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Presidential Innovation Fellows cost $205 per hour. Are they worth it?

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It's a bold tech program pushed by the president himself, and it has successfully cycled some 100 early- to mid-career tech innovators into government. A few have stayed on, taking leadership roles throughout government, and the program was recently made permanent by executive order.

But are agencies paying too much for the help they're getting?

The Presidential Innovation Fellows program, managed by the General Services Administration, bills the agencies to which it sends fellows (known around D.C. as "PIFs"). The rate has changed periodically, and on Oct. 1 increased to $205 per hour. PIFs themselves pocket a healthy GS-15 step 1 salary, which is just over $100,000 annually -- or roughly $50 per hour -- before locality-pay increases for the Washington area are factored in. Add in health insurance (PIFs are eligible for federal employee health benefits) and you're still looking at more than half of the hourly rate going to program overhead, not the PIFs.The disconnect between what PIFs are making and what the program is charging has sparked concerns -- and possibly an official investigation.

In some respects, it seems the PIF billing structure is a worst-of-both-worlds situation: The overall rate is so high that it's comparable to hiring an outside consultant, while the amount paid to the PIFs themselves is nowhere near enough to compete with Silicon Valley salaries. It's "ridiculous," said Montana Williams, a former fed who is now ISACA's cybersecurity workforce guru, upon hearing the breakdown. "Wherever that money is going, it's being wasted."

For agencies contemplating taking on a PIF, "GSA's cost structure is a deterrent," said Ian Kalin, chief data officer at the Commerce Department and a former PIF himself.  But on the recruitment side, he noted, "nobody does [the PIF program] for the money,"

Among all the PIFs he's talked to, Kalin said, "everybody took a pay cut" when they came to work in Washington. And many PIFs not only forego higher private sector pay, but also maintain two expensive residences -- one in D.C., one in Silicon Valley or some other pricey tech hub -- while they participate in a year-long PIF assignment.

Kalin knows those costs well: He's living in San Francisco and renting an AirBnB for his D.C. workweeks.

The GSA press office noted that the program, like all of GSA's Acquisition Services Fund investments, must "fully recover" costs through interagency fees and be net-neutral to the taxpayer.

And to be sure, there's more to the PIF program than just paying PIFs their salaries.

While Kalin said that GSA's "bloated" cost structure needs analysis, he also noted that agencies can take a while to get their requests together. GSA winds up paying PIFs during periods when at agencies haven't gotten paperwork finished, so the $205 figure may help account for those unreimbursed hours. And the picture can be more complicated, he added, as some cost customization takes place. "It's probably not all overhead," said the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Cynthia Robinson of the difference between what the PIF program charges and what fellows actually make. She cited professional development programming and travel costs as things that can quickly drive up a fellowship program's costs, and vary widely from one fellowship assignment to the next.

Robinson heads up AAAS' Science and Technology Policy Fellowships program, a program that bears some similarities to the PIF program as it places techies throughout government. 

She couldn't offer an hourly rate for comparison; "that's not how we think about our fellowships," she said. But she noted that her fellows -- who range from recent PhD graduates to experienced scientists nearing retirement age, and who tend to bring different skill sets than PIFs -- are paid at GS-12 levels.  In the Washington area, that translates into salaries that range from $76,000 to just shy of six figures.  

And for Commerce's Kalin, any problems with the PIF program billing are a tiny drop in the bucket of federal workforce issues. Effective, expedited hiring and firing throughout the rank-and-file federal workforce is where "billions of dollars" in savings lie, he stressed.

There are also the benefits that go beyond PIFs' billable hours.  The program has been broadly applauded for evangelizing agile and open IT development, and has attracted talent that winds up staying in government, including Kalin, EPA Chief Technology Officer and 18F co-founder Greg Godbout and Veterans Affairs CTO Marina Martin.

Still, paying for PIFs can be daunting for many agencies.  "It [expletive] sucks," Kalin said.

Government watchdogs may be taking a look as well. The Government Accountability Office is looking into 18F's cost structure, and the PIF program is managed under the 18F umbrella.

On background, a GSA spokesperson said the agency had been hearing concerns about pricing, and so had decided to hold off on further press communications until GSA's 18F could offer its own take with a blog explainer, which is presumably forthcoming. FCW requested but could not obtain data on historical levels of PIF pricing.

"I think the program has great potential," ISACA's Williams said, but he questioned whether it was being effectively leveraged. To attract high-salary-commanding techies into government service, Williams proposed a cooperative model that cycles industry employees through government and vice versa, with firms underwriting at least some of the salaries.

The White House is obviously convinced of the cost effectiveness of the program.

"Fellows have already delivered extraordinary value for the American people in just the first three years," wrote Federal CTO Megan Smith in an August blog post on Medium when the PIF program was made permanent.  

Note: This article was updated on Dec. 8 to correct salary ranges.  The figures for both Presidential Innovation Fellows and AAAS fellows originally reflected 2015 General Schedule base rates, and did not account for Washington-area locality pay.  The range of experience levels among AAAS fellows was also clarified.

About the Author

Zach Noble is a staff writer covering digital citizen services, workforce issues and a range of civilian federal agencies.

Before joining FCW in 2015, Noble served as assistant editor at the viral news site TheBlaze, where he wrote a mix of business, political and breaking news stories and managed weekend news coverage. He has also written for online and print publications including The Washington Free Beacon, The Santa Barbara News-Press, The Federalist and Washington Technology.

Noble is a graduate of Saint Vincent College, where he studied English, economics and mathematics.

Click here for previous articles by Noble, or connect with him on Twitter: @thezachnoble.


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