6 Ways To Navigate the Civic Tech Sea of Newness

By nature, the Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIF) program is a grand experiment in newness. What happens when we take a group of industry professionals and throw them into government? As career private-sector marketing professionals, for us, there was the triple threat of being new to government, being detailed to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), an agency that had never had Presidential Innovation Fellows before, and navigating the ever-changing digital advertising industry from a public-sector perspective. We found ourselves in uncharted waters.

Four months in, we not only gained our sea legs, but also got some pretty significant wins along the way. Here are six principles that guided us through those uncharted waters and turned us into navigators of a shared journey.

Screen capture of a video conference call between Raashee Gupta Erry (left) and Vivian Lee (right).

1. Become best friends with your federal partners 

First, get to know each other extremely well. Go beyond the LinkedIn profiles and dive into motivations, beliefs, agendas, work styles, strengths, weaknesses, and life as a person. We made sure to present ourselves to the agency as teammates, and not as competitors. It might sound obvious, but it’s important! We do not innovate in silos. Our success is tied directly to the FTC’s success and, as a result, to safeguard consumer protection in the digital advertising landscape. Getting there is a team effort; we’re better together. We made it a point to remain partners and identify lead and support responsibilities amongst ourselves as opposed to creating a perception of independent contributors.   

2. Identify the value exchange 

To build trust in a new environment, we focused on collaborative value. For us, “value” means the benefit that the federal agency gets from us, and what we get from our federal agency partners. It is beyond the goal of making an impact. It’s the day-to-day benefit we get from our work and interactions. In our case, the agency gets to be smarter in their work as a result of insights we share about digital advertising, marketing, and advertising technology. And in return, we are able to learn more about the enforcement and regulatory side of the industry that we come from, enabling us to become better marketers and advertisers. 

3. Listen with purpose 

The first three months of the year-long fellowship are intended to be the ‘listening’ phase where we get to know our agency folks, their mission, challenges and priorities. We approached this ‘listening’ phase by identifying both our agency-assigned projects, and our personal interest areas. This helped us prioritize and earn some early wins by focusing on projects that brought value to our partners, ultimately building trust and confidence. At the same time, we were able to establish a path forward to seek out meaningful and valuable work to us as PIFs and in our long-term careers (we call this our ‘wishlist’). 

4. Build your support network 

Branch out from beyond the initial agency-facilitated introductions. By building your support network, you can amplify your impact, gain allies, and build your brand. Take the opportunity to meet folks outside of your immediate team and chain of command. A casual coffee chat can go a long way in both your personal and professional development within your agency. This has led us to develop a network of allies who have helped clear blockers, steer us to new opportunities, and push forward on our ‘wishlist’ projects. 

5. Embrace an entrepreneurial mindset 

We have been persistent in making progress on our ‘wishlist’ projects and have been diligent in taking actions. As often happens in government, we ran into a few dead ends that hindered our ability to make any progress. That’s when we took it upon ourselves to map out various paths to success. This often looked like consulting with our allies by taking an informal approach to seeking out the right people. Other than our relentless pursuit for coffee chats, we found other ways to lean into our organization like joining our organization’s official mentorship program. An entrepreneurial approach to finding solutions even within a highly rules-oriented, bureaucratic organization has been a key to our success. We have a long way to go to reach the end product, but we’re glad we’ve found a clearer way forward. 

6. Become multilingual  

Coming from industry, we knew there would be an adjustment period to acclimate to the lingo, working styles, and habits of the federal government. However, working primarily with lawyers, we ran into a lot of legal terminology. At first, this was a jargon barrier. What we quickly found was that the more lawyers we talked to, the better we understood their motivations, challenges, and ways of thinking. Quickly being able to adapt to our stakeholders’ natural way of communicating and working while balancing that with our own marketing expertise allowed us to build trust more efficiently and drive impact more effectively. The easiest way to do this was to go through the thought exercise of putting ourselves in our stakeholders’ shoes. How are we currently thinking about a given problem as marketers, and how does that outlook change when we consider coming from a legal perspective? This simple mindset shift helped us to frame up our suggestions in a way that was more directly useful for our lawyer colleagues. On a day-to-day basis, we work with lawyers, technologists, economists, and policy advisors. Being intentional about learning the different styles of your stakeholders will pay dividends throughout your government experience. 


Our PIF journey has been unique in many ways - our backgrounds are more business-oriented than technical, our projects don’t always have defined deliverables, the mission of our agency is long term, and the impact is hard to quantify. But our experience may benefit other “newbies” in federal space as government agencies are mission-oriented, complex organizations filled with people who care deeply about their work. We found that these lessons helped us gain bigger wins while also building meaningful relationships with our colleagues. 

Applications for the next cohort of Presidential Innovation Fellows are open March 5 - May 14, 2021! Learn more and submit your application at apply.pif.gov.