Brigade Day Breakout: New Person Engagement


This report presents key findings on breakout session, facilitated as part of Code for America Summit Brigade Day, hosted May 29, 2019 in Oakland, CA. Session served as part II of the conversation started in October 2018 at Brigade Congress in Charlotte, NC.

35 participants divided into 5 randomly assigned groups of 7, with the intention of representing diverse brigades within the network. They worked to identify 2-3 key challenges brigades face with respect to attracting, engaging, and retaining first-time attendees at brigade project nights and presented actionable solutions to take back to Brigade leadership discussions.

Findings presented in this report must have received support from a minimum of two participants to be included.

Session provides jumping-off point for a part III (ideally hosted by a participant) where attendees discuss which practices they implemented and report on the outcomes and lessons learned.

Commonly Identified Challenges

Participants identified key obstacles faced by brigades represented in their group and worked to provide 1-2 actionable solutions. Recurring challenges identified between groups include:

  • Brigade meetings often begin with a brief introduction from organizers before cutting participants loose to work on projects.
    • This approach works well for regular attendees who are familiar with one another but provides barrier to entry for first-time attendees.
      • Perception of “cliques” - how to approach new group of familiar people working on a project.
      • No direction or guidance on how new attendees can be involved or contribute to brigade projects.
  • Too few projects for people to work on
  • New member churn - folks coming in for the first/ only time and trying to completely change the direction of work.
    • How to diplomatically handle
  • End up spending a long time during project night to onboard new people, draining resources from progressing on project issues.
    • Often, first-time attendees do not return and the investment in getting them spun up is wasted.

Selected Solutions

For each identified challenge, participants generated 1-2 actionable solutions to address them during a 30-minute work session. Suggested solutions that received at least one vote of support from fellow participants are included below. A comprehensive list of solutions generated during the work session can be viewed in the attached images of flip-chart paper used during the session. Solutions are ordered in descending order from greatest to fewest number of votes of support from fellow participants. Participants were asked to chose specific, actionable solutions they actually intend to implement with their individual brigade leadership teams.

  • Solutions are listed as presented during the session in the top-line bullet.
    • Facilitator notes are included as sub-bullets.

Documenting projects and planning dedicated opportunities for project on-boarding. - 11x :ballot_box:

  • Offering clear documentation that new attendees can use to “self-start” or spin themselves up on brigade projects.
  • Plan specific opportunities for folks who need specific help getting spun up on projects can receive assistance fro0m brigade members staffing the project.

Start a “honeypot” project - 11x :ballot_box:

  • While it’s important to engage brigade members in meaningful work opportunities, giving folks who aren’t sure if they’re ready to commit to an easy option, such as a learning group, to dip their toes into the brigade/ civic tech experience can be helpful.
    • At Code for DC, we run a learning group called CryptoParty. We facilitate discussion among participants around information security best practices for the digital age. The learning group is all-levels accessible, meaning we gear content presented to attendees in such a way that crypto beginners and advanced tinfoil hat practitioners alike can gain something from the discussion.

Implement a follow-up survey to poll first-time attendees on their experience - 9x :ballot_box:

  • Make new folks feel engaged, ask if they are likely to return.
    • What did they enjoy? Or what could be different to get them to return.

Use Github boards - 9x :ballot_box:

  • Listing of both technical and non-technical issues.
  • Provide non-technical descriptions of work/ needs.

Self-starter projects - 6x :ballot_box:

  • Open dataset projects, what insights can you gain from lookinhg at city data? - 3x :ballot_box:
  • Brigade websites, practice those front-end web development skills! - 1x :ballot_box:
  • Replicate / fork projects from other Brigades (i.e. Courtbot) - 1x :ballot_box:
    • Good way to commitment escalate new folks who are trying to get involved and do a thing.
  • “Nice starters” - feature backlog or wishlist - 1x :ballot_box:

Have multiple people follow-up with new attendees after first time - 6x :ballot_box:

  • The group did not have an opportunity to talk through the practical implications of having multiple members engage in a single touchpoint with new attendees.
  • Possibility of making automated surveys and follow-up email campaigns to reduce the number of additional tasks to complete manually.

Project on-boarding opt-out (do not disturb) - 5x :ballot_box:

  • Strategically choosing not to present a project pitch during hack night introductions to reduce the likelihood of new attendees joining the project group.
    • Some brigades already struggle with having too few projects to offer new attendees.
    • This option likely to be most effective when there are other options for first-timers or a “honeypot project” has been identified.

Remote collaboration with other Brigades - 4x :ballot_box:

  • Jason H’s idea for Brigade Action Teams.
    • What do we need to do to promote better collaboration among brigades.

Offer optional social activities after project nights to build community (bar, dinner, group dinner) - 3x :ballot_box:

  • $$ not always 100% accessible, great for brigades to have funding available, but even if folks are paying their own way consensus seems to trend towards having the option is better than not.
  • Possible to select venues conducive to hanging out if people don’t drink alcohol.
  • Also possible to encourage brigade members to participate in non-brigade activities such as visiting local attractions, museums, parks, etc.

Conduct a hard / soft skills assessment - 2 :ballot_box:

  • Facilitator note: be mindful of excluding people, contributing to imposter syndrome with folks who might be intimidated by or feel like they don’t have useful skills to contribute.
    • Part of the challenge our movement is faced with is building solutions that impact every single member of our communities.

Specific channels on slack for projects - 2x :ballot_box:

  • Important to organize Slack workspace in a way that makes it easy for all brigade members to access information.
    • Setting up channels in such a way that people are able to scroll through the list of channels and identify things they might like to work on.

Make project on-boarding sessions available between scheduled project nights for new attendees interested in getting involved - 1x :ballot_box:

  • But how will this engage people when they arrive at an event for the first time?

Combine technical & non-technical skillsets - 1x :ballot_box:

  • Since Code for America Brigades are more than just engineers, we need to think about how we can best leverage other kinds of talent in brigade projects.
  • For example, Anchorage just brought in a marketer to help get CourtBot integrated with the judicial system.

Cultivate product management skills & delivery-focussed culture - 1x :ballot_box:

  • During the session it was proposed one way to do this is to recruit for specific roles.
  • Curious to know what are the best practices and lessons learned curated from brigades who recruit for specific roles on their projects?

Session plan documentation

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Here’s an album of posters with notes from the session:

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