The Top Five Ways Code for America Leadership Abandoned Our Organizational Values

A few hours before Labor Day weekend began, Code for America’s senior leadership announced a “human-centered mass layoff” of 35 of our coworkers.

In doing so, Code for America abandoned our stated values of listening first, acting with intention, and including those who have been excluded. Our leadership did not include our laid-off coworkers in any kind of collaborative process that showed them compassion, trust, or dignity—and management shirked their legal obligation to negotiate with our union over the effects of layoffs. Instead, coworkers who have dedicated years to this work felt traumatized by a sudden loss of their income, benefits, and connection to colleagues, clients, and partners. These included workers who were about to go on sabbatical, were on medical leave, and those who had spent countless hours bargaining for better support and protections for all workers at CfA. Management’s actions made our hard-working colleagues—who are parents, caretakers, and breadwinners—feel disposable. In some cases, our coworkers were cut off from their accounts while they were scrambling to hand off the tasks necessary to ensure our clients are supported, and for others, this happened before they were able to.

Our clients and partners will suffer as a result of this haphazard process. Let’s break down exactly how Code for America failed the litmus test for human-centeredness.

1. Leadership made this decision in a silo, without any collaboration from people who would be impacted.

One of Code for America’s core values is to listen first. In this process, leadership made no attempt to listen to workers—even those managers whose direct reports were laid off didn’t know this was coming. The first time staff beyond senior leadership was made aware of the impending layoffs was two hours in advance of people’s terminations, right before the office closed for a four-day weekend. Laid off staff were immediately removed from workplace accounts, including communication forums. Some employees were locked out of their computers before even receiving a layoff email. While impacted staff have been offered optional 1:1 meetings with the leadership team to help discuss next career steps, no exit interviews to solicit organizational feedback have been offered at this time. Code for America proudly uplifts the need for trauma-informed response when serving our clients. But despite the abundance of internal knowledge and resources on the subject, individual staff were not consulted on how to best execute these layoffs in order to reduce harm. Code for America senior leadership actively chose a process that has caused trauma to current and former staff.

2. Leadership weaponized our clients’ well-being as a justification for laying our coworkers off, drawing an arbitrary division between clients and workers.

Another core value of Code for America is to include those who have been excluded, with a focus on communities that have been underserved and marginalized through forces such as systemic racism and oppression. Leadership has made it clear that employment at Code for America implies that individuals are no longer subjected to these forces. In one bargaining meeting, a Code for America management committee member said that “Code for America employees aren’t marginalized.” We disagree with this oversimplified, callous take. Unfortunately, gainful employment at a mission-driven organization, no matter how great, is not enough on its own to fully combat the nuanced and intersectional systemic issues that exist within our country.

Through this layoff, we have not seen the inclusion of those most often excluded. Painfully, this means many of our laid off coworkers will have to return to access our country’s social safety net and depend on the very services that they helped build during their time at Code for America. We have collected the following information from those who lost their jobs:

Layoff demographics

3. Leadership selectively chose which parts of our unfinished contract to honor and which to ignore.

In Code for America’s public layoff announcement, which was released minutes after their internal announcement and before individual emails had been sent, the organization stated: “Although we have yet to finalize our first-ever Collective Bargaining Agreement, the tentative agreement on layoffs and severance helped us develop an equitable process and a meaningful severance package, including extending health care benefits.”

Over the past two years, Code for America management and CFA Workers United have engaged in a bargaining over their first-ever Collective Bargaining Agreement. Throughout this process we have reached several tentative agreements, including one on layoffs and severance. While a tentative agreement is not yet legally binding, it is meant to signify agreement and establish procedures between the two parties. While Code for America leadership did provide the minimum agreed-upon terms of severance and health coverage, they did not follow the entirety of the tentative agreement.

Noticeably, our tentative agreement suggests a minimum of 30 days advance notice for staff layoffs. In good faith, our Union did agree to include language that allowed for some flexibility to this notice period based on what is practicable (e.g. an sudden and unforeseen loss of a large grant). Management indicated that for the last two weeks they were meeting to figure out what to do about their financial shortfall, and our union was not included in this process. Whether or not we had reached a tentative agreement on layoffs, Code for America management is still legally obligated to bargain with our Union around the terms of severance and health coverage.

4. Leadership is moving fast and breaking things.

Founder and former Executive Director of Code for America, Jenn Pahlka, has been known to reject the popular tech industry saying of “move fast and break things.” When you do that in civic tech, the things you break are people. Code for America leadership’s recent actions have broken at least 35 people—and this doesn’t begin to account for the family members that depended on our impacted staff’s wages and health insurance, nor the clients who were directly working with these staff.

Those impacted, including those laid off and those who remain, are still reeling from the abruptness of this decision and process.The speed at which this happened seems to directly contradict Code for America’s statement that: “Consistent with our values, Code for America will treat those impacted by this change with dignity and respect.” The health of our overall work and clients will undoubtedly suffer from the immediate and mass loss of valuable, knowledgeable, and skilled workers who were given no opportunity to create transition plans or knowledge bases.

When pushed on why space was not given for a proper transition to minimize client impact and organizational disruption, senior leadership stated they had an obligation to protect personal identifying information (PII); however, as is evident by this year’s sunsetting of the Brigade Network, we know it is possible to mitigate these risks while giving employees the appropriate amount of time to transition, or end, their work. These actions have led to a diminishing sense of safety, trust, and morale at our organization.

5. Leadership is not taking accountability.

Thus far, senior leadership at Code for America has failed to take any accountability for their recent actions. They have consistently used the passive voice, saying things like “layoffs forced by financial projections” and “staff impacted by layoffs.” No member of senior leadership is being laid off for their gross mismanagement of organizational resources—in fact, there are plans to hire additional senior positions in the near future, including at least three director positions, a Chief Revenue Officer, and a Chief Product Officer. This seems consistent with our organization’s aggressive hiring already this year, through which 30 new people have been added to the staff. And, despite early revenue projections, leadership still approved an upcoming (mandatory) in-person all-staff meeting in San Francisco, to the tune of around $500,000.

Typically when a staff member at Code for America makes mistakes, shows poor performance, or underdelivers they are met with post-mortem project meetings, performance improvement plans (PIPs), or in rare circumstances, are terminated. We are left wondering why those who mismanaged organizational growth, failed to make sound financial decisions, and approved aggressive hiring are facing no consequences while 35 individuals unjustly lost their jobs.

Sometimes good people make mistakes and can be given the benefit of positive intent. If we apply that here, we are reminded of the very commitments leadership shared with our union across the bargaining table only a few months ago: “It is essential to take responsibility for and address the impact of our words or actions, regardless of intent. Denying the impact of something said by focusing on intent is often more destructive than the initial interaction.”

What’s next for Code for America?

At Code for America, we talk a lot about showing what’s possible. Code for America management is showing what’s possible when we spend our money on a law firm with a reputation for union busting, racism, sexism, and homophobia rather than engaging in the participatory democracy our workers are organizing for. Management is showing what’s possible when they ignore power dynamics and sow fear to silence dissent, rather than encouraging the tough conversations that would require them to take accountability for ways this organization could be better living our values. Management is showing what’s possible when an organization’s mission is only applied selectively — when it is a hobby rather than a value, and one that can be abandoned when following it proves to be inconvenient.

We are profoundly disappointed in Code for America leadership. We believe in what Code for America can be, and we will continue to organize to hold Code for America leaders accountable to our mission, our values, our partners, our clients, and our coworkers.

If you’re as disappointed as we are, we call our supporters to tell Code for America their actions aren’t okay. Get on Twitter, LinkedIn, Threads, Instagram and tell Code for America and Amanda Renteria to live up to the values they publicly profess.