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A Developer Corps Is A Brilliant Idea for Open Government

By Andrea Di Maio | August 04, 2010 | 2 Comments

web 2.0 in government

The first essay in “Open Government: Collaboration, Transparency and Participation in Practice” was also the one I found most interesting. Matthew Burton wrote about the intriguing idea of a Peace Corp for Programmers.

One of the problem with open government is that, in order to fuel a culture of openness and innovation and use technology to support this goal, government organizations need to use resources that are not readily available to them, such as as young programmers, versed in web 2.0 technologies. These people, some of which heavily criticized my earlier post about developers and politics, are not exactly at ease with the constraints, checks and balances of a government workplace.

Matthew states that:

The government needs to hire the people who have been fueling the web application boom for the past 10 years. They are young programmers who created revolutionary tools from their dorm rooms and they are small firms with virtual offices who stumbled upon a new way of doing business. The trouble is, most of these people are not compatible with government culture

Matthew hits the nail on the head. Innovative and courageous developers are what is needed to turn open government from theory to reality, freeing it from the slavery of external consultants, activists and lobbyists. People who work for government, share its mission, comply with its code of conduct, and yet bring a fresh viewpoint to make information alive, to effectively connect with colleagues in non-government organizations, to create a sense of community and transform government from the inside.
However, as Matthew points out, these people are difficult to attract and retain. Even in a down economy, when a government job may look more attractive, what makes developers great (initiative, creativity, fast pace, unlikely working hours and behaviors) is likely to clash most with the process-oriented culture of government, permeated by accountability and risk reduction priorities.

And here is where Matthew has a stroke of genius.

What if these in-house developers weren’t standard government hires on entry-level salaries? What if their time in the government wasn’t a career, but a mission akin to a term in the Peace Corps? Like the Peace Corps or Teach for America, terms in the Developer Corps would have a time limit

Think about a sabbatical after graduation or the mandatory year or more spent serving in the Army, Navy or Air Force in several countries. When I was young, after my master in electronics engineering, I spent one year in the IT department at the Army General Staff, where I thought they would leverage my expertise with the Ada programming language. On the other hand my time there was mostly exploited by senior officers to prepare presentations with whatever predecessor of Powerpoint they had, to teach them rather primitive videogames, as well as to fill their English language tests on their behalf, something that was needed for their career advancement: it goes without saying that I I traded all this with extra time on leave.

While this probably helps explain why Italians never won a war, it is not exactly what Matthew has in mind. At the time, there were several IT folks serving in the Army who could have given a great contribution. Today there are many more developers than there were at the time, they are probably much better than we were, and technology allows them to be far more productive and effective. Already at the time people who objected joining the defense forces cold opt for what was called “civilian service”. While in the past this was primarily meant to help disadvantaged citizens or perform ancillary tasks for civilian government organizations, one can easily think about leveraging IT developer skills for national, state and local government agencies.

It will be easier for developers to make the leap if they know they will eventually return to their current careers. Being detached from an agency’s pay scale and career plan will give the participants the freedom do experiment and fail. Failure is a key part of innovation.

I fully agree with Matthew’s point. Even more, the Developer Corps may include students who are about to take their bachelor or master degree, and could spend from six to twelve months or more working for an agency: their work there could be part of their curriculum, such as the development of a thesis work. When I was managing the software technologies department of a systems engineering company, we used to hire graduate students on a temporary basis. They would work on a project (usually with a significant R&D component) for a rather modest salary, and could use that work as part of their curriculum at university.

A similar model could be applied to attract brilliant developers, who may not be just moved by the desire of helping their country or city, and need to have an answer to the question “what’s in it for me”.

Of course government has greater constraints than other industries in implementing something like this. Career civil servants and their unions may see this as a threat or as a way to educe permanent employment. To some extent, while Matthew see these developers as part of the government organizations they would work with, it is most likely that they would be seen as external consultants, as people who can do pretty much what they want as they know their career is somewhere else. This has the potential for creating tension, but – if well managed an somewhat “institutionalized” – could really contribute to making a sustainable change.

What I like most about Matthew’s proposal is that he is making us think about what it takes to move open government to something that can become part of the normal course of business, rather than just an aspiration or an obligation as it is today.

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  • Matt says:

    Hi Andrea,

    thanks for the writeup and compliments. It’s great to have another voice behind this idea. There are a few opportunities to bootstrap it at some agencies, while Code For America’s municipal approach could end up providing a good platform at the federal level.


  • @Matt – Indeed. I left out the reference to Code for America, ( which I believe provides an excellent example, as I wanted to highlight that there is an active role for governments to take action individually, before (or in conjunction with) somebody else acting