Civic Tech Fellows Offer Their Ideas for Attracting Youth to Public Service

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After just 10 weeks in government, the Coding It Forward fellows were able to succinctly identify the promise and challenges in getting young people to join the government.

For the last 10 weeks, 54 college students from across the country have been embedded in federal agencies working on data and technology projects as part of the Coding It Forward Civic Digital Fellowship program. During that time, the fellows learned a lot about how government operates—both the process and the people—and offered agencies some insight on how to attract young, skilled employees.

First, “hire more fellows—we’re surprisingly cheap,” Johncarlo Cerna, a computer science major at the University of Florida who worked with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services over the summer, said Thursday during the Civic Digital Fellowship Demo Day.

Beyond that, Cerna suggested building a stronger—and more vocal—community around civic tech.

“We all stumbled upon this program. But there are hundreds of people in college and just starting out their careers who really want to make big impacts in their careers. They want to use their skills to do good,” he said. But those people don’t always know about opportunities like Coding It Forward or technology-focused jobs available in government.

“Just having a presence. Saying, ‘Hey. We’re here, we’re doing really cool stuff and we’d like you to join us,’ that can go a long way to taking some of the really great talent and bringing it into your agency, which would be awesome,” he said.

“The other thing that really helps a lot is to be a champion for the person you want to bring on,” he added. “The hiring system can be really scary. … Opening doors and not being afraid to help them be effective. If you can empower them, then you’ll find that they’ll go a long way and you’ll find that your agency is also going to be much better in the long run.”

Brandon Obas, a recent graduate from the University of Pennsylvania who spent the summer working at the General Services Administration, had some tangential advice: Make it clear your agency or program is somewhere someone would enjoy working.

“Talk more about what the team culture is like,” he offered. “I’m not saying go get a ping-pong table and free snacks. While those are nice, I think it’s more about the actual members who are there day to day—the people who take care of you, look out for you and really support you.”

When Obas first arrived at GSA, he said he was worried whether he would get along with his new colleagues. Would they like him?

“I really enjoyed the people I was working with. Everyone there was really supportive and always offered to help me out. And everyone there always offered me advice, as well,” he said. “Highlight that in your recruiting. Because, at the end of the day, you want to make sure you like the people you’re working with. So, just try to highlight that positive culture.”

The culture should also include an environment where young employees feel like they can grow their skills and career.

“Leaving room to learn and grow in an organization as large as the government can spurn up new and innovative ideas,” said Eric Richards, a student at the University of California, San Diego, who worked with GSA’s 18F and 10x teams.

“Most importantly, we realized that it’s all about people,” he added. “The systems in government that affect people were designed by people. And processes like human-centered design can help us find new opportunities, not just for new applications of technology but for change in general.”

And young people are interested in that sort of work. For Nik Marda, who worked on the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Biotechnology Information, a research database that is the most trafficked website in government behind the Postal Service’s package tracking app, working on an agency project has changed his view of what it means to have an impact.

“I’ve spent time working on things in the past where the whole idea is that you’re on a small team and you’re trying to have an outsized impact,” he said. “But here, I was on a big team that had a huge user base already. So, even if I made a 0.01% improvement to that, we’re talking about a huge impact overall.”

Attracting young people to work in government has proven to be a challenge.

But the benefits are undeniable, according to Kristen Honey, innovator in residence in the Office of the Secretary at the Health and Human Services Department and one of the fellowship mentors.

“What our office learned is that if we frame challenges well, and if we give the youth some resources and let them run, get out of their way and let their creativity and innovations tackle these problems in new ways with their fresh thinking and their ideas, amazing things come out of it,” she said.

Honey said the work done by all the fellows at HHS exceeded expectations this summer. Many of the fellows who spoke at the demo day said they would love to return to the public sector and continue their work.

However, once someone has joined the federal workforce, it can be hard to keep them.

One attractive incentive is continuing to invest in employees’ skills over the years, said Olivia Lewke, a data science and English major at the University of California, Berkeley who spent the summer working with the Census Bureau.

“I think a lot of people are worried that their skills will stale if they work at the same thing for a long period of time,” she said. “So, if you want to make sure that you’re getting these people and you want to keep them there, make sure you say, ‘OK, well, we want new things, too, so we want you to learn new things. And we want you to bring new things back to us.’ That kind of conversation can be really exciting for someone who likes trying new things and would be happy to bring back something new.”

And that investment will pay off for the government as an employer, as well, Lewke noted.

“It’s nice to have people who are fresh out of college because they come knowing new things,” she said. “But if you keep them for another five years and they aren’t learning new things, then it’s not as beneficial.”

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct the name of the fellowship program and number of fellows.