Originally a brainchild of the Obama-Biden tech office, the Presidential Innovation Fellows program is now looking for its eighth cohort of in-house federal tech innovators. How has it changed, and what lessons might the program offer for recruiting top tech talent into the government?
Juluru was the founder and director of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, and he was, as he put it, a “happy camper.” But he wanted to think differently and work on larger-scale problems, so he applied to the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, which offers tech practitioners government stints of up to two years.
The White House Office of Science and Technology started the program in 2012. It was one of several initiatives in the Obama-Biden years designed to bring innovation into government, like GSA’s 18F digital services agency. A year later, the PIF program moved to what is now GSA’s Technology Transformation Services arm.
The program is now enshrined in law. It’s still going strong, PIF leaders say, as they recruit for an eighth cohort of fellows.
The idea is that these “entrepreneurs-in-residence” come into government to innovate within agencies.
During the first days and weeks of the pandemic, for example, Department of Veterans Affairs contact centers faced waves of questions from veterans about how the pandemic might affect their access to services. Kaeli Yuen, a 2020 fellow, MD and clinical informaticist, worked on a project to put together a chatbot to give veterans answers without having to call in the first place. Yuen and her teammates stood the product up within about three weeks, she said.
Juluru, a 2021 fellow, has used his background as an MD and in health informatics to work at the National Institute of Biomedical Imagining and Bioengineering on facilitating at-home COVID-19 testing.
That program, called Radx or Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics, has aimed to develop and commercialize at-home testing for COVID-19. Making at-home tests available was important because it increased overall testing capacity, Juluru said, while related smartphone applications had the opportunity to support someone doing an at home test and potentially even send information back to public health systems for contact tracing with test subject’s consent.
Before coming to PIF, Yuen says that she “had an expectation that things would move very slowly.” But working in the aftermath of COVID-19 showed her how “the federal government can be incredibly powerful in coming together and striving toward a solution very quickly when it is an urgent need.”
This change in perception -- about both the process and impact of government work -- is one that other PIFs often share, said Alan Balutis, former senior director of Cisco Systems’ Business Solutions Group for the North American Sector.
Since its founding, the enterprise has brought in over 190 different people into government, said Joshua Di Frances, who directs the PIF program. The initial fellowship is one year long, which agencies and fellows can agree to extend. A little over half of the fellows have stayed in government after their assignment ended, Di Frances said.
Some PIFs aren’t sure how to work in the government before starting their assignment or where they might fit in, or maybe they’d never considered it an option. “It’s just not clear from the private sector how to enter,” Di Frances said.
“What we see is people want to serve,” Di Frances said. “We’re really proud of … how many folks we bring in and the unique perspectives and skills that they bring.”
While the pay gap between private and public sector can also be an issue, the opaque and lengthy federal hiring process is a substantial obstacle to bringing in new talent. The desire to serve is clear, though, even if the understanding of how government hiring works isn’t, Di Frances said, citing an over a 70% jump in year-over-year PIF applications last year.
The program gives fellows a chance at “the feeling that you get, which is hard to describe if you’ve never been in government, about how good it feels at night thinking, ‘I really made a difference,’” explained Balutis. That excitement isn’t often the primary perception people have of government work, he said.
The program’s administrators are intentional about trying to tell the stories that show the impact and day-to-day work of fellows, as well as the how-to of the hiring process, Di Frances said.
The program’s success in bringing outsiders into government and creating innovative solutions is laudable, although Di Frances noted there is still a need for basic changes to the recruitment and retention of the IT workforce -- and to modernization efforts for underlying IT systems themselves.
“We need broad-based, fundamental change in some of these arenas to attract people, bring innovation to government, provide IT talent,” he said, including the way government “attracts talent, hires, retains people and recognizes their accomplishment.”
The PIF program, 18F and the U.S. Digital Service, which is based in the Executive Office of the President, were critical in creating a space for technologists eager to use certain practices like agile software development and human-centered design in government, said former PIF Chris Cairns. Cairns, who was part of the program’s second cohort, went on to help launch 18F and TTS and now is CEO of Skylight, a digital government consulting group.
“Simply saying, ‘Hey, you’re welcome. This is an environment where you can come in and just do things a little bit different,’” was enough, he said. Already a veteran to the government IT space when he applied to the PIF program, Cairns says the experience gave him hope about making an impact and being able to use these sorts of disciplines in his work.
Relative to the overall federal workforce and enterprise, programs like PIF and 18F remain vanishingly small. Having the government make any sort of “paradigm shift” to these sorts of practices like agile development or human centered design the will require more talent, as well as support for the broader federal IT workforce to do this sort of work, Cairns said.
Last year’s cohort of 34 fellows was the program’s largest ever, Di Frances said. It was also the most diverse. There are currently 62 total fellows across 25 agencies.
For now, applications for the next cohort of the program are currently open through May 14.
The program is lining up what projects fellows will be tackling. There will be more projects focused on pandemic response, as well as Biden administration priorities like climate change, racial justice, economic recovery and others, Di Frances said.
PIF leaders are particularly focused on recruiting fellows with experience in software engineering, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, health informatics and human centered design.