction of the Code for America Network
Interested in volunteering on this effort?
Nearly a decade since starting our volunteer Brigade program, it’s time for our Brigade Network to redefine our purpose and choose a clear path forward. What kind of change do we want to make in the world? Where do we – as individual volunteers and as a collective Network – have the most impact? How can we bring more clarity to the relationship between the Network and Code for America’s mission?
We’ll take a moment to outline how this process has developed, what options we have for moving forward, and how we’ll choose which path to take.
Why We’re Doing This
The Challenge & Opportunity
Our Brigade Network is an extraordinary national and local force leveraging technology and its principles for social good. We are part of the Code for America organization, which works to make government work in the digital age.
Over time, underlying questions about how the Network achieves change, what kind of change we want to create, and how that relates to Code for America’s mission have emerged and lingered. As one Brigade Network volunteer leader recently put it:
“We’ve built a big movement. It’s not really clear what we’re trying to change. We hemorrhage volunteers and lose community credibility every day we can’t answer that question.”
Ambiguity around these questions at best limits our impact, and at worst leads to misaligned expectations, countless unrealized opportunities to further our cause, volunteer burnout, and personal tensions in our organizing spaces and relationships. It’s time to choose a path forward that allows our Network to grow in a healthy and sustainable way, unleashes new energy and power, and brings clarity to how Code for America and the volunteer Network relate to and support one another.
At the end of this process, our goal is to have a clearly defined, long-term path forward for the Code for America Network, with significant energy and momentum behind that direction from those who are most impacted. We aim to articulate how Code for America Network achieves change in the world, what kind of impact we prioritize, and what the relationship is between Code for America and the Network. And then pursue that path in earnest.
With a refined clarity of purpose, we can better incorporate our unique capabilities for driving change. This clarity will inform how we talk about the work we do, how we bring new people into our spaces, what we spend money on, how we measure success, and more. In essence, we see choosing a clear path as a way to realize our Network’s full potential.
How We Got Here
This work began formally in the fall of 2019, when the National Advisory Council (NAC) and Code for America Network team staff came together to name key questions at the core of present challenges and future possibilities in our work together. This spurred dedicated work on identifying our national Network’s “Theory of Change”. In summer of 2020, we launched several open discussions, forums, workshops, polls, surveys, and more to get input from Brigade Network participants on how their Brigade achieves change, what we’re good at, what we’re not good at, and where we want to go. We received hundreds of responses from volunteers and Network members across the country.
The Theory of Change committee (led by NAC members and the Network Senior Program Director), organized and synthesized these inputs. What emerged were a handful of distinct potential pathways for the Network’s future. The committee shared these potential pathways with Code for America leadership for initial feedback. What follows is a brief summary of those potential paths, and a proposal for how we evaluate the options and come to a decision.
Our Path Forward: What are our options?
NOTE: With each of these options, uncovering and understanding more about the “what” and “how” is something we will explore further in this next phase of this process.
Option 1: A Democracy Focus: Expanding Code for America’s Organizational Scope and Narrative
In one sentence: The primary purpose and value of the Brigade Network is to strengthen our democratic institutions using the tools of technology and to engage and activate new civic leaders.
In more detail:
To best support and work in tandem with the Network, this path forward would entail a significant and expanded scope of Code for America’s current mission to include a broader democracy focus. We would aim to leverage the principles and practices of the digital age to not just improve government, but to strengthen democracy and our democratic institutions. This might include tackling issues like voting access and freedom of information, as well as the “how” of democracy: how community members use technology to influence government and democratic systems, and how to bring more people into the room for those decisions, particularly those who have historically been excluded.
In this scenario, the premise of the Brigade Network is that we are in primarily interested in using organizing power and technology to 1) engage and activate new civic and community leaders and 2) build and promote resources and processes that bring people into active participation with government 3) Lead by doing, with principles like user research and design, incorporating voices that are normally excluded from democratic systems & processes.
In addition to focusing the work of the Network, this pathway likely requires the most change from Code for America as an organization. For example, it may mean creating a new program vertical around civic engagement and democracy, embedding organizers or Network liaisons on key program teams, and adjusting processes, platforms, and communications internally to focus more broadly on democracy and systems of democratic participation.
Option 2: Brigade Network is the ‘Mutual Aid of Technology’
In one sentence: The primary purpose and value of the Brigade Network is to organize and redistribute technology skills locally, wherever they are needed most and in a values-driven way. We are the ‘mutual aid’ of technology.
In more detail:
This path would embrace the Brigade Network’s strength as grassroots groups that work primarily with local partners and community based organizations. While ‘mutual aid’ has existed for generations, the mutual aid response to COVID-19 has provided a well-known mental model for the value and impact of mutual aid that the Network can lean into. In this scenario, the primary purpose of the Brigade Network is to organize and redistribute technology skills and capacity to their local communities, wherever they are needed most and guided by our values.
The emphasis of this pathway is on local partnership and real-time needs – often using low-tech solutions to support grassroots organizations and local change-makers. This option is perhaps the most reflective of the majority of Brigade Network’s current operations and model of change-making.
In this scenario, there would be significant work to be done in defining the brigades between the Network and the rest of the Code for America organization, where the latter focuses on mutual aid and the former is focused on government service delivery.
Option 3: Advocacy Orientation
In one sentence: The primary purpose and value of the Brigade Network is to advocate for policy and systems-change in government, through the lens of technology, human-centered design, and digital services.
In more detail:
This path forward would involve activating the Brigade Network as the advocacy arm of Code for America. This model of change-making recognizes that many of the key problems we work on at Code for America necessarily require a political - and not technical - solution. For example, the biggest barriers to automatic record clearance are policy ones, not technical ones (and it’s critical that tech is at the table when designing policy). This focus could be combined with Option 1 or Option 2.
In this scenario, the primary role of Brigades is to advocate for policy and practice change at the local, state, and potentially federal level. While some Brigades lean into this work currently, this is the scenario that would require the most change in the day-to-day operations and expectations of Brigades and volunteers.
Option 4: “Let A Thousand Flowers Bloom” Approach
In one sentence: Every brigade defines its own path forward, independent of Code for America.
In more detail:
This approach would mean that Code for America disinvests in the Brigade Network, and each Brigade is responsible for defining its own path forward. After careful consideration with CfA leadership, we do not believe this path is an option that we want to actively pursue.
Option 5: Network Revamp | Pivot to Government support
In one sentence: Select brigade leaders/members partner in more formal ways with local government.
In more detail:
In this path, we invest heavily in direct service partnership with local governments, turning Brigades into something more like short or medium term paid service opportunities. This scenario would likely mean scaling back the number of Brigades, moving away from a volunteer network, and pivoting to something closer to a fellowship model. After discussion with CfA leadership, we do not see this as a viable path forward.
Choosing a Path
Our challenge (and opportunity!) in 2021 is to create a participatory process which informs and energizes our Network about our future, enabling us to enthusiastically choose a path forward that the Network, Code for America staff, and other stakeholders respect, regardless of whether it is their first choice option.
It is important to stress at this phase that each path we choose, as well as the participatory process itself, necessitates a high degree of involvement from Code for America as an organization, and from the CxO (C-suite) and leadership team in particular.
We’ve identified and mapped our stakeholders for this decision and defined each in terms of how much engagement they should have with this Theory of Change Process based on how impacted they will be by any path we take. All the stakeholders listed here can expect to be invited to several of the activities outlined below.
Engagement Activities and Timeline
We have already completed many months of initial work in engaging many of these stakeholders in this work. To view a detailed overview, you can view this document.
In order to best engage the Network and other stakeholders in this process, we propose several activities throughout 2021:
See the timeline
- Quarterly Network Town Halls/Forums with CfA leadership and the Network, presenting and discussing these options and their impacts. The first is Wednesday, March 31.
- Utilizing a participatory tool such as Decidim or Loomio to build the infrastructure for a process and “host” live discussions, forums, and surveys. This would entail creating a working group within the Network to build this infrastructure (thereby also increasing the ownership that the Network has over the process)
- Deep conversations with CxO and CfA Leadership team about implications of these options
- Organize 1:1 or small peer group conversations with those we haven’t heard from yet (e.g. smaller Brigades, Colors of America group, local partners)
- Create a framework for peer-to-peer conversations about the Theory of Change including invitations, matchmaking, and scripted/templated interviews and response collection
- An open discussion of the process and paths forward, led by CfA CxO or Leadership team, at Q2 Code for America All-Hands meeting
- A meeting between the CxO and the National Advisory council during the National Advisory Council onboarding in March/April, 2021
- Potential: A forum or discussion with the larger civic tech ecosystem, introducing our Change work and engaging stakeholders like partners and others in the civic tech world
- Potential: Attached decisions / inputs to our annual NAC elections – which begin in mid-February
These processes will further help us build up the options on the table, surface key questions, and identify where the energy is within our Network and other key stakeholders for a path forward. We aim to make and communicate a decision on the path forward by the end of Q2 (June) 2021 and continue activities throughout Q3 and Q4 of 2021 focused on implementation of a decision. In that phase, we will be asking and answering questions around what volunteers need to succeed and what operational adjustments we need to make as a Network to bring our future vision to life.
The activities and stakeholder engagement outlined above will inform a final recommendation put forward by the Change committee with support and sign off from the National Advisory Council.
The proposed final decision making structure is to aim for consensus across CxO + Senior Program Director for Network. If consensus cannot be reached, the fallback is to Amanda Renteria, our CEO.
In the final decision making process, if there are key changes that differ from the final recommendation, the decision makers will commit to understand the impact of those changes on stakeholders before making a final decision.
Ultimately, this changemaking process is about how Code for America wants to make an impact on the world. Will the Brigade Network be the key to achieving the massive scale that our values warrant? We believe that this process, done well and with deep engagement and commitment from CfA leadership, Network leadership, and partners is the key to realizing our full organizational potential.