Principles for 21st Century Government

Since 2011, Code for America has worked with 32 local governments through our Fellowship program, using technology and new ways of working to deliver more effective, efficient, and fair government fit for the 21st century.

Through these Fellowships, we've identified seven principles that we believe are critical for governments of any size, structure, or political persuasion in serving their communities.

Code for America helps local governments learn and apply these principles to important problems

BETA: Last updated on October 29, 2014.

These will be updated as we learn. Please help us by providing feedback.


Government’s purpose is to serve residents, and we can do this best when we deeply understand who we’re working for. When government services are designed to treat all residents with respect, empathy, and dignity, a transformative trust can be gained. 21st century governments:

  • Begin projects by conducting research with real people to understand who they are, what they need, and how they behave.
  • Design processes, policy, and services around those needs, continuously returning to residents to get feedback.


  • In Chicago, new civic apps undergo user research with residents from diverse racial, socioeconomic, and geographic backgrounds.
  • Read the CfA Design Standard

2. Make it easy for everyone to participate

Serving everyone means working with, not just for, a true cross-section of the community. Governments should proactively collaborate with the community and seek participation from all residents in decisions that affect them. Government should serve as a platform for raising the voices of all members of the community. 21st century governments:

  • Create ways for every community member to take part in decisions and issues that affect them, regardless of language or ability.
  • Communicate using language that’s easy to understand, and in ways that are easy to use, with residents both online and offline. 


  • In Tampa, Florida, the Metropolitan Planning Commission let neighborhood residents give feedback about a proposed roadway construction project by text message survey.

3. Don't do everything

Government can't and shouldn't do everything alone. With limited resources to solve complex problems facing our communities, they should prioritize the work where they can have the most impact. By collaborating with others, they can make better services and save more money by focusing resources. 21st century governments:

  • Develop relationships with outside partners working towards similar goals — like local universities, community groups, or other governments in their region — to share skills and resources.
  • Build on or borrow existing work when possible, rather than duplicating efforts.
  • Make it easy for others to build on their work by offering data in easy to use formats with clear documentation.


  • In Oakland, city officials and a community group collaborated to write answers to the questions that citizens searched for most frequently on the city website.

4. Make data easy to find and use 

Open data helps make government better. Governments hold a lot of information that is valuable — and sometimes critically important — to residents, organizations, companies, and government itself. A 21st century government:

  • Makes public data available by default in digital formats so that others can use it in meaningful ways.
  • Gets the relevant data to the right people at the right time, in a format that’s easy to understand.


Case Study: Open data to improve public transit in Detroit

The City of Detroit published data they already had in a new digital format to help residents easily find out when their bus will arrive.

Learn more

5. Use data to make and improve decisions

Good decisions are informed by real-world data, and as we gather more information by testing assumptions, we can make better decisions. Governments who embrace approaches like analytics, data-informed performance management techniques, and predictive modeling can better meet residents' expectations, create new opportunities and improve overall efficiency. 21st century governments:

  • Use data tools and analytics to get a more complete understanding of problems.
  • Start with small solutions, test them with real people to gather more data, and make improvements based on what's learned. 
  • Make this data publicly available to drive transparency, community engagement, and accountability. 


  • In Louisville, departments use data analytics to identify inefficiencies in their work processes. Using this approach, they reduced unscheduled overtime and workers’ compensation expenditures by more than $2 million.

6. Choose the right technology for the job

Over the last four years, Code for America has seen how modern technology tools and approaches helps government build trust with their communities and better address the challenges they face. Today, good governance requires good technology — and for government, accessing or procuring good technology can require new ways of doing business. 21st century governments:

  • Understand current, widely-accepted technology best practices to make informed decisions — including when to buy and when to build software.
  • Break large-scale software projects into smaller RFPs to avoid vendor lock-in and allow for better project management.
  • Seek out vendors that work in a lean and agile way to provide user-friendly digital services, and reduces policy and process obstacles to contracting with those companies.
  • Reform procurement policy to make it easier to buy better technology.


  • In Philadelphia, the city does direct outreach to local web development firms about opportunities to bid on technology contracts.

7. Organize for results

Across 32 fellowship engagements, the successful governments have been those that challenge and reform policies and practices that are outdated, inefficient, and prevent delivery. This is nothing but the transformation of government, with technology and new processes working together. 21st century governments:

  • Work in an agile way, continuously improving existing processes.
  • Support new approaches to problem solving and delivery.
  • Invest in staff to build skills at all levels of the organization, as well as hiring new talent where it’s needed. 
  • Acknowledge and reward good work, including trying new approaches and attitudes to risk.
  • Build multidisciplinary teams focused on delivery.
  • Recognize that the once a service has been delivered, continuous improvement of the service must be in place.


  • In Denver, department heads learn how to use Lean methods through the Peak Academy program. After four hours of training, one staff member was able to create $46,000 of annual savings in the Wastewater Division Department.
  • In New York City, the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics recruited fixed-term contractors with experience in statistics to improve the government’s data analysis capability.

Reprinted from Code for America Blog under Creative Commons.

Published Monday, December 29th, 2014

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