She believes strongly that with the help of new technology, local governments can work more democratic and that the gap between ‘city hall’ and the citizens will be smaller. Catherine Bracy is the director of Community Organizing of Code for America.The ngo, founded in 2009, is building open source technology and is organizing a network of people to make government services more simple, efficient and easy to use.
“It is imperative. Local governments have to get on board, otherwise they will miss out and the gap with their citizens will grow and grow.’’
Bracy is travelling a lot to expand this civic technology movement. “Our work is not so much about the technology itself, not about apps, about open data – but much more about people. About their connection with their government. Of course open data sets are necessary to achieve our goals.’’Literally Code for America goes ‘beyond data’” We learned in this six years very quick that technology is not the hard part. It is much harder to change to the way governments work. The mentality. The system is so top-down and they are mostly very conservative. But we definitely see a lot of desire in the public sector. The desire for more democracy, to get their citizens involved but mostly they don’t know how. Where to start?
What are the biggest obstacles?
“Remarkable officials in different places in the world have the same questions, the same fear. They are so used to managing everything. How to partner up with the public to improve services is new, but not only the government is to blame. Citizens should also stop just complaining about what ‘city hall’ does wrong. It’s time to show action.”
Code for America works with brigades: local volunteer groups that bring together community members to help make government work better. They use technology to build new tools to help with local civic issues. How did you achieve that?
“Maybe it is an American thing, but if you give people the opportunity to mean something for the city, they are very willing. In the US, we get 80 new volunteers every day. We should not only ask for better service to the government, but as an entrepreneur show it yourself. My favorite example is from Mexico.
The Mexican government wanted to give a contract to a software development firm to build an app that legislators would use to track bills. A two-year contract for 9.3 million dollars. Some activists became angry, they knew this was just too much money and started to create awareness. They started a challenge and asked people to build something better and cheaper and in a few days they got a big response. They succeeded and showed the Congress 5 apps, which they are still using to this day. It was the start of the movement Code for Mexico City. Activists are still working with the government to implement new technologies.
Bracy knows, “it is this kind of concrete example which convinces others.” When we start to work with governments we always start with a small easy tool. Then they understand what can be the impact. How you can really change the daily live of citizens.
In Holland for a lot of local governments this is still a long way to go.
“It just takes time. We have already been working for 6 years on this issue. Officials need to see, they have to gain trust but I am very optimistic. This is imperative. Citizens – who are using technology in so many ways – will demand an other way of working from their local government.’’