Bureaucrats and Technophiles: A Love Story

on Friday, Apr. 13th

Jennifer Pahlka loves bureaucrats.

While that proclamation got her some laughs at a recent Google/MTV Big Tent event at Mountain View’s Computer History Museum, Pahlka, who founded Code for America in 2010, followed up with an earnest statement about the work that CFA’s fellowships support in collaboration with local governments. “We think bureaucrats get things done. There’s certainly a lot to complain about,” she conceded, “but we think that we need to make bureaucracy more…sexy.”

Code for America’s fellowship program hinges on the export of a certain brand of Silicon Valley “sexy”; passionate young developers, transparent and collaborative coding, an emphasis on shareability. Fellows are assigned to municipalities to team up with those beloved bureaucrats — the more forward-thinking, the more beloved — to build web-based solutions to community pain points, like a map-based app that allows residents to “Adopt-A-Hydrant,” or one that helps students track their school buses.

Pahlka pointed out that because many of CFA’s fellows are “digital natives” who take for granted the social channels that enable anyone to contribute to the national discourse, “their reaction is not to get up on a soapbox and complain about” the societal problems that upset them. Instead, she characterized their approach to their work as,  “It’s not going to get fixed with more talking; if it’s only voices and not only an opportunity for citizens to pitch in, and a real concrete way, we’re just not going to move forward.”

Even though much of our national discourse about resources and policy is preoccupied with federal governance, especially in an election year, CFA’s work is steadfastly focused on localism. “Local level mayors at this point have more impact on us than the president,” Pahlka said. “Who’s dealing with Occupy Wall Street? Mayors. Who’s dealing with climate change? Mayors.” She said for many CFA fellows, physical geography, i.e. knowing the people who live on their block, matters just as much as the connections within their social graphs.

Pahlka told the Big Tent crowd that she sees the maker movement as a “secret sister” to the open government movement, and that key to CFA’s work are the allies within local governments who avail troves of buried data to the fellows, or take on the risk of PR blowback for projects that don’t work out as planned. More on this interdependency in our interview with Pahlka next week.

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