A Year in the Life of a PIF

Advice on how to make the most impact in a limited amount of time in government
Mar 26, 2019
Photo of Zach Goldfine in front of the Bishop Henry Whipple Federal Building, in the winter.

Zach Goldfine in front of the Bishop Henry Whipple Federal Building.

As a Presidential Innovation Fellow in my second year, I often get asked by the newer class of PIFs coming in, “What does a successful PIF year typically look like?”

At the beginning of my first year, a former PIF shared advice on what made her first year as a PIF in government a success. I distilled the advice I was given below and added observations from other successful PIFs in my cohort.


In short: Spend 4 months meeting people, getting quick wins, and identifying a meaty problem to work on. Spend another 4 months working on that problem. Spend your last 4 months setting up the organization to continue working on that problem effectively after you’re gone.


Deeper Dive

#1 — Do Discovery + Get Quick Wins: 3-5 Months

Befriend Partners — Meet as many people as you can in your agency. Be kind, ask a lot of questions, listen to people’s answers, and identify partners: people who have been at the agency for a long time and will continue to be there for a long time, who have a clear understanding of the most important problems and how to solve them, whom others might not be listening to as much as they should be, and/or who know ground truth on key topics. Make friends with partners.

Get Quick Wins — Get a quick win or two under your belt, even if you think the work is not in line with what you’re capable of or what you think you’re here for. Agencies have senior and mid-level executives with well-formed strategies and persuasive arguments for why the problems they’ve identified are most important. Show your worth by rolling up your sleeves and doing some work. In doing so, you will gain allies, build important political capital for you and your agency sponsors that you will need during the “Get Stuff Done” phase, and gain a deeper understanding about the ways people do things at your agency.

Discover — Talk with partners you identified during the “Befriend Partners” phase and lean into the problems they care most about. Do research. Conduct gap analyses. Speak with former PIFs who were at your agency. Identify 1-3 things you want to dedicate your PIF year to moving the needle on – ideally just one meaty thing.

Note: One year is very, very little time. So be careful not to get distracted by #allthethings you come across and want to change. Prioritize, and then drop almost everything below the threshold you set, leaving room for helping others with their priorities.

#2 — Get Stuff Done: 3-5 months

Work — This can take a few different forms. You can use your position to lift and support partners’ efforts, you can start or lead your own initiatives, you can develop and socialize strategies, or you can do any number of things that move the needle on the 1-3 things you’ve dedicated your PIF year to. Again, be careful not to get distracted by #allthethings. You may spread yourself too thin and not make substantive progress on anything. Focus and push.

#3 — Pass the Baton: 3-5 months

Decide — Do you care deeply enough about your 1-3 things that you want to stay another year and keep working on them? Have you made actual, real progress on any meaningful problems? Is your work speaking to your heart? If you can honestly say ‘yes’ to these three things, you may want to stay another year. If you’re going to stay another year, go back to the “Get Stuff Done” phase for another 12+ months.

Transition — Find people who can continue doing whatever it is that you’re doing, and start grooming them into the work you’ve been doing. For example, if you’ve been convening groups and setting strategies, get others in those groups to send meeting invites, draft agendas, and lead conversations. If you’ve been playing a product manager type role, teach others on your team how to prioritize work, create feedback loops, and discover worthy problems to solve. If you’ve been running a division or organization, pick a successor and make it clear to everyone that she or he will succeed you. Ultimately, in your last few weeks, you want to be working very little and coaching a lot.

Document — Document everything you touch! Codify models and frameworks you used. Sit with people with whom you collaborated and write down your institutional knowledge. Store documentation in places that make sense for future people to see and use. Share your story: blog about what you did and why you did it. Work with PIF leadership to create documents that will help future PIFs 😍

Zach Goldfine is a PIF currently working with the Veterans Administration’s Chief Technology Officer to get benefits to veterans more quickly.