Out On the Front Lines of Civic Tech

A look back at the Presidential Innovation Fellows work with federal agencies in 2018.
Dec 19, 2018

This post was originally published on GSA.gov

We have the best jobs in government, period. Each day we wake up empowered to solve critical issues facing public safety, national security, healthcare, and transportation.

As Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIF), we are part of our nation’s Technology Transformation Services at the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA). We joined the federal government as entrepreneurs-in-residence to help federal agencies provide more accessible, efficient, and effective products and services to the American people and to tackle tough national problems.

Since 2012, the PIF program has allowed us to demonstrate that private and public sector professionals working together can accomplish far more than either in isolation. That’s because we listen intently to diverse perspectives, whether they are from a machine learning expert, a senior citizen recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, or career federal agency leaders looking to modernize their divisions.

Working together with federal agencies, we facilitate dialogue, extract priorities from this dialogue, and use the resulting data to drive plans and cultivate partnerships and networks both inside and out of government.

We believe this collaborative model is the future of leadership. A more thoughtful change management process that breaks down organizational silos and helps develop new organizational workflows towards a future of increased data and information sharing.

Our Work With Federal Agencies in 2018

As PIFs, we have enjoyed the ability to shape solutions at various agencies. We have worked with the U.S. Department of Transportation helping create artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning and cybersecurity strategies. Our work, alongside the work of forward-thinking leaders in the Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office, led to the development of innovative data sharing through public-private partnerships. These partnerships will help accelerate the safe and reliable rollout of autonomous vehicles.

In September 2018, our PIF colleague Michael Brown was selected to lead the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU). Earlier in the year, he testified before the House Financial Services Committee, Subcommittee on Monetary Policy and Trade, regarding his research at the Department of Defense and his support of the proposed Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act of 2018 (FIRRMA). The FIRRMA legislation was passed by Congress and signed into law in August.

In this way, Michael Brown follows in the footstep of other PIFs who have decided to stay and serve in leadership roles within the government. Brown has said that accelerating the adoption of commercial technology into the military is critically important for national security and his role as a PIF prepared him well to understand the issues and stakeholders.

The potential for real and positive change is incredible because we are given the freedom to be catalysts. At the Department of Homeland Security, we focused on spearheading innovative technological approaches towards countering terrorist content online and helping stand up data-driven approaches towards countering foreign influence.

Furthermore, at the National Cancer Institute, we explored new ways of collaborating to design more useful data to be consumed by AI health systems. We also worked with xD, a tech startup within the U.S. Census Bureau, that delivers cutting-edge data products for the public good. To scale, we helped xD prioritize initiatives, execute on projects, create new lines of effort, strategize organizational development, and build a structured hiring process for top technologists in roles not commonly seen in government, such as data scientists and machine learning engineers.

At the FBI, we are working to develop trusted relationships with the private sector on a range of national security and criminal issues, and helping develop their tech sector strategy. In the course of this work, Presidential Innovation Fellow Steven Babitch, was recognized by FBI Director Christopher Wray with an award for “Exceptional Service in the Public Interest.”

Given that we are considered entrepreneurs-in-residence, we have the flexibility to be more agile within federal agency’s organizational structures. It also requires skillfully navigating bureaucracy and connecting people who have good ideas with people who do good work so new efforts and teams are formed; ideally, ones that last beyond our time in government!

Working with multiple agencies, including HHS, VA, DOC, and DOE, we are also leading health tech sprints. The goal is to enable organizations to leverage federal datasets to build new digital tools for human health. The design and creation of these innovative new tools will benefit the American people and facilitate a new AI ecosystem around data that can be used for training and testing systems going forward.

The AI ecosystem project will use training and testing data about clinical trials and participant information created for The Opportunity Project (TOP) Health initiative, a PIF joint effort with HHS Office of the Chief Technology Officer. All TOP Health teams connect federal data with emerging technologies and innovation. Results will be showcased at a demo day in 2019.

On the Front Lines of Civic Tech

Our job as PIFs has been to manage the process of technology change and introduce the art of the possible to government leaders. As such, we are lightning rods for opportunity, finding the roadblocks to progress and helping organizations find and remedy these issues.

The world is changing quickly, and the federal government is restructuring to adapt to this new pace of change. How should the government adapt? We are not sure we have an exact answer or scientific approach, but, in our work so far, we find that when we encourage people to decompose large tasks into small chunks and then to launch those small chunks iteratively, we develop products and services in the way that industry does, and thus we move in the direction of creating processes that allow us to adapt to accelerating change more quickly.

The fact is, our government was not designed to be a technology-enabled enterprise — but it can and will be. As a nation, we need to become digitally-enabled. To us, this means using techniques from user-centered design in an environment that is not as common in government as it is in the tech industry. In practice, it has meant inserting the idea of the user into as many conversations, meetings, and product discussions as possible. Any time a group is discussing the benefits and costs of a particular line of work, we have an impulse to suggest that we at least explicitly consider which line of work benefits the end-user — the American public — most. We find that many people in government are receptive to this reframing, and it allows us to more intentionally design user-centered products and services.

Through our experience, we understand the U.S. government and private sector must work in tandem to solve the critical governance issues of the future. The government will function best as a 21st century service provider when it creates agile, design-driven programs that meet citizen needs. To meet these needs, we are helping develop new methods of procurement, accelerating speed to service, and encouraging risk taking in public-private partnerships.

Civic tech means solving problems to help improve society or citizens’ lives. We don’t default to tech to solve civic/public sector problems. Tech may, and often is, part of the solution, but there is often a deeper challenge that must be solved in conjunction with technology.

Civic tech is our way of engaging our democracy beyond voting. As civic technologists, we are using our civilian skills as technology developers and entrepreneurs to bring new technologies into our government to serve the American people. We wake up knowing that when we go to work, our boss is you — the American people.

Away from PIF, we like to volunteer, we like to cook and experiment with smoothies, we like to read, listen to jazz and electronic music, dance, travel, hang with friends, play volleyball and tennis, and stroll new neighborhoods in our nation’s capital.

A new cohort of PIFs will be joining us in January. We look forward to welcoming them, encourage you to learn more about what we do, and consider bringing your craft to the federal government as we work together to build and modernize our nation’s digital infrastructure and tackle national and global problems.

Presidential Innovation Fellows 2018 Holiday Card

Presidential Innovation Fellows 2018 Holiday Card

The Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIF) program was established by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in 2012 to attract top innovators into government, capable of tackling issues at the convergence of technology, policy, and process. On January 20, 2017 the President of the United States signed the TALENT Act (H.R. 39) to codify the Presidential Innovation Fellows program into law and recruit private sector science and technology innovation leaders into federal government service.

The program, which established a permanent home and program office within GSA, has recruited 135+ Fellows working within 35+ agencies. In this way, PIFs have worked in tandem with federal agencies to solve critical governance issues including accelerating speed to service, developing new methods of procurement, and encouraging risk taking in public-private partnerships.

Originally posted by Clara Tsao on Dec 19, 2018

PIF | Washington D.C.

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Originally posted by Gil Alterovitz, PhD on Dec 19, 2018
Originally posted by Nina Bianchi on Dec 19, 2018

FDA | Washington, D.C.

Originally posted by Steven Babitch on Dec 19, 2018
Originally posted by Zach Goldfine on Dec 19, 2018
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