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How the White House Plans to Make Innovation Fellowships Work

BY Christian Bourge | Friday, August 24 2012

Yesterday morning, the Obama White House launched a new fellowship program aimed at bringing technological innovation to the federal government by fast-tracking the work of online development and tech start-up experts who will serve six-month stints at various federal agencies.

“What we are gunning for is an ecosystem of innovation,” U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park told techPresident following the morning announcement of 18 new Presidential Innovation Fellows at a White House event.

Each fellow will spend the next half-year in Washington bringing their design, coding, business development, and start-up skills to the government fold as part of five programs areas. The list of fellows, chosen from around 700 applicants, can be found here.

Senior administration officials are billing this as both a job-creating economic development effort and a means to bring technological efficiencies to the federal sphere. But the history of recent efforts to integrate tech innovators is mixed. And the make-up of the first pool of fellows drew criticism for including only two women out of the eighteen people selected. (See Merici Vinton's response here.)

“An ecosystem of innovation”
The main thread running through the programs prioritized by the innovation fellows initiative is to enable more effective uses of government data. For example, the Open Data Initiatives aims to expand the online public availability of government data from across agencies as a spur to entrepreneurial innovation. Todd Park drew parallels to development which came from the federal government’s decision to allow public access to the weather data it collects or GPS satellite information. Both were information taxpayers had already paid for. He noted the concept is to provide such data without legislation, regulation, or spending a “ton of money.”

The MyGov program is an effort to develop a prototype streamlined online system to provide easier access to the wealth of government information online at a myriad of .gov websites. The idea is to give citizens a one-stop shop for government programs, regulatory agencies and the like, instead of them having to seek out every program that may apply to them.

"Shifting that burden from the citizen to the government is what we are trying to do here,” said White House Director of Digital Strategy, Macon Phillips. “There is a pretty big challenge.”

Other cross-agency programs which proponents said will benefit from fellow input include Blue Button for America, which aims to expand on an existing Department of Veterans Affairs initiative that enables the downloading of personal health-records for general public use, and RFP-EZ, a program to develop an online marketplace for small businesses to sell to the federal government through more streamlined processes.

Lastly, fellows will work on the U.S. Agency for International Development-based 20% Initiative, a program working to bring electronic payments methods and related efficiencies, particularly mobile applications, to the last mile of international development aide distribution.

The fellowship announcement was also accompanied by the release of the Census Bureau’s first mobile application and toolkit to guide so-called bring your own device efforts at the federal agency level. White House Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel described these and the new fellowship program as part of the “incredible progress” the Administration has made in the months since the administration’s May announcement of its Digital Government Strategy.

“We need to bring to bear the power of people within government,” he said.

But in the case of the Innovation Fellows program that power is mostly in the hands of men. Given the push in some corners of the tech industry for greater gender parity and the current White House’s own efforts to promote women in science, some may be surprised that of the 18 fellows, only two are women.

Phillip Larson, a spokesman for the White House Office of Science and Technology policy would not comment directly on the gender disparity and stressed the diverse backgrounds of the group.

“The 18 leading private-sector innovators that make up the first class of Presidential Innovation Fellows are from a diverse set of backgrounds with an overwhelming collection of talents and expertise specifically suited to the tasks at hand,” Larson wrote via e-mail. “The Obama Administration has taken unprecedented steps to attract, retain, and support women and girls as they navigate careers in science and technology, and is dedicated to increasing the participation of women and girls—as well as other underrepresented groups—in those fields.”

The administration’s announcements were preceded by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s May announcement that the barely 14-month-old agency was implementing a two-year fellowship program for 30 techies to help built its tech efforts from the ground up. That program is still in development.

Lean Start-ups in Government?
At today’s announcement, which at times felt almost more like a revival meeting for techies and government-types instead of a public relations event, VanRoekel cited both the Food and Drug Administration’s Entrepreneurs in Residence program and the non-profit Code for America (CfA) project as influential predecessors to the tech fellowships.

In 2011 CfA partnered with four cities — Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. — to sponsor five programmers each who spent a year developing tech solutions for those cities’ woes. The intent was to bring the efficiencies of the tech startup culture and disruptive technologies to local government. The effectiveness of the young program in its first year is open to debate.

While the first year of the CfA program spawned other experiments at national and local level, including Boston’s creation of a permanent development officer to build web applications across agencies, some participants reported significant frustrations with the inefficiencies of government. It turns out the bureaucratic challenges typical to government didn’t necessarily mesh well with the creative, innovative thinking, and casual attitudes of start-up culture.

When asked about such issues yesterday, Park, who himself comes from the private sector, noted that there have been experiments with this sort of approach to government innovation for a few years in an informal way. He said the very way the fellow teams will work will help address this challenge.

By operating in “lean start up mode” the small groups will attack each program with interdisciplinary teams looking for solutions, engagement of customers for input (in this case citizens and stakeholders), and rapid integration of solutions development in, “days or weeks, not months or years”[is that where quote ends?], he said.

“We’ve done that previously, with the alpha departments, and the lean start-up method for government has worked incredibly well,” said Park. “We learned that you have to be really rigorous about adhering to these principles and you can actually create the space for teams to operate. If you create the leadership space for these teams to operate they can do astounding things.”

He pointed to success of the Department of Health and Human Services Health Data Initiative as an example of how government and the tech sector can team to innovate. That open-data effort — which Parks described as “taken from the Tim O’Reilly playbook” — led to the release of much government health data in machine readable formats and has driven a growing federal effort at public-private innovation in the healthcare arena. It’s something he said inspired data-owners in the government to release more information.

When pressed further about how the program will avoid the potential pitfalls, he said the key will is to both protecting the development team efforts and teaming them with innovative people in the federal sphere.

“That’s really important because without that there is just a lot you have to learn about how the government works and it would actually probably take you a lot longer than six months,” said Park. “Secondly, we’re are providing a lot of air cover for these teams and, again, creating the space for them to actually operate. Walking downfield with them, giving them each a response at a very high level to give them the opportunity to do what they want to do.”