The Push To Bring Tech Efficiencies To Government Bureaucracies

Three years ago, the White House launched the Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIF) program, inviting innovators from across the country to drop whatever they were doing, join federal agencies, and tackle national challenges in a matter of months.

What began as a grand experiment yielded results through programs like Project RFP-EZ and proved that a streamlined bidding process for small government contracts could lead to 30 percent savings while also attracting new vendors. (For perspective, a 30 percent reduction in the annual $80 billion federal IT budget would amount to saving taxpayers $24 billion per year.)

At the U.S. Agency for International Development, Project Better Than Cash helped move second-degree foreign aid payments from cash to mobile phones, reducing waste and graft (which had been shown to increase costs by as much as 30 percent) and enhancing the safety of U.S. military personnel on the ground. And young technologists working in the Departments of Health and Human Services and Veterans Affairs (VA) launched Project Blue Button to help military veterans, senior citizens and everyday Americans access their own health information.

One veteran awoke in the hospital to a doctor telling him how lucky he was to have been carrying a print-out of his Blue Button health data because that information – which the doctor would have had no other way to access – allowed the hospital staff to avert an adverse medical reaction that most likely would have killed him.

PIFs have driven progress on their assigned projects and have also been eager to help during difficult times. They played pivotal roles in the rescue of, providing valuable tech expertise. Former PIF Ryan Panchadsaram led the rescue effort’s product development team, focusing developers on features that were most mission-critical. And previously, the entire first round of PIFs sprang into action to help the Department of Energy’s CIO, Bob Brese, and a number of other administration officials to coordinate federal tech and data resources to aid Superstorm Sandy response efforts, including working closely with tech companies and high school student volunteers to monitor social media and map availability of fuel at gas stations in the affected area.

While many fellows return to the private sector after their tours of duty, others choose to continue their public service. Presidential Innovation Fellows now hold senior roles in the White House (Ryan Panchadsaram, U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer), Commerce Department (Ian Kalin, Chief Data Officer) and the VA (Marina Martin, Chief Technology Officer).

PIFs were critical in building 18F, the new digital services unit at the General Services Administration. Fellows Greg Godbout, Aaron Snow, and Hillary Hartley formed the entire founding leadership team of 18F, a unit that has quickly grown to over 100 employees.

Similarly, PIFs Charles Worthington and Mollie Ruskin brought their product and design skills to help found the new U.S. Digital Service, a team in the White House Office of Management and Budget charged with using the best of product design and engineering to transform the way government works for the American people.

The path they pioneered is inspiring more technologists and innovators to join government, with recent hires coming from Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook, Google, Twilio and a variety of startups. The U.S. Digital Service headquarters has grown to 37 full-time people in fewer than 18 months.

How did a government fellowship come to have such significant impact and appeal within the tech and startup communities?

It started with a small team of us within the White House, including U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park and U.S. Chief Information Officer Steve VanRoekel. The concept was informed by recently-begun “Entrepreneurs-in-Residence” programs at the Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and several fellowship programs at the national and local levels.

We and a number of our administration colleagues believed that such an approach – partnering talented change-agents with internal agency innovators in small, agile teams with tight deadlines – could be structured and spread more broadly across government to produce significant progress in months, not years.

We also knew that clear goals for the program would be important, namely saving taxpayer dollars, saving lives, and fueling job growth in the private sector. Inspired by the “lean startup” methodology, we focused on projects that could quickly research users, build prototypes, test solutions, and iterate.

To learn from our efforts, other national governments and state and local governments should keep in mind the initial challenges we faced.

Since federal government hiring processes typically take many months, the need to hire fellows in just weeks caused tension with some agency human resources departments. Furthermore, some federal agencies weren’t prepared to onboard fellows quickly, which resulted in fellows waiting weeks after they joined for laptops and email addresses.

Another point to consider is that government rules aren’t necessarily obvious or intuitive, especially to newcomers. For example, the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA), a law passed in 1980 to prevent government burdening Americans with unnecessary forms, causes federal agencies to refrain from performing customer development and gathering user feedback the way a private sector startup might.

In response, the fellows and those running the program developed hacks allowing them to achieve their missions, such as identifying aspects of the hiring and background check process that could be run concurrently, pre-ordering laptops and email accounts even though doing so was not standard procedure, and preparing simple one-page explanations for new fellows on what is permitted under the PRA.

Once we proved that PIFs could deliver value, the demand for fellows from agencies skyrocketed, with 35 agency projects competing to hire PIFs in the second round of the program. There was also increased interest from candidates, with over 2,100 applicants for the second round.

Due to such strong interest from all sides, the program ballooned in size, but we soon realized that such growth made the program more challenging to manage, especially without a dedicated program management office. So just such an office was created – embedded within 18F – and PIF Garren Givens was recruited to lead it.

Even the length of the fellowship has evolved. Due to the paperwork required, many agencies preferred a one-year term for fellows and, as it turned out, many fellows with school-age children preferred one-year terms that match up with school years. So we shifted the program from being half-year terms to full-year terms, leading to more time for impact but at the potential risk of lessening the sense of urgency.

Another particular area where we recognized a need to improve was diversity; as a result, the program performed significant outreach to ensure that the fellows increasingly reflect the American people they serve.

Now recruiting for its fourth round, the Presidential Innovation Fellows program has, indeed, helped tackle hard problems through a more open government.

As Todd Park likes to say “no matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.” This axiom, known as Joy’s Law, after Sun co-founder Bill Joy, sums up why it is essential that the American government continue to challenge our country’s most talented innovators with the opportunity to contribute via programs such as the Presidential Innovation Fellows.