In recent years, civic innovation fellowships have shown great promise to improve the relationships between citizens and government. In the United States, Code for America and the Presidential Innovation Fellows have demonstrated the positive impact a small group of technologists can have working hand-in-hand with government. With the launch of Code for All, Code for Europe, Code4Kenya, and Code4Africa, among others, the model is going global.
But despite the increasing popularity of civic innovation fellowships, there are few templates for how a “Code for” program can be adapted to a different context. In the US, the success of Code for America has drawn from a wealth of tech talent eager to volunteer skills, public and private support, and the active participation of municipal governments. Elsewhere, new “Code for” programs are surely going to have to operate within a different set of capacities and constraints.
Over the past year, we’ve kept these thoughts in mind working with the SlashRoots Foundation (SlashRoots), the Mona School Of Business, and the Caribbean Open Institute to incubate Code for the Caribbean (CftC). CftC is a new initiative that partners with government agencies in the Caribbean to help them become more agile, open, and participatory. CftC is supported by the International Development Research Centre and is a founding member of the Code for All network, Code for America’s international program, and based in Kingston, Jamaica.
The inaugural class of Fellows began this past June and is working with Jamaica’s Rural Area Development Agency (RADA), an agency of the Ministry of Agriculture, to explore inventive solutions for combating praedial larceny (the theft of agricultural produce and livestock). Praedial larceny is one of the biggest problems plaguing Jamaica’s agricultural industry, which employs one in five citizens.
We were thrilled to join the Fellows in Kingston last month to deliver a training seminar covering ethnographic research, design methods, and good practice for engaging with institutional partners. Our training focused on how to understand complex challenges, and how to map relevant actors and efforts to identify promising interventions. The Fellows have a doubly difficult task—they are trying to tackle praedial larceny, in addition to using their engagement to encourage the government to address social challenges differently—so we wanted to make sure they were well prepared.
Beyond providing support to the Fellows, the training experience was instructive to our own understanding of how to structure and replicate a civic innovation fellowship in an entirely new context. Specifically, those looking to launch a new “Code for” should:
Having met many Code for America Fellows, I entered the training with the assumption that the CftC Fellows were in the room for similar reasons, namely the desire to help government become more effective to, in turn, deliver better social outcomes.
While this motivation was undoubtedly present, there was an additional, equally significant motivation among the participants: the desire for access to the training and resources offered by the fellowship. Hosted in a new incubator space in Kingston and advised by many of the country’s most innovative minds in technology and communications, CftC provides access to training that is typically not available in the country. (Read the decision-making process articulated by one of the fellows here.) As a result, Fellows were invariably interested in how design practices could be applied to their broader professional pursuits.
When new civic innovation fellowships are conceived and launched globally, considering the contours of their respective talent markets would be a wise first step: what do participants hope to gain from the experience, what opportunities have they been exposed to previously, and what are the employment opportunities post-fellowship? While many participants may recognize the importance of civic progress, it may also be seen as an unviable path to a sustainable income in their context, and therefore a luxury.
Jamaica has the fourth-highest poverty rate in the Americas. Of the 23 countries in the region, Jamaica has the second highest unequal distribution of income (as measured by the Gini coefficient), which contributes to a high crime rate, particularly in urban centers. Yes, social inequality is a very real challenge, but so is personal safety. The willingness of Fellows to cross social divides in pursuit of civic outcomes, therefore, can vary by individual.
And so when telling Fellows that all individuals have needs and aspirations that are worth understanding, or when asking them to travel to parts of town that they aren’t comfortable in, programs need to understand the pressures this may place on Fellows. While programs may be unaware of the previous experiences that make Fellows more or less are open to engaging in such work, they must still respect personal boundaries.
And we must be prepared to facilitate conversations around these sensitive topics, particularly as fellowship programs may bring together people of very different backgrounds.
In the US, there is a whole ecosystem of professional communities, media outlets, and other cheerleaders that applaud the work of civic innovators.
While public sector wages in the US are low in comparison to the private sector, social-minded professions have a history of being culturally celebrated. Professionals with careers committed to the social good also enjoy support systems—psychologically, professionally, and financially—to help match the benefits of working in the private sector.
In other contexts, the absence of such support can constrain those who seek to be civic innovators. With Jamaica’s high youth unemployment, giving up a job for an untested civic innovation fellowship is a difficult choice to make. A lack of precedents and support networks amplify the risks that Fellows take on.
These inaugural CftC Fellows and their supporters are visionary, brave, and selfless. The Fellows earn a stipend that does not compare to what they could earn in the private sector. The Slashroots team is largely volunteers who also have their own day jobs and engagements. They do what they do as a labor of love and because they believe in the potential of these models for the development of their country and its people.
The CftC team deserve our admiration and need our support. Here’s to their upward trajectory!