Coding for civic service: what we are learning
Over the past couple of weeks I have been meeting with the new city teams and ‘Code Fellows’ (technologists and designers) in year two of our Code for Europe initiative.
These Fellows are working in city halls across Europe to leverage technology to innovate their services. Nesta co-ordinates the Fellowship programme for the UK with partners in Spain, Finland, the Netherlands, Italy and Germany. In this second year of Code for Europe, four new authorities from across Scotland have joined the programme - Aberdeen, Edinburgh, East Lothian and Clackmannanshire.
We are learning a good deal about how the ‘Code for x’ model delivers greatest value:
- The model at its best involves an interdisciplinary team (coding skills, design skills, user experience) who are given both the status and freedom to explore solutions to challenges. Amsterdam does this very well: the Fellows work closely as a team, are truly embedded in service departments and spend a good deal of time understanding the problem with citizens. In Amsterdam city service teams are invited to attend a workshop where they pitch to host Code Fellows and get the chance to hear from colleagues in other city service areas. In 2013, several city teams realised they were dealing with a similar software or social challenge and this workshop enabled them to join the dots in finding solutions.
- There is a sweet spot for activity in the convergence of cities’ needs, developers’ ideas and citizen action. Some of the best, and potentially most lasting, examples from the Code for Europe programme involve protoyping services like Change by Us (piloted in the US and coming to European cities), Irekia in Spain, or GottoVote in Kenya. Our sister programme Code for Africa is explicit about its role to engage citizens and hosts Citizen Labs to bring citizens together with the Fellows to build projects.
- Intermediary organisations can play a crucial role in terms of placing Fellows in the right departments, with appropriate challenges, providing a sounding board to Fellows and connecting out to practice in other cities. In the US, Code for America plays this role. In Europe, organsiations such as Waag Society and Forum Virium act as intermediaries and Nesta is doing this with authorities which have just joined the programme in Scotland. Intermediaries also have a role to play in helping to steer projects to gain most value where they understand what is (technically) possible and what is (politically) feasible.
- A structured peer-to-peer model for joining up on solving civic challenges both prevents Fellows feeling like lone wolves in city departments and allows ideas to be developed as shared solutions. We are building peer teams with shared challenges more explicitly into Code for Europe this year, as well as partnering up new cities with those who have hosted a Fellow.
- We see the Code Fellows model at its best where city teams have thought hard about the full skill mix they bring to the challenge. The wider team needs to combine tech and design skills with knowledge of policy, economics and the social context. The Code for Europe cities promote two vital roles played by city hall staff: a ‘runner’ (the day-to-day project lead who supports the Fellows in gaining access to the knowledge, people, data to enable the project to happen) and an ‘enabler’ (a connector who champions the project at the highest levels).
I am really encouraged by the changing nature of conversations in local authorities about their plans for the programme. There is lots of talk about how partner authorities can connect around shared challenges, and a willingness to place the Fellows within some challenging areas of public service delivery. It’s going to be exciting to work with them to see what can be achieved.