Set apart by a prominent dash, the last words of the mission statement of the Civic Digital Fellowship read as follows: “—the first of its kind.” This is no exaggeration.
For as far as other organizations that follow their lead in being “a data science and technology internship program for innovative students” are concerned, the Civic Digital Fellowship can claim a unique feather in their cap. Theirs is the first to spurn the techy temptations of Silicon Valley and Stanford and, in furtherance of their goal of public service, bring their formidable talents to the U.S. Census Bureau here in Washington, D.C.
Nothing aids in that effort like physically proximity to the federal government itself. With that in mind, The Washington Center was able to provide the benefits of housing and transportations for these go-getters, who were paid by way of a 3,300 dollar stipend for the summer, hundreds of hours of work experience and the opportunity to network with professionals who might one day help to usher them along a path toward a job in the civil service.
“Go-getters” is not a term used lightly, because these fourteen students possess some of the finest minds of the burgeoning generation. Hailing from fourteen different universities (among them such storied institutions as Harvard, Cornell, Wellesley and Duke) and having previously cut their teeth at such widely regarded companies as Google and Microsoft, these students were selected based upon the unique skills they could bring to bear. In fact, to give an impression of how selective the Civic Digital Fellowship is, the fourteen fellows were winnowed down from a field of over 220 applicants, translating to an acceptance rate of six percent.
On top of their work in the Census Bureau (honing skills like product management, data visualization and user experience design, among others), their choice to coordinate with The Washington Center afforded them a wide array of meetings around Washington with men and women highly involved in the fields which they would one day like to enter.
First was a trip to 1776, a niche global incubator and seed fund for start-ups located in downtown Washington. Specializing in supporting start-ups seeking to accomplish public good, the Civic Digital Fellows were ushered into a meeting with Zach Thomas of General Assembly, a start-up that offers “boot camps” which hone specialized technological skills that narrow the global gap. Especially prominent was the difference between User Experience and User Interface. To instruct the fellows on this point, Thomas asked the fellows to team up to write instructions on how to make a basic peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Ultimately, the difference was spelt out in whether the fellows chose a step-by-step method or one that allowed the lunch-creators a flow chart with multiple options at their disposal.
The next week, the fellows took in the historic venue of the Library of Congress, this time for a meeting with Barrie Howard, the Program Management Specialist for Internship and Fellowship Programs. After touring some of the Library’s media-related exhibits (while keeping in mind the question “How has the way Americans consume news changed?”) Then, Howard picked their minds about their observations, specifically regarding potential changes that could be made to their technology, techniques and best practices to aid the Library’s “Envisioning 2025” undertaking. As always, the fellows were replete with good ideas about how to improve this American institution’s digital and creative output.
Two weeks later, on July 11, the fellows made their way to the Small Business Administration (SBA), where they met Andrés Colón Pérez, a member of the United States Digital Service (USDS). Charged with harnessing the power of tech and digital to improve the output of their particular agencies (USDS employees are typically shifted between departments), the fellows learned about some of Pérez’s successes. Among these were minimalizing the massive amount of paperwork needed for a loan application, rectifying the previous lack of a single source of relevant date, and creating the HUBZone Map that helps the SBA pinpoint where it is needed most. Afterward, Pérez took the fellows to the USDS headquarters, where they got to see digitally savvy civil servants from across government sharing ideas and best practices with one another.
Over the next month, the fellows sat down with two more organizations dedicated to improving and streamlining the technical output of the federal government: 18F and the Presidential Management Fellows (PMF). 18F, headquartered within the General Services Administration (GSA) and defined by its mission statement of “collaborat[ing] with other agencies to fix technical problems, build products, and improve how government serves the public through technology,” offered the best prospectus of government service for those not necessarily well-acquainted to coding or technology. Tim Lowden, who offered his thoughts to the fellows, got his start with an English degree working for the Obama campaign; from there, he volunteered his services for the Peace Corps before settling in at 18F. Through their constant monitoring of the Google dynamics of various government webpages, 18F is able to grasp a better understanding of users, which in turn leads to better decision-making and ultimately better user experiences.
As for the fellows’ meeting with Steven Babitch, a PMF stationed with the FBI, his words of wisdom to them mostly focused on the problem-solving nature of his position. To illustrate this need for keenly original thinking, Babitch referred to a prior position in Brazil at the World Bank coordinating the competing interests of farmers and environmental entrepreneurs. Splitting them into groups, he requested the Civic Digital Fellows think of the stakeholders in question: With which ones should we deal? Should the dealings be conducted together or apart? What’s on the agenda? How?
After revealing his strategy of dividing the nine different stakeholder organizations among different tables and giving each table a separate problem to tackle (and in so doing rendering them more loyal to the problem at hand rather than to their interest group), Babitch succinctly knotted the common thread woven by each of the fellows’ host organizations: technological expertise might have brought them to Washington, but it’s nimble thinking that will keep them here.