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Why is Code for America Abuzz for Charlotte’s Code for America Initiative?

In February, City of Charlotte leaders, Charlotte citizens, and the organization Code for America, represented by three Fellows, officially launched Charlotte’s Code for America initiative. 

Code for America – CFA – located in San Francisco, CA, was founded in 2009 by Jennifer Pahlka as a 501(c)3 to “change how we (as citizens) participate in government to: connect citizens and governments to design better services, encourage low-risk settings for innovation, support a competitive civic tech marketplace.”

Since 2009, CFA has moved their people in teams of three into ten cities each year.  These CFA employees are called Fellows and they are employed for one year by CFA under a residency program.  This is a hyper-competitive residency that attracts workers of all ages and in various stages of their careers who are interested in playing a role to influence more open government in our nation’s cities. 

Charlotte’s fellows are Danny, Tiffany, and Andrew.  In an interview for this article, Danny and Andrew shared that the Code for America teams back in San Francisco were abuzz about Charlotte’s CFA city initiative because Charlotte bares the distinction of having the fastest growing Citizen-Brigade.   Charlotte’s Brigade is 159 members and growing.  The Brigade is made up of citizens who join the CFA initiative to give their input and volunteer their time and talent.  By comparison, other cities’ Brigade members are multiples of tens of citizens, not hundreds of citizens. 

To understand the significance of this growing brigade and what this reveals about Charlotte, we tap thoughts from CFA Charlotte leaders - Twyla McDermott, (City of Charlotte Champion) and Jim Van Fleet (Charlotte’s Citizen-Brigade leader).

City of Charlotte CFA Champion

As Twyla McDermott recounts the journey of bringing CFA to Charlotte, it’s no surprise the journey was met with starts and stops and at one point was in jeopardy of being funded. As the Champion for the CFA initiative inside the City of Charlotte, McDermott’s perseverance to see this through was initially set by the empirical evidence of what was happening in other CFA city initiatives and without the knowledge of what the Charlotte citizen response would actually be.   

As a City executive who works in the Office of the CIO, McDermott built the case for the City of Charlotte to embrace the CFA initiative in part (and aside from promoting open government and citizen engagement), to realize the corporate benefit of creating a rich, opportunistic environment for city employees to create and to give back, that in turn would enable the City to retain staff.  For a major employer of IT and engineering talent, this is no small return. 

While our City Government has moved to an emerging strategy for citizen engagement, and the CFA Charlotte initiative will provide that channel for giving citizens a voice for what services are offered and what gets built, there is still more to the overwhelming response by Charlotte’s citizens to join the Brigade. 

Charlotte’s CFA Brigade Leader

Twyla McDermott describes the first ‘gush of interest’ under citizen-Brigade leader, Jim Van Fleet: “You called a meeting and 70 people showed up!” 

Jim Van Fleet, well known in the entrepreneur community and a renowned coder, is not only the leader for the citizen-Brigade in Charlotte, Jim might be the only citizen-leader able to manifest the very essence of our distinguished Brigade and rally its formation – Charlotte’s abundant creative class. 

Jim Van Fleet has the network to get the word out to diverse citizens and to actually get the engagement and commitment needed. 

When discussing his thoughts for the great response from our citizens, Van Fleet talks less about his own abilities to rally the troops and more about Charlotte’s uniqueness.  “Charlotte gets along so great without anyone having to do anything,” says Jim.  “But, even though we experience a high quality of life here, we can always improve.”  Spoken like a pure technologist.  Van Fleet continues, “Despite this high quality of life, there is disenfranchisement with tech-enabled Millennials.  There is a [perception that] government prioritizes certain voices over theirs.”

So the ideals behind Code for America with its emphasis on more transparent local government and citizen-engagement, both in voice and volunteerism of time and talent, and with a rewarding opportunity to see important results from the work – all happen to trigger and motivate this disenfranchised group of citizens.  Also, Code for America Charlotte provides the opportunity for these undervalued citizens to make a difference.  To draw distinction around the potential of our Brigade, a leader in Code for America commented that any city would like to have this depth in their creative class. 

Jim Van Fleet describes his experience with CFA Charlotte thus far to reveal true meaning for what might be happening here.  As an avid volunteer and out-front personality in tech and entrepreneurial groups, Jim had to take a few steps backwards from the formation of the Brigade and his initial access to City assets, saying, “Wow.”

It became apparent to Van Fleet the overwhelming raw assets of our city and the realization that it is just tremendous what our cities are responsible for.  To which he proclaims, “It’s not realistic to think that the best ideas of what can be done will come from inside city government.”

Both Van Fleet and McDermott agree that a small win will serve to instill the culture of open government and citizen engagement as the way to operate.  But there is talent on board for the breakthrough, the innovation, the spark to create something entirely new.  With the sheer size of Charlotte’s Brigade, we are certain to accomplish a great deal.   Jim Van Fleet points to an example of what can be done under this force of government-citizen engagement by citing Boston where the citizen volunteer force redesigned how students were assigned to their schools. 

Future Possibilities

What Twyla McDermott and Jim Van Fleet also have in common is that they approach their leadership and work with Code for America Charlotte not as an initiative, but for keeps.  Open, transparent government with citizen engagement needs to be weaved into the very fabric of our city, to become how our city government operates. 

What’s on Jim Van Fleet’s forward-thinking mind is to see the City of Charlotte create a city-sanctioned place for these on-going efforts led by an Entrepreneur-in-Residence. This EIR would orchestrate the volunteer force trying to make city life better; continue to leverage technology to improve services and make breakthroughs; introduce risk and the willingness to fail as a normal part of innovation; continually execute and get results. 

What Code for America Charlotte leaders would like Charlotte citizens to know is that the Brigade will only get stronger and better by attracting more, diverse talents from all ages and career stages.  You don’t have to be a coder or engineer and a Millennial to volunteer!

 

To learn more about Code for America Charlotte and how citizens are finding the power to help their cities: http://www.codeforamerica.org/geeks/

If you have interest in learning more about civic startups, Code for America has information to help: http://www.codeforamerica.org/about/startups/