Code for America Brigade to Elect First National Advisory Council

Some Brigade leaders believe that whoever is nominated to the new national advisory council will determine the future direction of the Brigade.

“Cautiously optimistic,” is how Noel Hidalgo, a Code for America Brigade captain, describes his feelings about the future of the Brigade. Earlier this month, Code for America announced the creation of a national advisory council to govern the grassroots network of 80 civic hacking groups around the country. Hidalgo was among the 13 captains and core team members nominated by their peers to join the inaugural council of nine, which will lead the network as it becomes increasingly independent—financially and logistically—from Code for America HQ.

“It’s a fairly monumental step,” Hidalgo, the co-founder of BetaNYC, told Civicist. “Whoever is on the national advisory council is going to determine really the future of the Brigade program. Or at least that’s what it’s seen as by a majority of Brigade leaders.”

The Brigade network is at a crossroads. This summer I reported on a ten-month co-creation process that Code for America initiated in February to re-examine the purpose, governance, and model of the Brigade program. The process was prompted both by longstanding frustrations within the volunteer core at overbearing, top-down leadership decisions, and an unexpected funding shortfall that forced Code for America to reexamine how it allots resources, and to stop providing stipends to the brigades to support their activities.

The national advisory council is a product of that extended, occasionally awkward and tense process. But Brigade program manager Christopher Whitaker downplayed the frustrations aired during the co-creation process in a blog post announcing the creation of the council, which bizarrely framed the news as a birthday present to the Brigade. (“This year, the Code for America Brigade program turns four, and to celebrate we’re introducing a new national advisory council to advise on a sustainable model to support this work.”)

The co-creation process raised many more questions than it did solutions—although there were hints of solutions to come—and the more pressing issues, like sustainability and burnout, will soon fall to the inaugural council to sort out.

The council itself will be made up of nine members, all current Brigade leaders. Starting in late August, current and former Brigade leaders nominated 13 of their peers for the position, but the final decision will be made by the network as a whole. From September 19 – 30, anyone in “the broader civic tech community” is invited to vote here. The first remote council meeting will take place in October, and the council will meet in person for the first time at the Code for America Summit in November. Aside from Chris Whitaker’s blog post, the organization is relying on the nominees and other Brigade leaders to get the word out.

“The first year will be provisional while the group defines its purpose and determines a more permanent structure,” Whitaker wrote in an email to Civicist. “The council will help enforce the Code of Conduct and will be a link between Code for America and the greater civic tech community.”

One of the initial goals of the council is to identify a sustainable financial model that could ensure the future of the Brigade program. Now that Code for America has stopped financially supporting individual Brigades, leadership teams are expected to fundraise on top of their many other responsibilities, and as I reported over the summer, that is causing some Brigade captains to burn out even faster.

Luigi Ray-Montanez, a co-founder of Code for Atlanta and a nominee for the new advisory council, thinks that the new governing body can help relieve that burden. “Fundraising at a national level should be the primary responsibility of the national advisory council,” he wrote in a Medium post. “A national network of technologists looking to do civic and social good is something that the Googles, Amazons, and Microsofts of the world should be fully funding.”

“Through corporate sponsorships, the annual stipends can be reinstated, relieving Brigade organizers of time that can be better spent organizing their communities,” he added.

“Should fund” and “will fund” are entirely different beasts, however.

Chris Alfano, a founding co-captain of Code for Philly and another nominee for the national advisory council, thinks this plan is overly optimistic and unrealistic. He pointed out that Code for America has gone to the companies mentioned above, and if they haven’t met with success (or were given one-time grants that weren’t meant to be repeated), the national advisory council for the Brigade network is not likely to have better luck.

Alfano believes the council could fundraise enough to support several full-time, national positions, or even starter funds for brand-new brigades, but that local work should be supported by local fundraising.

If the drive is there to build the movement, Alfano argues, you don’t need much money. “You don’t have to buy pizza every week,” he told Civicist over a Google hangout.

Alfano would like to see the new council come up with ways to optimize the network to share best practices and resources.

The creation of the leadership council is a win for the Brigade, because it theoretically codifies a more bottom-up leadership structure in a network that has often chafed at overly-prescriptive directives from Code for America HQ.

“This is a good attempt to meet the criticism that there’s no local control over the Brigade program from those doing the heavy lifting, so it’s a positive step,” Steven Spiker, a former co-captain of OpenOakland, wrote in an email to Civicist.

However, there is a lot of hard work still to be done, and creating a national advisory council doesn’t guarantee fair representation and good governance, although it’s a step in the right direction.

“There are outstanding questions that we have—that I have—about the NAC [national advisory council] and its role leading the Brigade program,” Hidalgo tells Civicist. “How much autonomy and how much leadership will the NAC have to outline the agenda for the Brigade program? How much of it is a rubber stamp committee…how much is it truly a community governance board?”

Regardless of how the council manifests in the next year or two, the Brigade is entering a new period of independence. One of two major conclusions of an ideation session on governance this summer was, “We’d like to move towards a model where Brigades don’t necessarily need to rely on CfA to operate.”

The council isn’t exactly Code for America’s birthday present to the Brigade, but the Brigade sure is growing up.

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