Recharging the Brigade: Code for America’s Challenge

After five years, CfA's Brigade program is being redesigned, prompted by longstanding frustrations within its volunteer leadership and the need to find a more sustainable model.

Come on now we’re marching to the sea
Got a revolution
Got to revolution
Who will take it from you?
We will and who are we?
We are volunteers of America
—Jefferson Airplane

America’s civic tech army is experiencing some growing pains.

Since its launch in 2012, Code for America’s volunteer-led Brigade program has become one of the most influential civic tech bodies in the country, with chapters in 80 cities and tens of thousands of volunteer participants. A recent study by the Omidyar Network and Purpose found that the majority of grassroots civic tech activities in the U.S. over the past few years have been associated with Code for America (CfA) and that the Brigade network—which costs CfA more than a million dollars a year to run—has largely driven the geographic diversification of civic tech, from hubs in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Philadelphia to outposts in places like Wichita, Kansas, and Birmingham, Alabama. If you wanted evidence that civic tech is spreading, the CfA Brigade program has been Exhibit A.

But after five years, the program is getting redesigned, prompted both by longstanding frustrations within its volunteer leadership as well as the need to find a more sustainable model. Brigade’s challenges have taken on increased urgency because CfA suffered from a fundraising shortfall last year, as CfA founder and executive director Jennifer Pahlka explained in an email to Brigade organizers at the end of December. (Her email, and others to the organizer listserv, can be found in Code for America’s Brigade program Google group.) Meanwhile, in part because of the budget crunch at headquarters, brigades have been operating since the beginning of this year without the stipends from CfA that have helped support meetings and events in previous years.

Pahlka addressed these issues in her end-of-year missive to Brigade captains and core team members, writing:

I don’t think we have been as open and transparent with you as we should be, but more importantly, we have long needed to share more openly the opportunities and challenges of the Brigade program, and invite the community to be a part of the solution in the coming year and beyond.

Later in the same email she added:

I know that we have made some clumsy attempts at things like better alignment between the Brigades and the other CfA work and long-term sustainability for the program. A number of times we have communicated direction to the Brigades that was not entirely thought through on our end, and at the same time not sufficiently invitational. We need to both get better alignment internally and strategize more openly and collaboratively to get past some of the false starts.

In February, Code for America commenced a 10-month “co-creation” process, which the organization describes as a “human-centered design process to allow us to better understand the goals of the Brigade members, and find unprecedented solutions that are rooted in [brigades’] actual needs.” The purpose, governance, and model of the Brigade program are all under scrutiny. Through a survey, one-on-one interviews, small-group sessions, and several sometimes-tense webinars with Brigade captains, Code for America has been soliciting suggestions from Brigade leaders on how to build a sustainable, impactful model that fits the needs of both the brigades and the organization.

To CfA’s credit, much of the process has been transparent and open: the organization has posted the webinars on YouTube and shared survey results and other relevant materials in a public document. This article draws on those materials, in addition to interviews with past and present Brigade organizers and CfA staff.

The initial call to arms

Code for America was founded in 2010 to “help city governments better leverage the power of the web.” Inspired by the Teach for America model, the organization began luring talented techies into devoting a year of their lives to fellowships with participating city government agencies. CfA fellows worked alone or in small teams to develop digital tools and solutions for local challenges, and in exchange, cities chipped in enough to support a portion of the fellows’ monthly stipends and other program costs.

After only a year, the number of technologists who wanted to help improve government far surpassed the number of cities partnering with CfA. In 2011 alone, more than 550 people applied to be a part of its 2012 cohort of 26 fellows. That same year, Google awarded the organization $1.5 million to expand the fellowship and build out two new programs, including the Brigade, a grassroots network of volunteer civic hackers. The Brigade program was created to give current and aspiring civic technologists a way to participate in CfA’s mission in their own city or town, even if they weren’t one of the lucky few to land a fellowship.

Most brigades, following in the footsteps of pre-existing groups like Chicago’s Chi Hack Night, adopted the hack night model, meeting once a week or once a month to work together on a wide range of projects, from building twitterbots that automatically share pet adoption notifications to public transit-tracking applications to websites that make city budgets more open and accessible.

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The Brigade network (Photo:

“There was a lot of momentum and excitement around what it could be but it was really a broad ask,” Nicole Neditch, CfA’s senior director of community engagement, told Civicist. “All of the brigades look different from one another. They all have slightly different focuses and areas that they are working in.”

CfA had its own organizational priorities for the Brigade program, too, including promoting network-wide events like the annual National Day of Civic Hacking, which started in 2013, and the CodeAcross weekend, which began in 2012 and coincides with International Open Data Day. At the end of 2014, Pahlka announced that the organization would begin prioritizing three focus areas—healthy communities, safety and justice, and economic development—in order to concentrate its resources and deepen its impact. CfA has encouraged brigades to work in these areas as well.

While CfA tries to figure out the future of the Brigade program, the organization as a whole has been simultaneously shifting towards an outcomes-based model. “We’re moving from a show-what’s-possible framework to a doing-what’s-necessary framework,” Neditch explained during a webinar for Brigade organizers this June. More specifically, as Neditch and Pahlka jointly wrote in an open letter to the brigades published last week, their first attempt at real scale will be to take a streamlined online application for food assistance in California called GetCalFresh and spread it statewide, and then to other states with similarly low enrollment rates.

CodeAcross Long Beach 2014 (Photo: Molly McLeod)

CodeAcross Long Beach 2014 (Photo: Molly McLeod)

Since the Brigade program began, CfA has struggled to balance the priorities of individual brigades, which generally lie with their local communities, and those of the organization, which is invested in demonstrating a strong, united front around national events, focus areas, and signature tools like GetCalFresh, and the two sides have sometimes been at odds. Pahlka and other staff members frame these conflicts as primarily a problem of miscommunication, but the result has been lost trust and frustration within the Brigade network. Staff turnover at CfA, including the late 2015 departure of Catherine Bracy, CfA’s longtime director of community organizing, followed by Hannah Young, the Brigade program manager, has aggravated the problem.

Reports from the frontline

At the beginning of the year, Brigade coordinator and researcher Monique Baena-Tan sent out a survey to Brigade leaders to kick off the co-creation process. She shared some of the responses during a webinar on March 31 that was later posted to YouTube.

One organizer wrote:

The loss of Bracy and Hannah, whom many of us had a strong relationship with, followed-up by emails from new leadership with a condescending tone and lack of respect for the work and dedication of our community has created a rift I hope you’ll understand is unacceptable.

Another said:

My feeling is that outside of the Brigade Team, CfA doesn’t always treat its Brigade leadership as equal members of this civic tech movement the way they do with Fellows or other non-volunteers. It feels like perhaps the Brigades are perceived as a liability, or as a groups [sic] that needs wrangling.

When asked about this sentiment, Pahlka told Civicist, “If folks feel wrangled, then that’s a sign that there’s been too much talking at and not enough sharing of inspiration and tools. That’s part of what this co-creation process is meant to address.”

“In general, there are certain brigades that are very sympathetic to the challenges and those [that are] more frustrated,” Pahlka added. “I appreciate and validate both—and it’s not binary, it’s a spectrum—both are totally valid and understandable.”

“I don’t have much to add here,” Catherine Bracy wrote in an email responding to Civicist’s request for comment. “Except that when I reflect on my time at CfA, and when I see the results of the Purpose/Omidyar report, I feel even more strongly about the need to develop the skill of community organizing (and a deep understanding of how power works) inside the civic tech community.”

Hannah Young could not be reached for comment.

Division within the ranks

Preston Rhea worked as the civic engagement program coordinator from March 2014 to June 2015, when the network was growing quickly and CfA was still flush with support. He helped come up with standards that would define “official” and “unofficial” brigades, a designation that was directly tied to whether or not brigades could receive financial support or in-kind donations from CfA.

“Early on, I was involved in coming up with a sort of pathway for brigades, because you know Code for America wouldn’t want just anyone calling themselves a brigade,” Rhea told Civicist. This pathway came to include the development of a leadership team and a strategic plan, among other requirements.

Many brigades never bothered to become “official,” either because they lacked the capacity to do so or because they didn’t see that the time and effort needed would be worthwhile.

Britten Kuckelman, who became a co-captain of Open Wichita earlier this year, didn’t even know whether her brigade was official or not when she spoke to Civicist. In a follow up email she wrote, “I had a conversation with my co-captains yesterday and we are not an official brigade. The reason behind that is we just never prioritized it and have been so focused on local we haven’t made a point to try to become one.”

Derek Eder of Chi Hack Night told Civicist that his group has never become an official brigade because their work predated CfA and he wanted to maintain the group’s independence, although at one point CfA did sponsor them.

Rhea told Civicist that creating standards for official brigades sometimes went against his instincts as a community organizer, and that he can understand the frustration of Brigade leaders. “Inevitably,” he said, “especially because there’s a lot of people who started brigades on their own and had a lot of ties in their community and set them up themselves—it’s going to be frustrating when you see a certain path forward that you want to pursue and for one reason or another you get caught up with stuff you have to deal with from HQ.”

Captains who did choose to make their brigades official found that financial support from CfA did not come without strings, and was used as a kind of soft power over the brigades.

“The brigades can’t tell Code for America what to do…and Code for America also can’t necessarily tell Brigade what to do, but Code for America does have the ability to withhold funding and support,” said Rhea.

A 2013 email from former Brigade coordinators Kevin Curry and Hannah Young makes this connection between funding and CfA priorities explicit. They wrote:

Please keep in mind: Support is available only for activities that are clearly aligned with Brigade. Your project and expense plans will be used in determination of funding support. Priority is given to reimburse activities and events that we have asked for from you. Brigade will also reimburse your approved project ideas as funding is available for project plans [that] demonstrate strong alignment with Brigade goals and strategic outcomes.

Last year Code for America had to stop reimbursing brigades for event costs, in some ways making this issue redundant, but also putting many brigades in a tight spot. Brigades without local funding could apply to CfA for transition funds to cover the first quarter of the year, and CfA distributed $500 to all 14 brigades that applied.

Nicole Neditch told Civicist that the standards for official brigades were once necessary because of the way nonprofits have to account for funds, but said that they might not have to make brigades “jump through those hoops” now that the stipends have been discontinued.

Tait Wayland, the captain of Code for Birmingham, says he sees both sides of the issue. On one hand, he can appreciate the importance of compelling brigades to have things like a code of conduct—which all brigades, official or unofficial, must have—but he also agrees that Code for America used the stipends to control what brigades worked on.

“As far as what projects we should work on and focus on, I think they—it seems like their idea of that has evolved over the past couple years a lot, to tell you the truth,” Wayland told Civicist. “At first it seemed too controlled, like the constraints that they wanted brigades to focus on. But then, you know, with funding not coming in it seems like they’ve sort of backed off on what they wanted us to work on.”

“I don’t really know currently what the rules are as far as what projects we should focus on anymore and whether or not that’s constrained to any funding that may be coming in the future,” he added.

Wayland told Civicist that the loss of the stipends hit Code for Birmingham pretty hard, and that brigade activities have been more “dormant” this year. “Losing funding was the biggest factor to things kind of unwinding,” he told Civicist. Wayland is currently training a new captain, and plans to step back from leading the brigade soon.

Complaints about pressure to work on specific things cropped up in the responses to Baena-Tan’s survey. One organizer wrote:

The Brigade program does a few things really well that are critical to the success of the civic tech movement: working local, building talent, and sharing ideas. CfA needs to lean into the things the program does well, and stop trying to make it fit a different narrative in areas that it is weak, like conforming to Focus Areas which may or may not be relevant locally.

Although some brigade captains might not have liked how the stipends were distributed, many brigades relied on them, and the sudden loss of a reliable source of support has in itself been a source of discord.

Forging ahead

The ten-month co-creation process began in February with a three-month research period, anchored by two webinars on March 31 and April 26. It was followed by an ideation period that began in May and will run through the end of summer, during which CfA is hosting small group sessions on specific topics like funding and governance models. The organization will begin implementing changes in the fall.

Chris Whitaker, the current Brigade program manager, described it during the March 31 webinar as “unprecedented” in its scope, but it is not the first time CfA has tried to rejigger the Brigade program. Last year, the organization hired consultants to look into whether an affiliate model could be instituted for more mature brigades, but after months of conversations with Brigade organizers, the model was found to be impracticable. This dead-end frustrated some of the captains who spent hours exploring the option, and who now say they are hesitant or unwilling to participate in the co-design process.

“I spend a lot of time engaging w. CfA last year, and less time building a local community. This year, It’s going to be hard to convince me to spend a bunch of time on the phone again, when I could be continuing to fundraise locally [sic],” wrote one organizer in the webinar chat.

Code for Philly’s executive director Dawn McDougall said that participating in the research last year was detrimental to her brigade. “The community wasn’t getting what it needed,” she told Civicist. She decided to sit the co-design process out and focus on her brigade this year.

By CfA’s count, at least a hundred organizers have participated in the process at least once, but that is still only a fraction of the 520 Brigade leaders in the network.

Baena-Tan and Neditch say they are pleased with the way the co-design process is going so far.

“I looked at the tension [during the first webinar] as being a really great thing because people were able to actually participate in a way that they hadn’t been able to before,” Neditch told Civicist.

At this point in the process, it is impossible to know how exactly the Brigade program will change in the months and years ahead. It seems likely that the differences between official and unofficial brigades will become less important, and that CfA will be more encouraging of brigades’ prerogative to work on local issues. However, without financial support, it is also likely some brigades will fade back into their local woodwork.

“We really want to shift [the] model and create low-barrier ways to participate and create greater independence for people to pursue the things that are going to benefit their communities,” Neditch said.

Although CfA staff tell Civicist that they have always wanted and encouraged brigades to work on local issues, in communications this year they have particularly stressed that point.

“I really wanted to emphasize the fact that local issues are important and that you can work on your local issues,” Baena-Tan explained during a training for new captains earlier this year. She added:

I think when we’ve communicated Code for America’s concentration within the Focus Areas I think people have been—there’s been a little bit of miscommunication and they’ve felt discouraged in thinking that they have to lead their Brigade to only be working in those four Focus Areas, and I just wanted to really emphasize that that’s not the case.

“Just because we are focusing on these [focus] areas and taking a couple of products to scale doesn’t mean that you have to focus on these areas as well, and it certainly doesn’t mean that building the field is no longer a priority at Code for America,” Neditch and Pahlka wrote in their open letter to brigades last week. “You can and should address local issues.”

However, CfA will continue to be invested in greater organizational alignment between Brigade and headquarters. In her interview with Civicist, Pahlka spoke of the importance of telling a shared story. “When we think about resources, be they funding or people or time or attention, resources go towards coherent narratives,” she said. The need for a shared story is also one of the central recommendations in the Omidyar/Purpose report for how civic technologists can grow the movement.

Pahlka said some Brigade organizers share this desire. “Certainly a lot of Brigade folks have wanted to be able to pursue the priorities in their own community,” she told Civicist. “And a lot of Brigade folks have wanted to do something together that adds up to something more than the sum of its parts.”

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Indeed, many of the organizers wrote in response to Baena-Tan’s survey that they wanted to be better connected to the network, and the majority of them also said they highly value the connection to CfA; 58 percent characterized the association as very important (a five or six on a scale of six). However, when asked “How satisfied are you with your Brigade’s current engagement with Brigade HQ?” only 27 percent responded that they were very satisfied. While this isn’t a complete picture of the network’s views—of the 520 core team members invited to take the survey, only 35 responded—it does give some idea. (After the first webinar, some organizers asked Baena-Tan to reopen the survey to allow more people to respond, but only six additional surveys were submitted and Zoe Blumenfeld, CfA’s marketing manager, said that the additional responses had little effect on the original data.)

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There is also no getting around the fact that the majority of Brigade organizers (63 percent) said they needed more financial support—which is precisely what CfA says they are not in a position to offer.

Sustainability of what are essentially volunteer-run local programs is an elusive goal. Earlier this year, Civicist interviewed the co-founders of OpenOakland, Eddie Tejeda and Steven Spiker, after they announced that they were stepping down as captains because they were burned out. They told Civicist that they had tried and failed to find appropriate funding to support their work on OpenOakland, which had eaten into the time they had for their jobs and their family for too long.

Code for Birmingham’s Tait Wayland also spoke candidly about burnout with Civicist, and the impossibility of perpetually running a brigade and working full-time, especially in a small city where city government is uncooperative and there might not be a ready supply of community members willing to share or take on a leadership role.

“Even if we had all the funding and support in the world I’d probably still be doing it,” he said, of his decision to soon step down.

“One thing that doesn’t make it into the headlines is how much sacrifice goes into this work,” Code for Philly’s Dawn McDougall said.

Both are understanding of the challenges on CfA’s end, too. “I can’t hold anything against them,” Wayland said. “I can complain but I can’t really provide a solution.”

“What we’re realizing is that we can’t rely on other organizations,” McDougall said. Code for Philly is still exploring options for becoming more of a stand-alone organization. Of the group’s relationship with CfA, she said, “I’d love to keep just having some way to keep supporting one another without it being harmful to either side.”

When asked if she could point to any model brigades that have achieved sustainability, Pahlka said, “All of them are sustaining. Not perfectly, but like I said, we’ve hit some hard times.”

“Where you see burn out,” she added, “that feels like, ok this is a sign where we’ve got to change something. It hasn’t been burn out to the extent that anyone has packed up and gone home. They still believe in the mission and they’re still there…We’ve just got to keep this talking up.”

There is also the possibility that expectations for the Brigade and for Brigade leaders are simply too high. The way Tait Wayland sees it, nobody should be leading a brigade for more than two or three years, and the reality is that in smaller cities like Birmingham there might not be a ready replacement. Perhaps there shouldn’t be the expectation or even hope that one or two superhuman captains will lead a brigade indefinitely.

Perhaps the expectation that all brigades can and should secure local funding is unreasonable as well. It is one thing to ask that of a brigade in a major city and innovation hub like New York or San Francisco, where experts in nonprofit funding and local resources are close at hand. Brigades like Code for Birmingham operate with fewer people, fewer resources, and, in some cases, greater resistance from local government. Although Wayland acknowledges that CfA has been good at getting fundraising materials and guides to organizers, he says brigades like his simply don’t have the capacity to use them.

Preston Rhea also agrees that expecting brigades to find local funding is unreasonable. “You can’t just be like, people who volunteer their time: now you need to learn how to fundraise,” he told Civicist. “Direct support is a really powerful thing.”

“Building local fundraising capacity is also great,” he added, but it needs more time.

I asked Pahlka if we should lower our expectations for what brigades can do without direct support from CfA headquarters.

“I don’t know,” she replied. She said that when she began Code for America and started signing all of the thank you letters to funders, that there was a small stack of thank yous for significant sums. Now, she said, there’s a pile of notes and many of them are for relatively small sums. “There’s a notable source of change for me in the sources of the money. One of the things we theorized is we can arm folks with those tools. I didn’t raise money either before I started CfA. I learned to ask for money.”

When asked how CfA will continue to be more open, transparent, and participatory after the co-creation process is over, Pahka said, “The community will have to hold [us] accountable to that and we will have to hold ourselves accountable to that.”

“We are going to figure this stuff out,” she added at the very end of our interview. “There’s so much good. Such good people. So much potential. Every time I get down about it, people tell me this is normal and that communities go through this. We just have to keep this positive spirit and everything will be ok.”

Disclosure: Code for America is an organizational member of Civic Hall.