It’s not hard to see if you pay attention: Cash-strapped local governments are increasingly turning to hackers and entrepreneurs to make their cities run smoother. Code For America has led the movement with a fellowship program that teaches web designers, entrepreneurs, and developers how to help cities innovate, putting some of our country’s programming brain power into the public sector before it gets sucked into Silicon Valley. Now, flush with a $1.5 million grant from Google.org, the nonprofit plans to create a civic startup incubator.
The Code for America Accelerator, which launches next year, wants to turn today’s government procurement model on its head. Traditionally, government contracts are served by longstanding government vendors who aren’t exactly using cutting-edge technology. "We want to replace the model [in the civic space] with same model that has worked in the consumer web," says Abhi Nemani, Director of Strategy and Communications at Code For America.
There are already examples of Internet entrepreneurs disrupting government services for the better: TurboTax, which turned a rough tax interface into something beautiful and simple; Socrata's social data discovery service for government data; and SeeClickFix's citizen reporting service (See a pothole? Click and get it fixed). But according to Nemani, "The sector is not very competitive right now, and there’s not a whole lot of innovation."
For every success story, there’s a failure right alongside it. Nemani gives the example of California’s attempt to build an electronic court filing system. The system still isn’t finished, but it has already cost $2 billion. A lean, agile startup could have successfully completed the project for a cheaper price—and at the end, the startup could have added a layer of open and accessible data for the public.
Code for America’s civic accelerator will last five to six months and offer seed funding, mentorship, and office space to budding civic entrepreneurs. Unlike most other incubators, this one will point out opportunities for civic innovation. "Opportunities for working with government directly aren’t exactly known, so we need to do some work ourselves really drawing attention to them," explains Nemani. Code for America plans to work with local governments directly to find out their needs and wants.
Applications for the accelerator aren’t yet open, but civic-minded nerds can sign up to learn more here.