White House seeks tech-savvy 'innovation fellows'

The White House is recruiting its fourth class of tech-savvy fellows to spend a year working on ways to improve government services.

The next group of Presidential Innovation Fellows is to be presented with challenges such as improving access to education, improving business opportunities for entrepreneurs, preparing for the effects of climate change and improving health care.


The idea behind the program, which was launched by President Barack Obama in 2012, is to use the expertise of people working outside government to help the government improve its programs.

"These are folks with technical acumen but [who] also are looking for ways to hack policy and bureaucracy, and break down initiatives into things that are doable today," said former fellow Garren Givens, who now directs the program.


Or, as Givens likes to say, he's looking for people with "great kung fu that you wish to use for good."

Projects undertaken by fellows have included openFDA, a website that provides access to Food and Drug Administration data, and Lantern Live, a mobile app developed for the Department of Energy that provides information during power outages.

At the U.S. Agency for International Development, a fellow with experience in investment banking helped speed up a grants process. Another group of fellows built notalone.gov, a website that offers information about sexual assault on college campuses.

During their year in government, the fellows earn about $125,000 and receive health insurance and other benefits. About half of the 60 fellows who have completed their term of service stayed on with the government, many in a new program in the General Services Administration that focuses on digital initiatives.

Another two dozen participants are in the midst of their fellowships.

"It's definitely getting people from my background in tech to look at the federal government to do a tour of duty," said Ryan Panchadsaram, a member of the inaugural class of 2012, and now the federal government's deputy chief technology officer.

As a fellow, Panchadsaram worked on Blue Button, a website that guides patients through downloading their health records from insurance companies, pharmacies and hospitals.

Givens said federal agencies have embraced the innovation fellows. He said the agencies are invested in the program because they pay the fellows' salaries and come up with ideas for projects.

The agencies are prepared for the possibility that projects might not work at first, Givens said, or might not work at all. That's part of changing the government mindset to more of a private-sector mentality of adapting when things don't work.

"We are trying to speed up that trial process and period so it is cheaper and faster to learn where things are working, so that we can move more investment into those areas … and efficiently find out where our ideas and hypotheses were off," Givens said.

An example was an effort to create a better tool for small businesses to bid on government contracts. It didn't work as intended, but Givens said the research led to a website that shows what prices agencies paid for contracts and a better catalog of federal contracts.

Derek Frempong said working as a fellow in 2013 and 2014 was one of the most memorable experiences in his life. The Perry Hall man worked on Lantern Live, the app to help people during power outages.


"The ultimate high point was briefing President Obama at the 2014 hurricane briefing on the mobile app I helped to create," Frempong said.

The son of immigrants from Ghana, Frempong said he was inspired to apply for a fellowship in part by his brother, who served in the military.

"When I had this opportunity to give back to this country using my skills and expertise in technology, I jumped at the opportunity to apply," he said.

He is now director of software analysis and user interface design for Connections Education, a company in Baltimore that offers virtual schooling programs.

As a Presidential Innovation Fellow in 2012, Greg Gershman worked on MyGov — now called MyUSA — which helps citizens find government services.

"The interesting thing about that project is we weren't really given any sort of parameters around it," said Gershman, who lived in Baltimore at the time of his fellowship. "The mandate we had was to improve how citizens interact with the government. It was a broad thing."

Gershman, who now lives in Silver Spring, said it was frustrating at times to navigate the federal bureaucracy. One of the biggest hurdles was getting approval to test the website with users while it was still in development. But he said he enjoyed working with the government to solve problems using technology.

"It was incredibly rewarding. It was pretty intense. We had great access in terms of people at the White House and people at the agencies — a lot of support," he said.

Gershman stayed on for several months after his fellowship ended to keep working on MyUSA, which is still in development. Later, he co-founded Ad Hoc LLC, a consulting firm that serves government agencies. His post-fellowship work has included helping fix the botched healthcare.gov website.

The Presidential Innovation Fellows program is moving away from hiring large groups of fellows at once, Givens said, and instead plans to accept applications on a rolling basis and hire fellows as needed to help agencies. He said there's no point in making an agency wait several months for the help of a fellow if it has a pressing need.

Givens said he hopes the program continues in some form after Obama leaves office in 2017.

"If they continue to create great, impactful things with and for our federal agencies, I believe there will be a need and a place for the program," he said.


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