The Presidential Innovation Fellows Program Turned 10, What’s Next?

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Presidential Innovations Fellow Director Rebeca Lamadrid discussed the “stay flexible” mentality of the program and where it is heading for its next 10 years.

The Presidential Innovations Fellow, or PIF, program turned 10 years old this summer, and its current director Rebeca Lamadrid, who has served in the role since March 2022, spoke to Nextgov about the program’s accomplishments in the past decade and its future potential to bring technological experts into the work of government.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Nextgov: Can you provide an overview of the history of the Presidential Innovation Fellows program and why it was established?

Lamadrid: We were established in 2012 under the Obama administration. It was a partnership between the Office of Science and Technology Policy, together with the White House Office of Budget and Management, OMB. The idea was to embed our brightest technologists, entrepreneurs, people from industry, and tie them to innovators within the federal agencies, and improve the way the government gets to build, design or deliver IT services for the public. 

Today, we build on that mission from within the General Services Administration, inside an organization called Technology Transformation Services. We were signed into law, The TALENT Act of 2017, and that is just a demonstration of the need to make this program and its impact permanent and why it was a need of figuring out a way to respond to the needs of the American public. We consistently need to figure out a way to improve how we engage with and serve the public, and today we continue to serve that active role in key administration priorities. The goal is and continues to remain flexible to be able to tackle those big national challenges.

Nextgov: Can you give a broad overview of what PIF has accomplished in the past 10 years and highlight some of its accomplishments?

Lamadrid: The program has over 200 alumni, and we’ve been inside of more than 50 agencies. We serve inside of a broad range of different agencies, and, throughout the past 10 years, we are proud to say that our cohorts continue to be diverse and representative of the American public. We believe that’s kind of the secret sauce for innovation—the diversity of perspective. I think that throughout the past 10 years, we’ve also learned how to pass the baton; it’s a fellowship, a tour of duty of sorts.

It started with this idea of bringing all these people into government. We were able to help form some founding teams, one of them is called 18F, which is a technology and design consultancy within the federal government. Another one is the U.S. Digital Service—that is a program that deploys small teams, more responsive groups, similar with designers, engineers and product managers, and the idea is that they deliver services a lot more quickly. Even more recently—if we think about those 10 years—last year, our model served as the inspiration for the creation of the U.S. Digital Corps, which is a new program that is just an avenue for early career technologists to work in government for two years. PIF is more for senior, subject matter experts with more proven track records, but a lot of those mechanics were replicated but for a different type of demographic. So, I would say also, that over the past 10 years, we’re no longer new; civic tech is also no longer new. One of the key accomplishments is that we’ve inspired a lot more people to come and serve and learn what public service is all about. 

That’s the broad strokes, but I can give you a couple of examples of specifics. But there’s many examples to choose from. At the United States Department of Agriculture, or USDA, we have a fellow that is focused on digital strategy and platforms. The idea is to support access for the public to key initiatives like the WIC—the woman, infant and children special supplemental nutrition program—it’s basically how to make services better for vulnerable populations. And that is really exciting to see. Another example is at the Small Business Administration. We have a fellow there advising on the community navigator pilot program; the goal is to enhance equity-focused, data-driven outreach for underserved communities. So, very different types of projects, and at the same time, quite impactful. We also have two fellows right now developing the launch and design of the new Advance Research Projects Agency for Health, also known as ARPA-H, and that itself is providing a really invaluable cross-agency perspective.

In 2021, as part of the American rescue plan, we also had fellows partner with agencies to increase awareness with underserved communities, part of the expanded child tax credit. And 2020 was the pandemic, so we had a lot of fellows focus on health and health tech. We had fellows developing chatbots to better serve patients at the VA. We also have fellows that helped launch, and that itself was able to serve more than one million people. So, the impact, the scale has been quite special.

Nextgov: Are there any of the programs that you highlighted or others that you think could serve as a model for future endeavors?

Lamadrid: We have a great partnership with the VA, and the VA has recognized how special this type of work is, and how sometimes bringing a subject matter expert can truly change the trajectory of an outcome. The work that we’ve done there is a model for what we can replicate with other agencies. 

How can we continue to embed more fellows and tackle issues from multiple different angles? The work of the VA is quite unique as it’s very multidisciplinary and complex. So that's one model. I would also say, As another example, we’re bringing technologists only and at the end of the day, it's about tech is the medium. But more and more I see the need for thinking about just change management as a discipline as a whole that can continue to help us help agencies drive impact for the public.

Nextgov: From GSA’s perspective, what do you think has been the impact of PIF, perhaps regarding how the government looks at new avenues for cultivating talent? For example, you talked about the U.S. Digital Corps program.

Lamadrid: Inside of GSA, we’re really uniquely positioned to provide services governmentwide and having GSA as our home has provided a really strong backbone [of] services and just experience for the program and our partners. I must say that the program started as a pilot on how to tell the government how we can attract talent. And now it’s a robust, cyclical approach to just bringing subject matter experts to tackle challenges. Although it’s not an explicit goal of the program, it’s more of a byproduct, a lot of our fellows decide to stay. They get the bug of public service. The fact that GSA simply works with so many agencies, the ability to have all of this interagency connections and collaboration truly provides a strong backbone for that type of outcome.

Nextgov: How do you think COVID-19 impacted the program, and what are other lessons learned throughout the 10 years?

Lamadrid: COVID-19 impacted the program in different ways. Before COVID-19, we still had virtual interviews, they were the norm. But, at the height of the pandemic, a lot of the agencies were operating on a maximum telework posture, so this program, instead of being based in D.C., a lot of the fellows just stayed and did a telework approach. So, that has made us shift our program and figure out ways to continue to engage and assist our fellows to drive this change.

But then, like many teams across GSA, the agencies shift. And now we have a bit of a more flexible telework posture. We learned how to do the work remotely. It was not necessarily a big shift for some of the fellows from their experience in industry. So, we learned, for example, how to have remote conversations, how to be productive. We iterated a lot, and that helped us learn to be super intentional about—there are conversations that you need to have in person, but also, you can be as productive from remote. We get to be very creative about that. COVID-19 helped us cement our purpose, and continue to evolve. Because at the core of this, we are change agents and these are innovators that, when a challenge comes, we figure out how to make it work. So, I would say it was just a great lesson for us to recognize that we can make an impact even from afar.

COVID-19 also taught us that our mission is super important; digital services are critical. The government continues to need this type of work and the private sector expertise that the PIF program brings. So, it was a great opportunity to learn and cement ourselves even further in our mission.

Nextgov: What about lessons throughout the 10 years or how was PIF kind of shifted, adapted to changes throughout the 10 years?

Lamadrid: We moved from OSTP to GSA to get a backbone and a good foundation to serve many different agencies and ultimately the public. As the challenges of our public change, the program has changed. So, for example, with the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a lot of need for telehealth, so we shifted to recruit a lot of tech health subject matter experts. This administration has a lot of focus on equity, data. So, we have a lot of projects right now that are focused on equitable delivery and data.

We have learned that we are to be what we preach, and that is changing, recognizing that change is only constant. It’s programs like this and bringing people that are excited to bring about change. There’s certainly learning, we recognize that. Another thing that is important is the recognition of diversity and how critical it is to bring a cohort that can represent the American public. I don't think that we can ever continue to not learn that that is critical and important.

Nextgov: What do you think has been surprising or the most rewarding aspects about the program?

Lamadrid: The idea of seeing fellows catch the public service bug has been a really rewarding experience. These people are at a point in their career where they want to do meaningful work. The experience has been there, they’ve seen a lot, they’ve contributed, they’re accomplished people. So, they then come into public service, and they want to stay and I’m like, “okay, this is so special.” So, I find that to be truly rewarding.

It’s really rewarding to see this idea of passing the baton. This is a fellowship, so I think that is at the core of our values. We want to leave government better than we found it. We see these fellows really interested in trying their best and doing it quickly, because they know they don’t have a lot of time. Another thing that has been surprising for me is that a lot of people think that it’s technologists, or engineers, and at the end of the day I have entrepreneurs, I have venture capitalists, I have people from across multiple disciplines. So, that is to say that change and innovation is not just tech, but rather people and processes. I think that there’s a constant reminder for me as I watch and experience our fellows work day-to-day. The impact is at the national level. If you’re able to shift or change something, you’re able to change people’s lives, literally. It’s really rewarding to see the fellows—or even the program—be this true testament to this idea of a tour of duty and how that can impact the fellows themselves, the public and then the agency.

Nextgov: What will the next 10 years look like? What are your hopes and goals for the next 10 years? 

Lamadrid: We are to remain flexible because our nation’s challenges will continue to evolve, and this program will be here. Of course, more fellows because more fellows is more impact. I would also say more specialties, more subject matter expertise. The more I hear, the more I recognize how valuable it is to bring a really, really talented and specialized individual into government. 

For hopes and goals, I really want to figure out a way to continue to broaden the communities that we reach inside government, outside of government and get people excited, Tell them what it is to serve the public—and have them see it through stories, impact reports—being able to continue to reach out to a broader community is critical. That also helps us continue to bring more diverse people. And that’s part of the innovation recipe. Also, for the next 10 years, to continue to be good at communicating the impact for the public to see why we’re doing it, how we’re doing it. I really want to continue to see this civic tech community grow and the fellowship is simply part of that. But the number one thing is to stay flexible.

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