Founded in 2009, Code for America is driven by the idea that “the people and power of the web” can, if properly harnessed, upgrade how government works. At the center of the San Francisco-based non-profit’s work is a one-year fellowship program that, in 2012, had fellows working in partnerships with eight U.S. cities: Austin, Chicago, Detroit, Honolulu, Macon, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Santa Cruz.
Sheba Najmi was one of those 2012 fellows. Pakistan-born and a longtime San Francisco resident, Najmi, 33, has an M.A. in Symbolic Systems from Stanford and spent years at Yahoo!. As a Code for America fellow, Najmi was assigned to Hawaii’s capital city where, among other things, she served as the lead on that team’s flagship project, Honolulu Answers. Here she talks about the fellowship, what Honolulans search for in their government, and the difference a year has made in what she sees in City Hall.
Next City: So what did you work on for a year as a Code for America fellow?
Sheba Najmi: A lot of what you do at Code for America is about being change agents, showing what is possible. We’re only there for a year, but we’re hoping that by showing what’s possible when you run things more like a lean start-up, more like Silicon Valley, and less like the bureaucracy of government — how things can be done in an efficient way, how you can reach out to citizens better and crowdsource information, whatever it is.
To get traction in government, a lot of that is about getting buy-in. The applications we create aren’t rocket science, but something like Yelp doesn’t exist for government. It’s everyday for us to interact with things like Yelp or Hipmunk that improve people’s lives.
In February, the teams go to our cities. We’re really on our own, spending five weeks working with City Hall, as well as with the community, just talking, talking, talking constantly to folks. Our city partner [Forest Frizzell, the then-deputy director of Honolulu’s Department of Information Technology] had an associate who was very active in the community. Through him we were able to go to all the co-working spaces, to check out the tech groups as well some of the non-profits that are trying to make things better in the city. We were trying to see where we could bring those things closer.
NC: A Code for America city pays for its fellows. [The “city participation fee” for the standard three-fellow team is $180,000.] Someone inside government has to invite you to come and commit to providing support. The prerequisites for pulling off technology projects seem to be there already. Why do they need to bring in people from the outside?
Najmi: It’s typically one person or one department that drums up the budget for it and files the application. That means that that person is on board, that that person is a change agent. But that doesn’t mean that the system supports that person. The system’s set up to preserve the status quo. It can be, unfortunately, very bureaucratic.
I mean, procurement is a nightmare. We built applications a lot faster because we weren’t in the system. If we’d been embedded in it we would have needed to go through the whole rigmarole of procurement, and this and that, bidding and whatnot. It would have taken two years for some of the things we were able to complete in a couple months.
Our goal is really to enable the change agents who are already there. They’re trying to make things happen, but they can’t do it on their own. We help show them how it’s possible. And we create the momentum by bridging the gap between the community and City Hall. We introduce them to each other.
Once we put that in place, the hope is that can survive, that there’s enough momentum that it can continue after we’re gone. Of course, Code for America hasn’t been around long enough to do a longitudinal study. But what we hear is that it opens up people in city government who know that they want things to be different but just don’t know how to do it. It opens them up to way of thinking. And we also connect cities to each other. It shows those people who are trying to make change in their cities that they’re not alone.
NC: What problem does “Honolulu Answers” solve?
Najmi: Have you ever looked at a government website? Most have a wealth of information, but it’s often hard for citizens to navigate to find answers to their questions. Usually it’s written in very official language, or search is hidden. When we were in City Hall, every single department that we talked to said that the government website was a pain point for them. Oftentimes citizens look for information, can’t find it and pick up the phone to call customer more frustrated because haven’t been able to find anything.
Everything was designed based on how the city was organized internally, and not from a citizen’s perspective. In Honolulu, getting a drivers license is a city function and it’s done by the customer service department. But how is a citizen to know that? Do they even need to know that? Or our water bill and utilities bill come on the same bill, but the water part is the Board of Water Supply and for utilities you need to go to the Department of Environmental Services.
We thought, okay, how to we make like easier for both the people who work in the city and citizens? But to redo the entire website with all the content from all the departments is basically something that can’t be done in six months of development time. So we thought, okay, what can we do to alleviate the problem and set it on the right course?
Honolulu Answers is driven by questions. Any question that a citizen has in mind, there’s a simple quick answer — one page written in friendly language as though you’re talking to your neighbor, asking them a question. It’s a clean, easy to navigate design. Most Internet journeys begin with search, so we designed the site with that in mind. And then at the same time we bubble up most frequently asked questions and new topics so that the majority of users can just click straight through to their topic.
To figure out what people were searching for, we put in Google Analytics onto the city’s website. Driving people to Honolulu.gov were things like drivers licenses, motor vehicle registration, and getting city jobs. So those are the ones we decided to tackle first.
We wanted to create a community-focused website, and what better way to do that than to bring the community in to write answers to their own questions? So we did a “civic write-a-thon.”
Like Honolulu Answers, this was an experiment. Our city partners were [otherwise] very supportive, but initially weren’t buying it. Why would people show up on a weekend when we’re not offering them any money or any prizes? It was really kind of amazing: On a Saturday morning at 8:45 there about 60 people showed up. They were people we didn’t really know. They just wanted to be a part of rewriting their local government.
NC: But who, actually, were they?
Najmi: Just people. [Laughs.] They were all ages. The youngest was, I think, 17, and the old person there was probably in their 70s. Some of them were from the tech community that we’d advertised to. But most of them, I’d say, were people we didn’t know at all. They were just interested.
They weren’t necessarily writers. They didn’t need to be. We used Google Analytics and talked to each department to ask them what the top questions were they received from citizens. And we wrote those up and we pasted them up along the wall. But we also said to people, if you have your own questions, write those. We had somebody come in to talk about the fact that this wasn’t about stellar writing. This was about writing things in plain and simple language. In two and a half hours of writing time, 120 articles were written.
Another aspect that was really cool was that 14 city staff members showed up who were not paid for this. They came on their own time, and they were domain experts in their department. They could help people research answers to the questions. When we tried to research the answers on Honolulu.gov ourselves, we often had to reach out to the departments and say, what does this mean? So as they were explaining things to people in plain language, they were beginning to see things from a citizen’s perspective.
NC: What’s the quality check on that sort of citizen-sourced writing?
Najmi: They don’t go to the website right away. Instead, they needed to be fact checked. They had different writing styles and all that. So what we did was send out a call to all the departments to come together and form a sort of content writing group. I conducted seven or eight rounds of workshops to teach them a style of writing we wanted for Honolulu Answers. We created a dead-simple content management system and a group of four people who are editors. Those people actually get to hit “publish.”
NC: Is there anything you found disappointing about the experience?
Najmi: There were folks in City Hall who really wanted to participate in this but didn’t get permission from their managers because it would take time away. That would be kinda sad.
Also, the big thing that happened in Honolulu is that the existing mayor lost the election. He and his administration were only there for two years because they came in halfway through. [Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Peter Carlisle won the mayor’s seat in the 2010 special election that had been called after Mufi Hannemann resigned to run for governor. In 2012, Carlisle came in third in the non-partisan primary; Kirk Caldwell, a former Honolulu mayor, took office last week.] As of January 2, our city partner is no longer at the city. A ton of people who were really engaged with Code for America are no longer at the city. Honolulu is where we’re going to see, okay, can the changes we made perpetuate across administrations?
NC: Does anyone come out of Code for America interested in a career actually in government?
Najmi: At the beginning of the fellowship, they asked us, would you ever want to work in government? Most people said no, because government seems bureaucratic and hard and blah, blah, blah.
What we were constantly surprised by was how many people there are in government who do get it and who are trying to make change. At the end of the fellowship, they asked each of us the same question, and there were a lot more of us who said yes.
NC: Code for America pitches itself to potential fellows as “a crash course in how cities work.” What did you learn about how cities work that you hadn’t known?
Najmi: I didn’t know anything about cities. [Laughs.] Before the fellowship, I might have thought about City Hall as this big, bureaucratic black hole of inefficiencies. And then when you go there, you realize that, my god, there are real people there with real challenges. A lot of people are trying to do the very best they can. It’s true that there are of course government workers who are just there for the job security. But a lot more than that are people are trying make things happen, and be helpful as best they can. It’s the system that what really needs to be shaken up in a big way.
One nice thing was that in Honolulu, I’d face the same thing. Yeah, I’m trying to do this, but this has this dependency, and that has that dependency, and that other department can’t do it because of X, Y, Z. It’s this trail of madness. But all it needs is to be asked a series of “why?” questions: Ultimately, why does it have to be done this way? And do it very politely, and you realize that a lot of the reason that things are the way they are is not because it’s written in a rule book anywhere or required by law. It’s just because it’s legacy. It’s the way things have been. If we really want to shake up the way things have been, you’ve got to go in with the intent to frickin’ shake up the place. Do things differently, and let people slap your hands afterwards.
NC: Did you ever feel people in Honolulu resented that approach?
Najmi: Not in City Hall. In City Hall, they didn’t resent us being there, but there might have been some resistance to some additional work we were asking of them. That’s a valid reason.
In Honolulu, there’s a lot of mistrust of government. Native Hawaiians don’t participate in government and have a lot of mistrust, with good historical reason. Democracy is a very sort of haole notion. [Merriam-Webster on haole: “One who is not descended from the aboriginal Polynesian inhabitants of Hawaii.”] If there’s a problem between one family and another, you sit together and ‘talk story’ until to come to some conclusion.
Native Hawaiians often get left out, and there’s resentment against people parachuting in. One time, we were at the University of Hawaii, I think, and it’s February and we’re thinking, “Hey, we’re here to help! Everyone should love us.”[Laughs.] We expected a warm reception, and we got it, by and large. But we were invited to speak at evening class of adults. One woman, who was white herself, talked about the resistance to people coming in and thinking they’re just going to fix everything. She was pretty harsh. But it was really valuable.
In Honolulu Answers, we tried to incorporate, on a small level, some sensibilities, like Hawaiian place names or words — they’re often mispronounced or misspelled, without the ‘okinas [the glottal stop called for by the ‘ in “Hawai’i.”] — or including a native Hawaiian pattern. It’s a very small thing. But it was really helpful for us to be aware of the specific challenges that Honolulu has in engaging the native community.
Code for America’s 2013 local partners are Kansas City (both Kansas and Missouri); Las Vegas; Louisville; New York City; Oakland; San Francisco; South Bend; San Mateo County, California; and Summit County, Ohio. A class of 28 fellows just began their own “January Institute” in San Francisco before being deployed to their assigned cities.
Nancy Scola is a Washington, DC-based journalist whose work tends to focus on the intersections of technology, politics, and public policy. Shortly after returning from Havana she started as a tech reporter at POLITICO.