How to Improve Government Without Becoming “The Man”?

If “hacktivism” brought together hacking and activism, “civic hacking” brings hacking inside of government. Anonymous—the ragtag hacktivists famous for challenging governments—were edgy, faceless, and unpredictable. By contrast, civic hackers show up in person to government meetings and are unafraid to be a bit uncool. Civic hackers seek to improve democracy not through protest, but by making government work better. They are guided by many of the same values that motivate other hackers: diversity, transparency, participation, and equity. They believe in the benefits of open-source code and standards. And if hacking is, as one famous definition goes, “learning about a system,” what more fascinatingly complex system to spelunk than bureaucracy itself? Code for America (CfA)—the largest civic hacking organization in the nation—opens up government administration to participation and makes infrastructures historically off-limits to activists and the public available for tinkering. Rather than put pressure on government officials to improve their technology, civic hackers seek to directly improve how the government collects data and delivers services.

This fusion of crafty hacking and government administration is most evident in the Code for America “Brigades”—the decentralized, volunteer arm of the organization. For example, the Oakland Brigade collaborated with the public to co-author the city’s open data policy. On the last “National Day of Civic Hacking,” Brigades helped people caught in the criminal justice system by improving record expungement—the process that removes offenses that are no longer crimes from your criminal record (like the marijuana possession charges that disproportionately affect Black and Latinx people). For civic hackers, the gap between laws and implementation is an opportunity for social justice.

This recruitment video emphasizes both participation in government by including a more diverse range of people in shared governance. A mash-up of tech and Lincoln, CfA describes Brigades as “a network of people making government work for the people, by the people, in the digital age.” By drawing on imagery like the American flag, they infuse technological work with moral meaning. Even if some Brigades groups take on social justice causes, many participants also try to transcend contemporary political polarization by picking issues like traffic safety and coastal resiliency that seem to bridge partisan divides. By choosing the right projects and cultivating relationships with public officials, they believe they can hack “government, not politics,” as Jennifer Pahlka is fond of saying. “It’s an avenue to participate in government,” as Jill Bjers of Code for Charlotte says in the video, “outside of traditional avenues of voting and protesting.”

For a world that needs new ways to humanize technology design, civic hacking and the Brigades provide much-needed alternatives. But changing a system from within means activists must temper their political convictions with administrative politics’ apolitical worldview. Can these politically-savvy techies improve government without becoming “the man”?

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