Civic Digital Fellowship
Over a third of U.S. federal employees are eligible to retire in the next five years, yet only 6% of employees are under 30—a pressing issue given the rate of innovation. Piloted as an effort between agencies and a student-led nonprofit, the Civic Digital Fellowship recruits the next generation of technologists—students and recent grads—pairing them with in-need agencies. It has scaled to six agencies, and is an attractive on-ramp for technical students into public service.
Overview: Piloted in Summer 2017 with an inaugural cohort of 14 students from across the United States, the Civic Digital Fellowship is a unique internship program that allows talented technical students to innovate in federal agencies. The Fellowship provides an onramp for students looking for impactful civic tech opportunities while providing agencies a modern, efficient way to attract technical talent and inspire the next generation of digital leaders.
Fellows are recruited for the following skillsets: software engineering, data science, product management, design, and data journalism.
The Civic Digital Fellowship grew from 14 Fellows at the U.S. Census Bureau in 2017 to a 2018 cohort of 36 Fellows across six federal agencies.
Agency Partners: Census Bureau, Department of State, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Veterans Affairs, General Services Administration, International Trade Administration.
- Number: 36 Fellows
- Acceptance Rate: 4.2%
- Status: 30 Undergraduates, 6 Graduate Students
- Schools Represented: Brandeis, Brigham Young, Brown, Carnegie Mellon, Columbia (2), Cornell (2), Duke, Harvard (2), Middlebury, NYU (2), Olin College of Engineering, Parsons, Pomona, Rhodes, Rutgers, San Jose State, Santa Clara, Smith, Southern Methodist, Stanford, UT-Austin (2), University of Alabama, UC System (2), UChicago, U of Maryland - College Park, UNC, University of Washington, Virginia Tech, Yale (2)
- Gender: 20 Women, 16 Men
- Race/Ethnicity: 47% Asian, 29% White, 11% Black, 5% Hispanic, 8% Prefer Not to Say.
The Civic Digital Fellowship is fully-funded–covering housing, round-trip travel to Washington, D.C., and a competitive stipend. In addition, Coding it Forward supports fellows in their personal and professional growth with site visits, one-on-one mentorship, and community-building programming.
2018 Fellows visited industry-leading organizations including the U.S. Digital Service, 18F, Presidential Innovation Fellows, OpenGov Foundation, TechCongress, and Mapbox.
Fellows worked on high-impact projects across the Census in 2017 and presented their work to leadership at Demo Day. Projects like Census for Small Business and Census Partnerships are already online.
In 2018, Fellows saved the Census Bureau millions in survey costs using machine learning algorithms, built tools for diplomats abroad, innovated a tool that allows Veterans to more easily take advantage of their GI Bill benefits, and improved access to Medicare data.
After two successful cohorts of Civic Digital Fellows, over 15 agencies are interested in hosting Fellows in 2019.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
Government is infamous for its poor user-experience, which often traces back to poor technology. Confounding this problem, existing hiring programs fail to attract top technical talent into public service, especially when compared to the offerings of Silicon Valley and the private sector.
The Civic Digital Fellowship is an innovative model that allows federal agencies to address both digital needs and talent strategy goals. It has demonstrated a wide appeal to students, attracting over 1,000 undergraduate and graduate-level technologists at 200+ schools, and created tangible impact for agencies.
The Fellowship model features a strong cross-sector partnership between interested federal agencies and student-led non profit, Coding it Forward. According to former Census Bureau Chief Marketing Officer Jeff Meisel, "the Civic Digital Fellowship is the most innovative hiring program we've seen in the federal government. It is a real chance to solve the broken model of recruiting."
What is the current status of your innovation?
The Civic Digital Fellowship is scaling across the U.S. federal government; it has grown from 14 Fellows at the U.S. Census Bureau in 2017 to 36 Fellows across six federal agencies in 2018. More than 15 other agencies have expressed interested in hosting Fellows in 2019 and Coding it Forward is leading the effort to scale and sustain the model effectively within existing contract vehicles and other bureaucratic pathways.
Recent policy has given agencies more direct-hire authority to onboard students and recent graduates–a positive shift that signals broader acceptance of the work that the Civic Digital Fellowship has pioneered in inspiring the next generation of digital leaders to enter public service.
Aside from the 15 federal agencies that are interested in hosting Fellows, various local and state tech leaders across the United States have also expressed desires to engage student technologists in their work, and the Fellowship could plausibly expand in that direction too.
Collaborations & Partnerships
Government officials played a crucial role in bringing an understanding of the problems—both technical and talent-related—and providing a vision of the future. Support for the Fellowship extends to agency CIOs and CTOs.
Coding it Forward, as a nonprofit collaborator, is positioned to engage directly with the Fellowship talent pipeline (1500+ students across the United States) and plans a compelling summer experience “for students, by students.”
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
As the users of government digital services, Americans have benefitted. Fellow-built tools serve entrepreneurs, Veterans, patients, diplomats, and many more.
Civic Digital Fellows bring a fresh perspective into government, which has sparked important conversations about how best agencies should leverage technology to achieve their aims. In less than ten weeks, one Fellow was able to use machine learning to optimize a Census survey, saving over $2 million, with the potential to scale.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
The Civic Digital Fellowship has met its goal to revolutionize how the federal government attracts young, technical talent. Fellows are significantly more likely to remain at their agencies at Fellowship’s end than traditional federal interns—16% to 6%—and a vast majority of Fellows indicate in their exit interviews that their experience has instilled a new interest and passion for work at the intersection of technology and government.
Fellows have also created real impact for their agencies. For example, in 2017, three Fellows rebuilt Census from Small Business (census.gov/smallbusiness) from the ground up, speaking with real entrepreneurs along the way—recognizing that it was the only way to effectively serve a group that represents 97% of American business and over 50% of GDP with key data.
The Civic Digital Fellowship is a “21st century call to public service” for a generation of technologists—Coding it Forward has inspired thousands across the US to pursue social impact work.
Challenges and Failures
Technologists often have a hard time being successful in government because red tape and bureaucracy. The implementation of the Fellowship was no exception, and all parties came together to identify gaps and opportunities in existing contract vehicles that could support the unique talent pipeline. The Fellowship’s government partners are true “bureaucracy hackers” that have allowed the program to thrive. Moving forward, the Fellowship will be centralized on one vehicle to streamline scaling.
Another challenge is that Fellowships are not long–only 10 weeks. Thus, if bureaucracy holds someone back from a tool or a software that is necessary to complete a project, progress can be significantly hindered. Additionally, timelines are simply longer in government and unlike in the private sector, one cannot “move fast and break things.” Nonetheless, Fellows have risen to the challenge—designing, coding and shipping innovative, yet thoughtful, technology products.
Conditions for Success
To ensure continued success of the Civic Digital Fellowship, agency leaders need more policy tools to enable them to officially and efficiently recruit, hire, and retain technical talent. Recent legislation, the 2019 NDAA, is a positive first step in this direction. The Fellowship has also flourished because of the support of executive champions within each of its six agency partners at the CIO and CTO level. Champions provide a high-level vision and are also key in securing internal commitment and funding.
The Fellowship was already positioned for success at the outset because students across the United States are growing more interested in creating social impact. Application numbers across both cohorts have reflected this immense interest and the Fellowship team is actively brainstorming ways to engage more of the applicant pool in important and innovative public service work (only 4% of applicants were accepted to become Fellows in 2018).
The Civic Digital Fellowship has tremendous potential to scale. In just one year, it has already grown from supporting 14 students at the Census Bureau to 36 students across six federal agencies. There are now over 15 agencies interested in leveraging this unique talent and recruitment model in 2019 and beyond.
The Fellowship model can also be leveraged at lower levels of government. State and local technology officials have also reached out to inquire how their teams might be able to benefit from new sources of technical talent. This is especially promising since local leaders can engage students in their communities across the United States.
Similarly, the Civic Digital Fellowship has also been the inspiration for a parallel program in Germany. The talent model will also be relevant to “third sector” organizations that, like government, have large, unmet technology gaps.
The Civic Digital Fellowship has shown observers that the next generation of technologists wants in to help the public sector innovate, and that there are leaders in government ready to help support them. A successful model of a cross-sector public-private partnership, the program has always had student perspectives front and center.
Governments at all levels have expressed a need for more in-house technology talent and Civic Digital Fellows have demonstrated that they are ready to contribute on day one, representative of a generation that in the past has sat on the sidelines.
A former State Department CIO, in talking about the Fellowship, remarked after attending an end-of-summer Demo Day in 2017, “if we contracted this out, it would have taken twice as long and cost three times as much.”
A final lesson is that in public-sector digital transformation and innovation, it is crucial that technologists don’t have a “white knight” attitude towards transformation. Instead Fellows have learned that working hand-in-hand with bureaucrats and career civil servants is the best path to success, since those employees are most likely to know what is broken and have ideas of how to fix it.