The Passionate Minority

By Scott Silverman, 2011 CfA Fellow

As the debt ceiling gets a little higher, and schools around the country continue to struggle with budget cuts, Chrystia Freeland has proclaimed that 2011 will be “The Year We Gave Up On Government.” Her piece furthers economist Albert O. Hirschman’s conclusion that as frustration with a firm, organization, or state builds, there are two options for response: exit or voice. Jen Pahlka, our founder at Code for America, took issue with this conclusion yesterday in her post “Exit or Voice? How About Neither?”. She argues that there is a third option: Make. As one of the 20 fellows in the inaugural Code for America class, and a graduate of an institution focused on producing active citizens, I could not agree with Jen more strongly.

There is a passionate minority aimed not at yelling or leaving, but rather at making change. Looking towards Boston, where I’m spending a few weeks working on the Code for America project, you can see this movement inside the City itself. Mayor Menino, a self-proclaimed “Urban Mechanic,” has assembled a small, innovative team called New Urban Mechanics. The name alone is a powerful reference. Chris Osgood and Nigel Jacob, the team’s co-chairs, pilot “civic innovations that offer the potential to improve radically the quality of City services.”

Jen with the Code for America fellows in Boston City Hall

Take for example an iPhone app that lets you share problems around your city, or software that uses the accelerometer in your smartphone to automatically identify and report potholes as you drive. While these early success stories in Boston are exciting and even sexy, they are just the beginning. The real challenge is finding ways to institutionalize this kind of innovation within government. With this in mind, one effort Chris and Nigel initiated this year is the Code for America project.

For its part, Code for America—an organization aimed at helping city governments embrace the web—is an interesting hybrid of inside-outside, bottom-up, and top-down. We technically work outside the city environment, hosting our products in the cloud and using modern web frameworks like Rails and Django, but with special access to city resources, officials, and data. The products we develop are brought to market both through official city channels and by targeting users (citizens) directly.

Our solutions range from big to small, and oftentimes are more about process and less about product. In Boston, we’ve developed a website that lets parents track their student’s school bus in real-time. There’s also a webapp for teachers to send out homework assignments to their classes via text message. Currently, we’re re-imagining how parents research public schools in Boston and building an authoritative source for Boston’s public data. In the private sector, the products we’re making for Boston are services that consumers expect as standard. In government, however, it’s a very different story: citizens expect inconvenience and inefficiency as standard. This is why the The Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics and Code for America are re-thinking and re-working how government interfaces with citizens.

But all this isn’t just about Boston or Code for America. It’s about a movement. As a graduate of Tufts, I’ve had the privilege of watching numerous civic-minded friends move into careers all similarly aimed at making civic change. My friend Ike is a CORO fellow focusing on ethical leadership and public affairs. David is developing a citizen-powered communications platform in Africa. Duncan is in Tunisia working on democratic elections. CJ is Teaching for America. Xavier is conducting research with the American Humanist Association. The list goes on, but my point is this: there is a movement, and a generation, passionate about change. We are working diligently (and sometimes discreetly) to make change around the world. The weird thing? It doesn’t feel like anything special: to the passionate minority change is just another form of work.

This is the power of America. While we could yell or leave, many choose a third, far more powerful option: Make. And from my viewpoint, it looks like a new generation is just beginning its work.

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Alicia Mazzara

Thanks for sharing all these cool Code for America projects in Boston, and for giving us a little sliver of hope among all the recent gloom and doom in the news. It’s great to see people who are empowered and innovating.

Amelia Brunelle

Yes, this entire debt debacle, along with years of watching this type of thing, and studying it in grad school has spawned a new phrase i’ve been mulling over for a week or so..

Why whine when you can fix; why blame when you can create?

Good to hear about these initiatives and be encouraged that my generation won’t ALL be angry, demoralized citizens!

Carol Davison

I’ve been on four reinventing government projects since October, with only one completed. Commerce is working on getting better. One project was even a priviledge and an honor to work on.

Regarding the ethical leadership project, why aren’t we investing PMF typeresources in them? Ethical people are in the minority. Smart is not that hard to come by.

Andrew Krzmarzick

@Abhi – Great post! This fired me up:

“we’ve developed a website that lets parents track their student’s school bus in real-time. There’s also a webapp for teachers to send out homework assignments to their classes via text message. Currently, we’re re-imagining how parents research public schools in Boston and building an authoritative source for Boston’s public data.”

Can you come to Durham, NC, and do the same for us within the next 4 years when my son will go to school? 😉

@Carol Have you seen this post by Jack Shaw on “Character Training”?


Gets at the issue of ethical leadership. Also, check out the Ethics Resource Center.

Jay Johnson

Great examples of being awesome by exceeding the expectations of those that depend on your work. Much better to work with government than to wait for government for solutions.

Michelle McClellan

Do you work for one of those govts though – the ones that don’t give any staff mobile phones, let alone iPhones or smartphones… or even access to gmail from the desktop?

How do we implement services for the future when we aren’t even trusted to use the technology ourselves (or they are just too cheap to let anyone have a laptop..).

How many people in govt create things for mobile devices and have to use their own personal equipment to test it?

Julie Chase

@ Michelle, finally someone in government that is still bound and gagged by the “multi lettered acronym”, i.e. directive, bulletin, et al.

Smartphones? Really? Who gets them, what pay grade? Do they have blue tooth? (not at my installation, not allowed). Gmail on the desktop? on gov furnished computer? Surely you jest. :oP You have Office 2007, complete with Outlook email, enjoy it. We’ll get to Office 2010, sometime in 2018.

I read all the innovative things you can do with an ipad, but does anyone really think that Uncle Sam is going to just hand these out randomly? at taxpayer expense, during a wage and hiring freeze? The IT security people are pulling their hair out at the very mention of the word “wireless”. Really?

Where I work, we need software and wireless hardware to keep the warfighter moving. However, wireless is not allowed. Procuring IT hardware and software to do your mission is next to impossible. By the time you receive it, the next version has come out.

Michelle McClellan

@Julie, you mean Office 2003 right? We have dreams of one day being on 2007. Wait, what do you mean there’s a 2010??? 😉 See you in 2018!