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A new direction for Presidential Innovation Fellows

Garren Givens

Garren Givens has moved from being a Presidential Innovation Fellow to directing the program.

A number of former Presidential Innovation Fellows have taken jobs at federal agencies at the conclusion of their fellowships. Now two are leading efforts to promote innovation from within the government -- and working to change the way PIFs serve it.

Former PIF Garren Givens was recently named director of the program, and his PIF colleague Greg Godbout was named executive director of the 18F innovation incubator at the General Services Administration, which is also home to the PIF program. FCW talked with both men about their priorities as they move from fellowship to leadership. Today: Garren Givens.

Garren Givens was still in the process of completing his Presidential Innovation Fellowship when he was asked in January to move from the Education Department to the General Services Administration to help design a better process for selecting the next round of fellows.

His PIF experience was Givens' first government gig, but he came to the program equipped with years as a management consultant and product strategist. Like many PIFs, Givens was also involved in the start-up world, including his own e-commerce company Dibsie, and he taught himself how to code in the evenings after work.

Givens said he wanted to "take what I was working on in consumer Internet and apply some of those concepts and methodologies to the federal government."

"You can take those same skills and start using your kung fu for good, and insert a really meaningful mission to create technology that hopefully delivers a profound and lasting impact," he said. "It was a great opportunity to take those skills and use them in a more effective way."

Now, as PIF director, Givens' first priority is improving the application process.

More than 1,000 applications poured in for the approximately 30 spots in the third round of the program. Givens credits former GSA executives such as Lena Trudeau and David McClure for building interest in the program by laying a strong foundation.

But to deal with the volume of applications, Givens knew he would need a more efficient system to find the right candidates and match them with good projects. The new class will be named at the end of the month.

"The program attracts many different types of people -- great innovators and technologists, but also people who are driven to serve their country in a really unique capacity," he said. "It's a very rich and exciting problem to have, to get this huge pool of people down to 20, 30 or 40 people."

Givens is focusing on bringing more diversity to the program. In the second round, more than half of the fellows were white men, and the percentage was even higher in the first round.

"How do we continue to attract diverse candidates who also possess all of these attributes? Because in creating a program like this, we want a group of people that somewhat represents the needs of the people they're trying to serve," Givens said. "Our team should look and be representative of America."

No more parachutes

Former PIF Greg Godbout said that in addition to being responsible for executing the new hiring process, Givens is developing a new operating model for fellows.

Unlike other rounds in which PIFs were dropped into an agency and assigned a specific project and timeline, the third round will be more flexible with somewhat blurred project boundaries.

The idea is to have PIFs start at agencies where they can have an impact but not spend the entire fellowship at one agency. Instead, they will be deployed as needed to different agencies and projects.

Givens also wants to develop a new way of talking about what PIFs do.

"We've moved away from some of the language that used to follow the program around like 'dropping innovators and fellows into agencies' [and] 'parachuting in,'" Givens added.

He said such phrases imply that fellows are coming in to save the day, with a negative connotation for those being parachuted in upon, and PIFs should instead be thought of as consultants.

Recruiting with the future in mind

The PIF program has been a successful recruiting mechanism: About two dozen former fellows are now working in government, Givens said.

"The PIF program has proven itself to be a highly effective vehicle for recruiting folks [into the federal government] who weren't previously working in civic innovation," he said.

PIFs who want to stay might find a home at 18F, led by Godbout, or other innovation labs springing up across government.

"The PIFs will have far more support than they've ever had in the past from like-minded individuals who understand lean start-up methodology, user-centered approach and agile," Givens said.

About the Author

Colby Hochmuth is a staff writer covering big data, cloud computing and the federal workforce. Connect with her on Twitter: @ColbyAnn.

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