Innovation

PIF program looks for 2017 fellows

Shutterstock image (by Makkuro GL): crowdsourcing innovation.

Although the Obama administration is on the way out, one of its hallmark technology innovation programs is gearing up to fill its spring 2017 roster.

U.S. CTO Megan Smith and Presidential Innovation Fellows Acting Director Nathan Olson announced via the White House blog that the PIF program is now taking applications.

Launched in 2012 and managed by the General Services Administration, the program seeks to bring in technology entrepreneurs from the private sector for yearlong stints to tackle IT challenges across government.

Since its inception, the PIF program has attracted more than 110 participants who have partnered with 33 agencies and yielded tangible results on projects such as the Cancer Moonshot initiative and Code.gov.

At a Nov. 18 event hosted by Politico, Smith said that "the people [in Washington] are so driven, so talented" but might be missing technical expertise. Innovation programs can fill the void and help agencies deliver services faster and less expensively.

The fellowships serve as a bridge for innovators who might not have considered pursuing public service and can bring their expertise and iterative style of problem-solving to Washington, Smith said.

"When I was called...it hadn't occurred to me to come to government, and I think that was true of a lot of the tech sector," she added. "We need tech folks just like we need economists and operators and communicators everywhere because the digital opportunity is extraordinary."

The influx of technologists and the expansion of digital service programs demonstrate the government's willingness to give technology specialists a voice in decision-making, Smith said, adding that she is witnessing the change firsthand.

"I was lucky to personally get to be a part of the beginning of the internet, the beginning of smartphones," Smith said. "It really feels like that around digital, open, data-driven government.... It's really mission-driven."

Her position as U.S. CTO was established by President Barack Obama, and its renewal is up to President-elect Donald Trump's discretion.

And although the PIF program is looking toward spring 2017, its long-term future, like that of 18F and the U.S. Digital Service, is uncertain.

Obama signed an executive order in August 2015 making the program permanent, but the program is not enshrined in law and has been criticized for its price tag.

Nevertheless, it has received support from the Republican side of the aisle. In July, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) introduced legislation that would ensure the program's longevity. The bill was passed by voice vote in the House and awaits passage in the Senate.

Despite the uncertainty, program officials announced that fellows starting in fall 2017 session will have the opportunity to work on a new set of national security projects.

Whatever the future of the Obama-initiated innovation programs, government advancement in technology is "not partisan," Smith said. "It's what needs to happen."

The deadline to apply for a spring fellowship is Dec. 11.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter

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