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Fretwell: Hack Civic Hacking

For its part, Code for America has done a huge service building Brigade, and the idea that local community developers can hack their cities and positively impact and inspire government from the outside. By enabling the foundational infrastructure, it has created an incredible service for those who aspire to impact civics in a big way. Other than a very limited staff role commitment on Code for America’s part, I’m not sure there’s a need for much more or that we should even should expect it

I’m fortunate to live close enough to legendary civic hacker and Open Oakland founder Steve Spiker and can easily send or receive a last-minute text to meetup for drinks, which usually happens Friday night after we’ve put our kids to bed.

We met this past Friday and started with the personal — family, work, music — but it always turns to a long discussion about civic technology — the people, the pulse, the future.

Spike gave me an Open Oakland update and the latest on the Code for America Brigade, which I coincidentally read about Saturday morning on Government Technology.  

Hearing from Spike, reading the article and seeing some of the recent posts leads me to believe there’s a lot of energy being expended on figuring out how to make civic hacking, specifically Brigade, sustainable and perhaps there doesn’t need to be.

I know I’m simplifying this, but it’s not clear to me why civic hacking needs a substantive financial model. In many ways, it appears to be an impediment to grassroots growth.

What’s happening with the Brigades is important context for civic hacking as a grass-roots movement, because the movement itself should retrospect and re-consider its role in the civic technology ecosystem.

By rethinking its purpose in the context of a structured organization and defining success metrics, Brigade and those who identify as civic hackers may change their expectations on whether heavy funding in the traditional sense at this phase of the civic innovation pipeline is necessary.

To date, civic hacking has loosely defined outcomes, if any. This is fine if you’re tinkering, but if you’re looking for financial support, you need to prove you’re solving real problems. In order to do that, you must have success metrics.

If structured civic hacking organizations want to show a model for sustainability, here are a few questions to ask:

  • Can what we’re working on be easily deployed and scale across all governments?
  • Is there a business opportunity to productize and offer as an enterprise government solution?
  • Can this be turned into an issue-specific nonprofit focused on solving civic or government problems?
Here are a few metrics to consider:

  • How many new, disruptive startups have come out of our work?
  • How many governments have adopted this project or product?
  • How many new issue-based organizations have emerged?
It’s important to recognize that civic hacking is an incubator for your “exit strategy” — building the next great government technology business, landing a gig inside government or simply meeting awesome people. Civic hacking is how I met Code for America Brigade founder Kevin Curry before it was even an idea. Civic hacking is how I landed my current venture that hopes to revolutionize city government digital services.

The Brigades are a critical component of the civic technology ecosystem, but at the grassroots level, passion and self-motivation should be the source of funding. For those that don’t “exit” and prefer to tinker, there can still exist a semi-formal, global network. It just doesn’t have to be heavily dependent on financials.

I can’t count the number of hours I’ve spent civic hacking for free, but I can tell you that return on investment has paid huge personal dividends, both in the people I’ve met, the experience I’ve gained, but also in the simple satisfaction that I’ve helped people and cities.

Years ago, I had the idea for a city government WordPress theme and started hacking away at one. I shopped the idea around to a number of the organizations that, at the time, were giving money for civic hacking projects, and no one was sold. So, I teamed up with a world-class developer, Devin Price, and together, a brigade of two funded by no one, we did it ourselves.

Today, GovPress now has 4,000 active installs and by any measure is one of the most successful, least celebrated civic hacking projects on the planet.

My point with GovPress is that I didn’t wait for an organizational structure or funding to live out my civic hacking passion. Sustainability didn’t drive me or slow me down. I accepted this was a short-term project that would either die on the GitHub repo vine or be wildly successful.

For me, GovPress turned into my personal inspiration for ProudCity, which I co-founded in January with three others that had been, in their own way, civic hacking the same problem I was trying to solve. We’re launching small cities on the platform and getting ready to announce a well-known, mid-sized Northern California city. Government Technology named us one of five companies to watch in 2016.

My non-funded, unsustainable civic hacking project turned into my American dream. ProudCity was my exit.

This sounds very Silicon Valley, but it applies to any organization looking for funding, whether you’re a startup or nonprofit. In the technology ecosystem, there are opportunities to pitch your idea to gain interest for an idea or product. The idea that solves a problem (or has the potential to) gets funded. In the case of the civic hacking community, it attracts more civic hackers (or co-founders). As the product grows in viability, it will exit to a fundable venture, whether it’s the startup or nonprofit solving a real problem.

As was the case with the early environmental movement, there were sustainability hackers advocating for an entirely different approach to managing the planet. At some point, those early leaders went on to start businesses or join governmental or issue-based organizations that have changed our world in scalable, impactful ways.

At first they were tinkering, but then they evolved into the bigger change we needed.

If it’s community you’re looking for, you don’t need funding. If you’re serious about executing but don’t want to make it a lifetime commitment, build your own GovPress then move to your next great thing. Don’t let funding or a sustainability model slow you down.

For its part, Code for America has done a huge service building Brigade, and the idea that local community developers can hack their cities and positively impact and inspire government from the outside. By enabling the foundational infrastructure, it has created an incredible service for those who aspire to impact civics in a big way. Other than a very limited staff role commitment on Code for America’s part, I’m not sure there’s a need for much more or that we should even should expect it.

By defining success metrics and accepting that civic hacking is simply the beginning of the civic innovation pipeline, those in the Brigade ecosystem may find that all its fundamental operating structure needs are:

  • a centralized GitHub organization for effectively collaborating on projects
  • a Slack instance for community
  • a guiding set of principles and general operating guidelines
  • a recurring “demo day” to bring visibility and move projects through the innovation pipeline
All of this most likely already exists within Brigade.

The Brigade structure is a tremendous opportunity to be the platform for the civic innovation pipeline. If it was re-imagined as an incubator or innovation lab that fed the civic technology pipeline, its value add could be better tracked and funded.

The original objectives around civic hacking — opening data, increasing public sector use of open source and showing government how it can leverage both to expedite technology innovation — have all been adopted to varying degrees. This doesn’t mean there is no longer a need for civic hacking. It just means that those who closely identify as such need to re-imagine, find new relevance and recognize scalable impact and more exits are a role it can help foster.

There’s no question civic hacking is a critical component to the civic technology innovation ecosystem, but altruism, passion and self-motivation are requisites for entry, and you shouldn’t need funding for that.

The world is becoming more decentralized, open and instant, and traditional organizational structures are becoming less and less applicable, especially for technology activists.

For those of you who identify as civic hackers and are unaffiliated with political, governmental or corporate constraints, you have the good fortune of not needing to adhere to bureaucratic, organizational rules that stunt open, immediate impact and innovation.

You have the good fortune of bringing the much-needed positive angst sorely missing from the civic technology movement. Embrace that having an entree to bigger opportunities is priceless.

Use all this to your advantage, hack civic hacking and open up more exits for the civic change we need.

(Note: These views represent mine and not Spike’s. Big thanks to him for providing initial feedback on this. He doesn’t agree with everything and says we can still continue meeting for drinks.)

This article originally appeared on

Luke Fretwell is co-founder and chief executive officer of ProudCity and the founder of the civic innovation and technology blog GovFresh. He advises civic leaders and businesses on how to best leverage digital strategies to create more effective, collaborative governments. He has worked with a number of government-focused companies and media and has been involved in broad-focused community efforts, such as GovPress, CityCamp, CivicMeet, Agile Government Leadership and Open Source for America.