Young civic tech star featured in Boston Globe

Steve Kelman revisits the work Chris Kuang is doing to bring recent grads into government tech roles.

It was a nice day for the civic tech movement and a nice day for government when the Boston Globe ran an entire article on 2020 Harvard grad Chris Kuang, head of the newly established U.S. Digital Corps, which plans to recruit technologists for two-year stints in the government. Most blog readers are probably familiar with the U.S. Digital Service, an Obama-era innovation that survived into the Trump administration and is continuing under Biden, which brought senior technologists, often from the Silicon Valley, into government to top up government tech talent. The newly create Digital Corps is aimed at new grads and early career professionals.

The Globe article is called “This local Harvard grad is helping the Biden administration tackle tech problems,” and is pegged around Kuang’s Harvard background and his having grown up in a Boston suburb. I have featured Kuang and the student organization he founded as a sophomore with a few other students, called Coding it Forward, in earlier blog posts.

Kuang was a math and economics major who was also interested in politics and public service. As a freshman, he took a course with Nick Sinai, an Obama-era deputy CTO and tech entrepreneur. After that course, he got the idea to recruit students for summer tech internships (they carefully referred to them as “fellowships” rather than “internships,” because the latter word suggested to students doing grunt-like work installing SharePoint over the summer). Coding it Forward started with only six fellowships, and expanded each year Kuang was in college.

The idea for a Digital Corps was presented in a memo by Kuang and Sinai. It was circulated among Biden administration tech leaders, and they bought on and agreed to launch it. It was announced in late August.

The first group of 30 fellows, currently scheduled to work in five agencies, is planned for 2022. They will work in five agencies, including two – the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services -- that have been major sponsors of the Coding it Forward summer college fellowships. Also among the Corp sponsors is the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, important given the huge need for cyber talent in government.

Meanwhile, Kuang himself is now housed at GSA’s Technology Transformation Service under an Intergovernmental Personnel Act arrangement that makes it possible for people from academia to work for government. (When I first worked in government at the Federal Trade Commission as an assistant professor many years ago, I did so under the auspices of this legislation.) So Kuang has sort of become a fed. I am guessing that when he was younger Kuang never expected to end up in that situation, so his path is great news that the government can be attractive for some very smart, very committed young people.

The projects the Digital Corps will work on have yet to be defined, but will revolve Biden administration priorities, including the coronavirus, economic recovery, cybersecurity and racial equality. If this works, Kuang hopes to expand the number of participants to hundreds each year.

“The mission and the scope of the work that’s found in the public sector is really second to none,” he said. “The sense of being a part of something more meaningful, and bigger than yourself, is really a huge appeal.”

I have encouraged Kuang over the years to put an emphasis on trying to persuade some of the students to stay in the government after their fellowships were done. The new Digital Corps has greater prospects to do that, because it hopefully will bring some students into civic tech work before they have started down and become committed to another tech path in the private sector. This is an advantage over the U.S. Digital Service, which is more oriented toward taking people already in a track and have them do a short government detour. Another advantage of recruiting recent grads is that their tech skills will be more up-to-date than older techies in the private sector. On the other hand, the digital fellows will be less experienced than the older folks at USDS.

It will be very interesting to see how Kuang’s idea works. The Digital Corps has not even started accepting applications yet (check their website for more information about how to apply). Kuang, meanwhile, has emerged as a rock star in the civic tech space.